by Melinda Lejman
Andy Leach has been described by friends and family as a sweet and loving boy. The 12-year-old, who recently came out to classmates at Southaven Middle School as possibly bisexual, took his own life in March due to bullying. In addition to backlash from coming out, Andy was teased about his weight and told he was “worthless,” according to news reports that were released after his suicide. Unfortunately, this story is not unique – LGBT+ students across the nation experience higher levels of harassment and bullying than their cisgender counterparts.
An overview of findings from the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) 2015 survey of 6th-12th grade LGBTQ students indicates that the vast majority, over 90%, reported at least one incident of verbal harassment related to their sexual orientation or gender identity. At least 2/3 of students indicated that their school staff practiced some form of LGBTQ- based discrimination and that they or others they knew had experienced it directly.
The most common form was related to public displays of affection which, according to respondents, were not punished when exhibited by heterosexual students. Over 20% of respondents reported that they were prevented from wearing clothing deemed gender inappropriate. More than 50% reported that their school had gender-specific honors at school activities, such as homecoming courts, and 70% of LGBTQ students reported that their schools engaged in some form of gendered structure for school activities.
As to the effects of this discrimination, the GLSEN study reported that LGBTQ students: were more than three times as likely as their cisgender counterparts to have missed school in the past month (44.3% vs. 12.3%); had lower GPAs than their peers (3.1 vs. 3.4); were more likely to be disciplined at school (46.0% vs. 27.9%); and had lower self-esteem, less sense of school belonging, and higher levels of depression.
The suicide of Andy and the heartbreaking knowledge that this might have been prevented with intervention from school officials begs the question: what are our schools doing to protect LGBTQ students facing discrimination and bullying? Among Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas, only Arkansas has enumerated anti- bullying laws in place to protect LGBTQ students. Enumerated anti- bullying laws specifically prohibit bullying and harassment of students based on their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
Another state level protection for LGBTQ students includes non- discrimination laws, which provide protection from discrimination in schools. Some of these laws protect from discrimination based on sexual orientation, but not gender identity. Unfortunately, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas do not currently have these laws in place.
A disturbing piece of the puzzle includes “No Promo Homo” laws – local or state laws which may negatively affect or harm LGBTQ students. One example of a No Promo Homo law includes prohibiting teachers and educators from discussing gay and transgender issues, including sexual health and HIV/Aids issues, in a positive way, or at all. According to a map listed on the GLSEN website, Mississippi is one of seven states that have No Promo Homo laws in place. Also, Missouri is one of only two states in the country to pass a law specifically preventing school districts from crafting anti-bullying policies that identify specific examples of bullying or targeted groups.
The GLSEN report concludes the study with the following recommendations for improving school environments:
• Support student clubs, such as Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs), that provide support for LGBTQ students and address LGBTQ issues in education;
• Provide training for school staff to improve rates of intervention and increase the number of supportive teachers and other staff available to students;
• Increase student access to appropriate and accurate information regarding LGBTQ people, history, and events through inclusive curricula
These comprehensive changes require participation from not only parents, teachers, and school administrators, but also school boards, city councils, state legislatures, federal and even the textbook industry. Yet we can all make a difference. Few residents engage with their school boards, local, government, and state legislatures. While cultural bias is a larger problem, the laws that discriminate against LGBTQ students are the result of small numbers of highly motivated people who opposed LGBTQ rights.
As highly motivated advocates for those rights, we can call our representatives, show up to school board or city council meetings, and create change. The GLSEN report also cites an increase in LGBTQ students who could identify a supportive student or teacher at their school. That is not enough, but that daily love and support should be there for every LGBTQ student while we fight for equality in our schools.
You can send a custom letter demanding LGBTQ inclusiveness in school by visiting GLSEN.org. While treating students with respect may be a fundamental cultural question, changes to our school systems require engagement on many levels.
If you’re thinking about suicide
you deserve immediate help—please call the Trevor Lifeline,
a crisis intervention and suicide prevention phone service.
Text “Trevor” to 1-202-304-1200. Standard text messaging rates apply.
Available Monday through Friday between 2pm–9pm CST
An online international peer- to-peer community for LGBTQ young people and their friends.
Trevor Support Center
Where LGBTQ youth and allies can find answers to FAQs and explore resources related to sexual orientation, gender identity and more.
Learn the warning signs of suicide, prevent a crisis.
Although emotional ups and downs are normal, sometimes a person who is suicidal gives certain signs or hints that something is wrong. Knowing these major warning signs can help you connect someone you care about to support if they need it – even if that person is yourself.
Have you or someone you know felt…
Do you or someone you know…
- Not care about their future: “It won’t matter soon anyway.”
- Put themselves down – and think they deserve it: “I don’t deserve to live. I suck.”
- Expressed hopelessness: “Things will never get better for me.”
- Say goodbye to important people: “You’re the best friend I’ve ever had. I’ll miss you.”
- Have a specific plan for suicide: “I’ve thought about how I’d do it.”
- Talk about feeling suicidal: “LIfe is so hard. Lately I’ve felt like ending it all.”
Have you or someone you know been…
- Using drugs or alcohol more than usual
- Acting differently than usual
- Giving away their most valuable possessions
- Losing interest in their favorite things to do
- Admiring people who have died by suicide
- Planning for death by writing a will or letter
- Eating or sleeping more or less than usual
- Feeling more sick, tired or achy than usual
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then you are not alone. We are here for you 24/7 on the Trevor Lifeline (866-488-7386) – that means all day and night, every weekend, each holiday, and beyond.
If you recognize these signs in someone you know, encourage them to ask for help. If they need support, empower them to call the Trevor Lifeline at 866-488-7386 to talk with a trained volunteer counselor. Trevor is here 24/7 – that means all day and night, every weekend, and every holiday. The Trevor Lifeguard Workshop, offered by The Trevor Project, is a free training program that can be used by teachers and school counselors in classrooms. The 15 minute video and accompanying materials of the Trevor Lifeguard Workshop are listed in the SPRC/AFSP Best Practices Registry for Suicide Prevention and provide students in grades 6-12 with real tools and information about how they can help themselves and others who may be in crisis or thinking about suicide. You can learn more by visiting TheTrevorProject.org/Lifeguard.