LGBTQ Youth and Distance Learning

Like many young people, my oldest child eagerly anticipated returning to school this year (even via zoom) grateful for a regular routine and opportunities to socialize after a summer spent social distancing. He was especially excited to resume weekly meetings with his favorite club, the Gay/Straight Alliance. These meetings provide him and others with an important community. Even in a welcoming school like his, one decorated with “safe space” posters and populated by teachers with rainbow key chains, the GSA serves as a home for students to forge friendships share resources, express needs and bond over the ups and downs of queer teen life like crushes, break ups and friendship navigations. It’s where his friend Casden ask for help tracking down a binder or Janea can get support regarding the fact that her parents refuse to use the correct pronouns. He was devastated when he learned that the club would not be meeting this year due to safety concerns. School leaders expressed worry that the types of discussions that take place in a GSA might put some vulnerable students at more risk, should they be overheard by family members who were now within earshot of activities that used to take place outside the home.

The move to online schooling and social distancing requirements have shaped the lives of LGBTQ youth across the country. The resources schools provide both formally and informally, the support queer youth find in their friendships and connections with caring and supportive teachers may be harder to access because of the steps taken to combat the pandemic. For some LGBTQ youth these shifts also mean that they are now shielded from the harassment and everyday abuse that they encounter in school settings. These changes have implications for long term consequences for LGBTQ youth in terms of their social worlds, academic achievement and, perhaps most importantly, their mental health.

To be sure schools, – middle schools, high schools and for some, colleges – are not a welcoming institutions for many LGBTQ young people. Over half of LGBQ students report feeling unsafe at their school because of their sexual orientation. Almost all queer students report hearing homophobic language at school on a regular basis. For some young people this lack of safety seriously affects their education as more than a third of them have missed an entire day of school in past month due to safety concerns. For some LGBTQ youth learning in a mediated environment may feel like a reprieve from the sort of hostility they face in a typical school day.

An increasing number of schools offer important resources for students – affirmation, role models, social support and legal protection. Like my eldest child, over half of queer students report having a Gay Straight Alliance at their school. These clubs make a difference. Students who attend schools with a GSA report a greater sense of belonging to the school community. These students are less likely to hear homophobic insults and when they do are more likely to see school personnel intervene. School personnel play an outsized role for LGBTQ students. Most queer students can name at least one supportive staff member. When students can name a supportive staff member, they are less likely to miss school, feel a greater sense of belonging and less likely to express a lack of hope about graduating and their future. My two decades of research with LGBTQ youth in schools indicates that teachers do things like normalize including pronouns in classroom introduction rituals, altering assignments during events like the Day of Silence allowing LGBTQ youth and allies to remain silent and using inclusive language when referring to sexual and gender identities. Some schools and districts have developed formal systems for students to designate pronouns and names for use in all non-legal school documents including things like yearbooks. This means that some students may feel more protected socially and legally in schools than they are protected in their own homes. While the number of supportive staff members and school resources related to LGBTQ youth are at an all time high, these resources are harder to come by for students in rural communities as well as in the south and midwest.

Due, in part to welcoming peer groups, supportive staff and legal projections, some data suggests that LGBTQ students may be more likely to be out at school than at home. Being isolated off from a supportive community through distance learning may put young people’s mental health, academic success, access to housing and even college eligibility at risk. More than one LGBTQ young person has told me that their financial support for college or ability to live under their parents’ roof would be threatened were they to be out to their parents. Additionally, distance learning compounds the difficulty of creating a peer community to buffer against these sorts of home based stressors. As one young transman who is not out at home, told me “I know there is another transguy in my class and I need to make him my friend!” He is in a new school and trying to form these connections through distance learning is difficult to say the least.

What can we do to mitigate the effects that the pandemic may have on the mental health, academic experience and well being of LGBTQ young people both now and in the future? Research on queer youth suggests several tactics. Supportive adults (often in the form of school staff) are important. School staff can continue to use inclusive language, affirm gender and sexual diversity, and normalize correct pronoun use even if they cannot use particular names and pronouns for some LGBTQ youth because of their home situations. Schools and social service organizations need to be prepared to support queer youth, including having things like earmarked emergency funds as some colleges do or adopting affirming practices as some youth shelters now do. Research indicates that digital gathering places are disproportionately important to queer youth. Many youth organizations provide invaluable crisis support and legal information. Organizations could also focus on providing places for socializing, like message boards, live chats, real time text based interactions, zoom dance parties or game nights for instance to help mitigate some of the loss of community young people found in GSAs. What I have learned from working with LGBTQ youth before and during the pandemic is that we need to provide resources for them, not just to survive, but to thrive. Scaffolding an environment in which queer youth can fully be themselves in adolescence helps to set them up for successful post pandemic life.

Additional Reading:

GLSEN 2019 School Climate Survey

GSA Network

Human Rights Campaign 2018 LGBTQ Youth Report

A Checklist to Support LGBTQ Youth During Distance Learning

C.J. Pascoe is a sociologist who studies schools and young people with a focus on inequality and sexual minority youth.
Contact Dr. Pascoe

Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University,Evanston, IL