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The Prevalence of Support and Counseling Services for Gay Youth
in American Schools
On July 27th, 2003, President George W. Bush announced that the institution of marriage should be reserved
for heterosexual couples only. President Bush then vowed that he would defend "the sanctity of marriage" and
stated that he would support a constitutional amendment banning homosexual marriage (i). The President made
this statement during an interview unrelated to the topic of gay marriage, surprising many of the reporters
that recorded his statement.
What Bush's comments and the more recent debates over gay marriage most clearly indicate is that the issue
of sexual orientation continues to be one of the most controversial topics in both American politics and in the
more general discourse of our nation. Although there appears to be growing acceptance of gays in the United
States, there is still much opposition to guaranteeing gays rights equal to those of the heterosexual populace.
Despite the strides made by gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) activists, little has been done to
address the needs of youths who are confused about their sexual identity. Particularly within American public
schools, GLBT youth find themselves ostracized and abused by their peers and many find it impossible to
complete high school. Most go through the entirety of their teenage years with no one to talk to talk to about
their problems and without anyone to provide them with support.
THE NEED FOR SUPPORT SERVICES FOR GAY YOUTH
Sexual orientation is one of the most controversial issues in the United States at this time. Because of this fact, it
is becoming increasingly clear that society must address the needs of gay youth. When most people think of
gays, they tend to think of "merely an adult minority," and few support groups are targeted towards gay youth
(ii). Even in large cities such as New York, gay youths often complain about the lack of adequate services and
support groups available to them (iii). This lack of support is a major problem, as the number of youth identified
as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender is estimated as high as two million in the United States (iv).
Not only are gay youth present in large numbers, they tend to be in dire need of support groups. Recent studies
have shown that as many as 30 percent of teens who commit suicide are gay, and almost half of all gay youth
have attempted to commit suicide at least once during their middle and high school years (v). Further, gay youth
are more likely than heterosexual youth to be depressed, alienated from their peers, and engaged in substance
abuse (vi). Young lesbians in particular are highly likely to engage in self-mutilation as a form of control over
their lives (vii). The reason for such high numbers of gay youth engaging in self-damaging behavior is because of
the extreme stress and anxiety they feel due to the negative feelings projected by their peers, teachers,
school administrators, and parents. It would seem that schools, as places of education, would be an ideal place
to offer support and counseling services to gay youth. Unfortunately, little to no research has been done to
determine what schools are currently doing (and not doing) to help support GLBT students. Further, there is not
a body of knowledge to draw upon to determine whether schools are offering enough education about
sexual orientation issues. Answering these questions is the primary purpose of this study.
Using a survey developed by Drs. James Button and Barbara Rienzo (see Appendix A), a random sample of
four hundred school districts was created. The survey was designed to question respondents about whether
there were programs within their districts designed to provide education about sexual orientation and support for
gay students. Further, the survey was also designed to give some indication of the success of any such programs.
If the district had no such programs, questions on the survey were then targeted toward discovering whether
the district had had to deal with the issue of gay students in the past, and how the district had responded.
Further questions attempted to determine if the districts had openly gay teachers and administrators and
whether school officials received training in dealing with the issue of sexual orientation.
The sampled districts were randomly selected from school districts within each of the fifty states. School districts
with fewer than two hundred students enrolled were eliminated from the random sample as it was thought that
there would be very little chance of programs designed to address the needs of gay students within such
districts. Further, the sample was slightly skewed towards a higher number of larger districts, as such districts
were more likely to have programs targeting gay students, or simply to have had experience dealing with issues
of sexual orientation in the past.
Having identified the districts to be surveyed, efforts were undertaken to identify an individual in each
district qualified to answer the survey. Once identified, they were sent a link through e-mail that would take them
to a website where the respondent would be able to fill out the survey. Obtaining the four hundred e-mail
addresses necessary for the study took an unexpectedly enormous effort. Calls to districts to identify
qualified personnel began in July of 2003 and continued well into 2004. The primary difficulty in obtaining
the contacts was simply the necessary time and manpower it took to call each district to identify the individual
most qualified in the district to answer the survey, with the additional labor of contacting the individuals in
question to obtain their agreement to participate. Further difficulties arose from at least fifty school districts
where qualified individuals refused to take part in the study despite reassurances of anonymity, either out of fear
of involving their district in such a hot-button issue, or simply because administrators believed that sexual
orientation was not an issue within their district. In addition, some respondents had to be reminded to take
the survey. Despite the difficulties, at the time of the writing of this report 125 completed surveys had been
received, making the response rate 31.25 percent, particularly respectable given the sensitivity of the issues studied.
RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
The results of the survey were revealing; while it seems that some progress has been made in providing
and implementing programs designed to support gay students and provide education about sexual orientation,
there is room for a great deal of improvement. Perhaps most striking was the response received to the basic
question "Does your district currently include sexual orientation anywhere in your curriculum?" Sixty-four
districts (49.6 percent) responded "not at all," an incredible statistic given the attention that sexual orientation
has garnered lately in the media. Given that almost every American parent and student has been hearing
discussion about sexual orientation in the news, it would seem logical that schools, as centers for learning, would
also be taking up this issue, but it is obvious that they are lagging behind in this area. Of the remaining districts,
36.4 percent said their districts offered "a little" curriculum involving sexual orientation, 4.7 percent said that
their districts offered "quite a lot" of curriculum discussing sexual orientation, and 6.2 percent did not know.
If nothing else is done to aid gay youth, frank and educational curriculum addressing sexual orientation is needed
to educate students, both to help GLBT youth understand themselves in the context of gay issues in general and
also to help combat prejudice among the general student population.
Further evidence of a lack of education on the topic of sexual orientation is obtained from results to the question
of whether the school districts surveyed have offered in-service education to teachers discussing how to deal
with sexual orientation issues. Only 27.1 percent of districts surveyed responded that their districts had offered
"a little" education concerning sexual orientation, while an even smaller 2.3 percent responded that their district
had offered "a lot" of education. Even more telling, only 6.2 percent of districts were planning to offer an
educational program about sexual orientation in the future, perhaps indicating the increased volatility of
sexual orientation issues, or simply that many of the school districts that plan to offer any sort of education on
the subject feel that they have already adequately covered the issue.
Another area of interest in the survey involved questions relating to the support services and groups available to
gay students. Approximately 41 percent of school districts indicated that at least one school (and occasionally
more than one school) provided some sort of counseling services about sexual orientation for GLBT
students, although it was not possible to determine the extent or focus of such services. As far as support
groups, only 15.5 percent of school districts indicated that they had a Gay-Straight Alliance or similar group
operating within their districts. In addition, approximately 30 percent of districts indicated that there was some
sort of support group for GLBT students within their districts or community. While it is positive that some
districts offer counseling and support to their students, the sheer number of districts that do not offer
counseling, support groups, or both ranges from 60-70 percent, meaning most GLBT students are left without
much support during very important years of their lives. Clearly, a great deal more work needs to be done to
provide these services given the difficulties that many gay students face.
A final area of interest is the administrative aspect of the sexual orientation issue within school districts.
Perhaps most surprising was the percentage of districts that had enacted some sort of policy
prohibiting discrimination against a person's actual or perceived sexual orientation. Some 59.7 percent of
districts responded that they did have such a policy in place, which is surprising given that at least some of
the districts in question must be small or rural school districts. Often such districts will quietly introduce such a
policy "under the radar," which may explain the high number of positive responses to this question. 46.5 percent
of districts also offered protection against discrimination in the hiring and promotion of teachers based on
sexual orientation. Such a policy is especially important given that 27.1 percent of districts indicated that there
were openly GLBT individuals who held teaching positions within their district.
Clearly, there is still a great need to increase awareness and education about sexual orientation issues. While
some districts attempt to address the needs of gay students and supportive programs and counseling services
do exist, the needs of gay students are still neglected in the vast majority of school districts. At the same time,
there are excellent examples of how schools and communities can provide education and support for gay
students. Perhaps the best example involves the Harvey Milk School in New York City, which provides schooling
and support to GLBT students while freeing them from worries of harassment or assault by their peers. New York
City also provides a myriad of support groups for GLBT individuals, such as at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual
and Transgender Community Center (the Center), which provides a wide range of services from advice on
gay parenting to mental health counseling, and even a Youth Pride Chorus for GLBT youth "and their allies (viii)."
Not all cities or school districts will be able to offer as many services to GLBT youth as New York, but a great
deal more can still be done to provide a safe and educational atmosphere for all students in the United States.
i. Elisabeth Bumiller, "President Steps into Toxic Campaign Debate on Gay Marriage," New York Times 2 Aug. 2003,
late ed.: A9.
ii. Gerald Unks, ed., The Gay Teen (New York: Routledge, 1995) 3
iii. Anonymous Gay Teen, personal interview, New York City, 27 December 2003.
iv. Human Rights Watch, Hatred in the Hallways (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2001) 3
v. Unks 13
vi. Unks 33
vii. Sue Rochman, "The Cutting Edge: Anxious About Their Sexuality Young Lesbians Sometimes Turn to Self-
Mutilation." The Advocate 23 May 2000, The Advocate Online, online, 16 Aug. 2003.
viii. "The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center Departments and Programs," The Lesbian,
Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center, flier, 28 December 2003.
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