High School Policy Changes to Improve the Experiences of Sexual Minorities: An Educational and Psychological Analysis

April 16th, 2009

High school can be a challenging time for students who deviate (or are perceived as deviating) from the heterosexual norm. As with many other culturally marginalized groups, non-heterosexual kids often feel isolated from and rejected by their high school peers, an experience which can have serious implications for their health and success in school (Morrison & L’Heureux, 2001). They are disproportionately likely to experience depressive or suicidal thoughts (Espelage, Aragon, Birkett & Koenig, 2008), and to actually attempt suicide (Morrison & L’Heureux, 2001; Mufioz-Plaza, Quinn & Rounds, 2002; Uribe & Harbeck, 1991). They are at higher risk for drug and alcohol abuse as well as homelessness (Espelage et al., 2008; Mufioz-Plaza et al., 2002). More specific to school outcomes, they are more likely than heterosexual students to exhibit declining school performance over time (Mufioz-Plaza et al., 2002). Educators who are concerned about the health and performance of all students must pay attention to these negative outcomes, their causes, and their possible solutions.

Many factors contribute to the developmental difficulties non-heterosexual students face in high school, and it would be difficult to isolate and account for all of them. Homophobia and heterosexism can influence thoughts and attitudes in widely varying contexts, even among people who do not realize that they exhibit bias (Steffens, 2005). These biases could cause emotional problems for sexual minorities even outside of the most commonly observed types of institutional disadvantages. One identifiable factor contributing to emotional and social difficulties for sexual minorities, for example, is the fact that they report a low sense of belongingness and a high sense of isolation and rejection in their high school communities, relative to heterosexual peers (Murdock & Bolch, 2005; Payne, 2007). Several social psychological theories help explain this broad statistical observation. For example, Kielwasser and Wolf (1994) apply the theory of symbolic annihilation to sexual minority youth. For social groups, representation in mainstream media, including school curricula, is a form of power. It affirms and legitimizes the identities and experiences of group members. The fact that sexual minorities are not often discussed in many educational contexts may contribute to feelings of isolation and powerlessness. Kielwasser and Wolf also describe a “spiral of silence,” something like a large-scale self-fulfilling prophecy, in which sexual minority experiences and opinions are suppressed: dominant opinions receive media coverage, causing people who disagree to believe their own ideas are marginal; this belief discourages the widespread expression of those “marginal” ideas in mainstream contexts, leading the media to report that they are obscure and unimportant. This process further isolates sexual minority students from each other and from the culture at large, especially while they are in high school, where the flow of information can be relatively controlled.

The idea that isolation in its various forms contributes to negative outcomes is well-supported. Even minor instances of social rejection cause measurable pain responses in the anterior cingulate cortex—the same brain region that responds to physical pain (Eisenberger, Lieberman & Williams, 2003). Over time, for students in general, repeated exclusion by peers contributes to low classroom participation and achievement (Buhs, Ladd & Herald, 2006). These generic findings suggest that (perceived) social isolation in the school environment could be an important cause of the particular disadvantages non-heterosexual students face, and that it is worthwhile to examine the various other social problems which themselves contribute to a general feeling of isolation.

Many broadly negative attitudes toward homosexuality contribute to the marginalization and isolation of non-heterosexual people in general. For example, some researchers have proposed that administrative tolerance for homophobic attitudes in high schools plays a role in the elevated suicide risk for non-heterosexual students (Morrison & L’Heureux, 2001). In particular, repeated exposure to explicitly negative messages can damage the self-esteem of sexual minority youth (Mufioz-Plaza et al., 2002).

Such negative attitudes can also result in damaging peer behaviors such as teasing and bullying. Physical and verbal violence against students who openly identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual is pervasive—far more common than harassment targeting “straight” kids (Short, 2006; Wyss, 2004). In addition to contributing to generalized feelings of isolation by bolstering the impression that the school community at large is homophobic, this type of harassment is also a more direct cause of emotional trauma and depressive thoughts in non-heterosexual kids (Kielwasser & Wolf, 1994; Macgillivray, 2000). Peer group norms are a strong predictor of homophobic behavior among high-schoolers (Poteat, 2008), but students are not exclusively culpable. Teachers and administrators may not always punish homophobic bullying, even when they are aware of it (Payne, 2007; Wyss, 2004). One reason some high school staff may “look the other way” is that they have become so acclimated to the culture of bullying that they don’t fully process incidents when they witness them (Macgillivray, 2000). The prevalence of bullying, therefore, might be indicative of general isolating norms—it may reflect the symbolic annihilation and spiral of silence theories outlined in Kielwasser and Wolf’s (1994) article. Whatever the cause, the fact that teachers sometimes ignore homophobic bullying contributes to internalized shame among non-heterosexual students, since it represents a silent affirmation of homophobia itself (Wyss, 2004).

The isolation of non-heterosexual students may also deter them from discussing their sexuality for fear of unfair treatment (Mufioz-Plaza et al., 2002). Remaining “in the closet” has been linked to negative outcomes in other contexts, such as the workplace (Day & Schoenrade, 1997), but coming out in high school has also been linked to increased teasing and bullying (Morrison & L’Heureux, 2001). Many non-heterosexual high school students thus find themselves forced to choose between two highly stressful alternatives.

