Safe and inclusive learning environments for LGBTQ+ kids benefit all children. The risk of suicide and risk-taking behaviours of all students (not just sexual and gender minorities) is lower in schools that have LGBTQ+ inclusive policies and Gay-straight Alliances (GSAs).
Strong family support, a caring and knowledgeable teacher, and the feeling of being safe at school are the three most important ways to protect the health and well-being of LGBTQ + students. These three factors lead to better mental and physical health outcomes for the rest of their lives.
One of the ways inclusive sex-ed protects all children is that it reduces bullying and harassment across the board. Another way is that conversations around gender identity and gender expressions can help children and young people make sense of and challenge rigid gender norms (like what careers girls can “succeed” in and what boys are “allowed” to get away with).
Rigid gender norms are social “rules” about how men and women, girls and boys should dress, behave, and present themselves. These rigid norms limit who we are and can lead to very damaging outcomes. The myth that girls are weak and boys are strong, that girls are vulnerable and boys are aggressive, was found to be deeply held in countries all over the world. For girls this leads to higher school drop-out rates, increased rates of physical and sexual violence, early pregnancy, HIV and other STIs. For boys this leads to higher rates of depression and increased violent behaviour under the expectation of having to be “aggressive” and not show emotions. Giving kids the tools to understand and question rigid gender norms from an early age supports their mental health by allowing them to express themselves for who they are, not what they are.
Who deserves to be protected?
Around between 4% and 10% of the population do not identify as heterosexual (only attracted to the opposite sex) and/or cisgender (gender identity matches their assigned sex). The numbers continue to rise as younger generations become more comfortable with their own gender and sexuality. Most children will have a sense of their gender identity as young as 2 or 3 years old and a sense of who they are attracted to by the time they are about 10 years old.
Many of the students in Canadian classrooms already identify as LGBTQ+ or will eventually identify themselves as LGBTQ+. There are also a growing number of students from LGBTQ + families and communities. Young people’s sense of self and self-esteem is closely linked to their parents and with thousands of children with LGBTQ + parents in Canada, it is essential for these kids to feel that their families are visible, valued, and respected.
There is an important connection between students who feel supported at school and their academic success. Preschools and schools can play an important role in fighting homophobia and transphobia, as well as adequately welcoming children from LGBTQ + families. Schools can contribute to a positive transformation of our society towards more inclusion, respect, and dignity.
Explicit support for LGBTQ + students and LGBTQ + families is crucial because homophobia and transphobia goes beyond obvious hostility. Transphobia and homophobia can be expressed by not intervening, and/or ignoring LGBTQ+ experiences. Schools can create safe learning environments for all students by demonstrating the diversity of families, sexualities, and gender identities and expressions that exist on the planet and how normal these all are. That’s how students will feel seen and respected and, at the same time, engaged in a strategy against discrimination.
Protection is a matter of life and death
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer people are more likely to experience distress and see their mental health needs neglected. The problem is not their identities but the discrimination they constantly face and the lack of social support that these young people enjoy. The Ontario TransPulse study demonstrates that for transgender people, experiences of discrimination and violence can lead to exclusion from social spaces, marginalization, avoidance of health care, and poor health (including poor mental health).
These poor health outcomes do not happen because LGBTQ+ people are more naturally prone to mental distress or illnesses. The negative health outcomes are the direct result of the ongoing pathologization of people’s sexual or gender identities. In other words, the problem is how society has historically treated homosexuality or being trans as being “abnormal” and “wrong.” This has meant that some people experience persistent stigma, prejudice, and discrimination everywhere in their lives, including in school settings. Sex-ed offers us the chance to intervene early to provide a safer school culture for all students.
For many students schools can be a sanctuary, for others, a place where they experience violence. A study conducted by EGALE found that:
- 64% of LGBTQ+ students do not feel safe at school
- 70% of young people reported hearing discriminatory remarks against LGBTQ individuals on a daily basis and 10% reported hearing these from their educators and adults in school
- 74% of trans students, 55% of sexual minority students, and 37% of LGBTQ students report being verbally harassed because of their gender, sexual orientation, or family
- 21% of LGBQ students report physical abuse
"Don’t ask, Don’t tell" is not an option in our schools. Comprehensive sex-ed curricula, diverse resources, LGBTQ+ inclusive school policies, and capacity development opportunities can support safe spaces for all students and ensure respect and openness to sexual diversity and gender identity and expression.