Six years ago this month, Dan Savage famously told LGBT kids that “it gets better.” But how much better has it really gotten since then? And how quickly?
According to a comprehensive new report from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, several key measures of anti-LGBT bullying in U.S. secondary schools fell by less than 2 percent per year between 2005 and 2015. The situation for LGBT students may be “gradually improving,” the report states, but it “remains troublesome.”
In 2005, when GLSEN conducted its first “From Teasing to Torment” national survey, nearly 62 percent of U.S. middle and high schoolers reported students at their schools were victimized based on sexual orientation. In 2015, when GLSEN collected data for this followup report, that figure was still just shy of 50 percent.
Other decreases in anti-LGBT bullying were similarly gradual. From 2005 to 2015, the percentage of students who reported witnessing victimization based on gender expression fell from 60 to 49 percent, and the percentage who reported hearing the word “gay” used in a derogatory fashion dropped slightly, from 89 percent to 75 percent.
Even more disturbing is the fact that race-based victimization remained flat, with nearly 38 percent of students reporting it 10 years apart.
“Overall, bullying still persists at unacceptable levels, and the gains of the past 10 years throw the more intractable aspects of the problem into higher relief,” GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byrd wrote in the report’s introduction.
This slow pace of change for LGBT students is especially disappointing when offset against the rapid gains their adult peers have made over the same time period. In 2005, same-sex marriage was legal in one state. By June 2015, it was legal in all 50. In 2005, the military still followed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Now, LGBT people can serve openly in every branch of the armed forces.
But these sweeping victories have not erased the deep-set cultural biases that exact a special toll on LGBT youth.
According to GLSEN’s report, which was based a Harris Poll survey of nearly 1,400 students and more than 1,000 teachers, LGBT secondary-school students still deal with considerable prejudice in the classroom. Over half of middle and high schoolers said they still heard their peers use phrases like “that’s so gay” either “often” or “very often.” Over 40 percent said they heard slurs like “faggot” or “dyke” used just as frequently.
Fifteen percent of the students surveyed even said teachers and administrators were making homophobic comments. Nearly 13 percent reported hearing “negative remarks about transgender people” from school staff. And less than 20 percent said staff intervened “often” when they heard negative remarks about gender expression, which is especially concerning given that nearly a quarter of the students polled did not identify in a strictly gender-conforming way.
“You would probably expect peers to behave in a way that’s biased toward LGBT students, but to see it from teachers? We found [that] quite troubling,” GLSEN researcher Christian Villenas told The Daily Beast.
According to Villenas, schools can be “some of the last places to change” on LGBT issues, in part because some parents still have hang-ups about inclusion in educational settings. A 2016 GLAAD report found that 29 percent of non-LGBT adults would feel uncomfortable knowing that their child had an LGBT teacher and 37 percent would feel discomfort if their child “had a lesson on LGBT history in their school.”
“There might be a limit in terms of what society says they can support,” Villenas told The Daily Beast. “They can support something like gay marriage, but when it comes to LGBT issues in schools and dealing with young people, that may be where certain people draw the line.”
And for anyone inclined to believe that bullying helps prepare LGBT students for the “real world,” the GLSEN data tell a much different story.
Almost 10 percent of LGBT students in the survey sample said they didn’t plan to go to college as compared to just 6 percent of non-LGBT students. Over three times as many LGBT as non-LGBT students said they didn’t “even plan to finish high school” (2.7 versus 0.8 percent) and over six times as many gender non-conforming students as gender-conforming students said the same (3.1 versus 0.5 percent).
“What our research shows is that [bullying] doesn’t toughen you up and get you ready for the ‘real world,’” said Villenas. “It actually leads to poor psychological outcomes. It leads to lower educational aspirations. It leads to more likely experiences with school discipline and higher absenteeism. We see no evidence here that it prepares students for the ‘real world’ or for college. Quite the opposite, actually.”
The new GLSEN report isn’t all doom and gloom, however. For one, the percentage of students who reported having access to a gay-straight alliance (GSA) rose from 21.2 percent in 2005 to 35.8 percent in 2015, with research showing that GSAs are “related to greater feelings of safety for the general student body, with an even greater improvement in safety for LGBTQ students specifically.” An impressive 82 percent of middle and high school students also reported knowing an LGBT person, and those students had “less negative attitudes toward LGBT people” than their peers. And overall, most middle and high school students—nine out of 10—still reported feeling safe at school.
But as Villenas told The Daily Beast, “There’s a lot left that needs to be done.”
Less than 60 percent of schools, for example, have anti-bullying policies that specifically include sexual orientation and gender identity. Last summer, incidentally, the U.S. Senate voted down an amendment to the Every Child Achieves Act that would have prohibited anti-LGBT bullying in all public schools nationwide.
But the most worrying trend GLSEN found is that teachers were less comfortable intervening upon hearing a biased comment in 2015 than they were in 2005. That may be because less than a third of them have “ever had any professional development on LGB student issues,” and less than a quarter have been trained on issues affecting transgender students, even as school districts become embroiled in restroom debates.
“Although teachers overwhelmingly endorsed the idea that they have an obligation to ensure safe and supportive schools for LGBT students, when it came to taking action to do so, many seemed to struggle,” the report stated.
GLSEN’s report wraps up with several recommendations for schools that ultimately boil down to one principle: Do more of the things that help students feel safe. That means creating GSAs, teaching LGBT-inclusive history lessons, instituting more comprehensive anti-bullying policies, and requiring professional development for school staff.
Because ultimately—while life may indeed get better for some LGBT teenagers after graduation, as Savage promised—it’s not getting better for LGBT students fast enough.