These social and emotional disadvantages for non-heterosexual students suggest an important implication of school-level policies: ignoring issues related to homophobia and heterosexism contributes to feelings of isolation among sexual minorities (Uribe & Harbeck, 1991). Mufioz-Plaza and her colleagues (2002) propose one explanation: in a process similar to pluralistic ignorance, students may assume that everybody in the school adopts the socially dominant homophobic perspective unless specific authority figures publicly state otherwise. This assumption has serious implications for students’ health and performance. One study which controlled for frequency of teasing found that non-heterosexual kids were more likely to report depression, suicidal thoughts, and drug use if they perceived the school administration itself as unsupportive of sexual minorities (Espelage et al., 2008). In another study, which controlled for prior school achievement, the perception of exclusion explained ten percent of the remaining variance in non-heterosexual students’ GPAs (Murdock & Bolch, 2005).

To avoid some of these problems, high school administrations and teachers should search for ways to publicly affirm their support for sexual minorities. There are at least as many potential solutions for homophobia and heterosexism in schools as there are causes, and any attempts to overcome these social ills are welcome, but this paper makes two main school-level policy recommendations. First, schools should publicize their opposition to homophobia by training teachers to correct homophobic comments from students and ensuring that resources to help non-heterosexual students are publicly visible. Second, and perhaps most importantly, schools should integrate information about sexual minorities into curricula at all levels and in a wide range of subjects, especially health, literature, history, and the social sciences.

In support of both facets of the proposal, explicit acceptance and perceived institutional support for non-heterosexual students correlates with lower reported feelings of exclusion (Murdock & Bolch, 2005). In fact, students who perceived that they had teacher support reported higher feelings of belongingness even when they experienced a homophobic peer climate. Specific displays of acceptance, like books about the experiences of sexual minorities, supportive posters, and relevant classroom discussion might help bolster feelings of acceptance and psychological well-being (Mufioz-Plaza et al., 2002; Murdock & Bolch, 2005). Another important way to display acceptance is through publicly visible support programs, which may resolve some of the causes of emotional problems simply because their existence refutes the dangerous perception of total isolation and rejection (Morrison & L’Heureux, 2001). And correcting homophobic comments from students, even if it doesn’t reduce the behavior in question, is yet another way to send a message of acceptance to non-heterosexual students (Murdock & Bolch, 2005).

Perhaps the most promising way to counter the perception of low institutional support is through classroom content. Information about sexual minorities is often excluded from high school classrooms, contributing to feelings of isolation and possibly increased suicide risk (Morrison & L’Heureux, 2001). Many theoretical arguments support the inclusion of material about sexual minorities in classes like health, history, and literature: for example, such inclusion could increase exposure to the concepts of homosexuality, bisexuality, asexuality, etc., thereby reducing stigma and legitimizing the identities of sexual minority students (Elia, 1993; Mufioz-Plaza et al., 2002). Non-health classes are especially important, because discussing sexual minorities only in the context of health reinforces stereotypes associating them with diseases (Macgillivray, 2000).

Kielwasser and Wolf (1994) describe the invisibility of heterosexual privilege using the distinctiveness postulate: they argue that people are more likely to notice components of a stimulus which are pertinent to socially distinctive aspects of the self. Heterosexual people, as the majority, may therefore be less inclined than sexual minorities to notice heterosexism in their communities. Including information about societal heterosexism, however, can make it less normative and cause people to question their own potentially biased behaviors (Short, 2006). Pointing out invisible privileges of heterosexuality might also help reduce the stigma attached to sexual minorities (Macgillivray, 2000).

Macgillivray (2000) also points out that expanding school curricula to include sexual minorities would not require extensive changes. For example, in literature, many high schools already teach about famous writers like Virginia Woolf, Walt Whitman, and Gertrude Stein, but avoid the elements of these authors’ lives and writing which imply homosexual themes. Most high school history classes also teach about social movements for religious freedom, civil rights for racial minorities and women, and other important issues, so it would not seem difficult to add some information about the 20th century development of various movements pertaining to the status of sexual minorities.

Empirical research directly supports the prediction that curriculum changes related to sexual minorities can have benefits for the school environment. One early study found that an educational intervention designed partially to increase exposure to information about sexual minorities resulted in less negative self-reported attitudes toward them (Uribe & Harbeck, 1991). Another study introduced a detailed anti-homophobia unit into a high school, which challenged stereotypes through information and counter-examples, informed students about the link between prejudice and violence, encouraged perspective-taking, informed students that discrimination is illegal, and involved students in forming plans to reduce future discrimination (Van de Ven, 1995). This unit successfully reduced the anger students expressed toward gay people on survey measures, as well as their intended homophobic behaviors. Although male students reverted to former levels of homophobic responses three months after the unit, female students showed lasting changes. A long-term revision in course content might extend the effect duration across all demographics.

The two main recommendations of this paper were publicizing the school’s opposition to homophobia and including information about sexual minorities in standard course content. These are not wholesale solutions, though, and schools can take many other steps to improve the lives of non-heterosexual students (and to improve the school atmosphere for all students). One related step which could make a substantial difference would be to encourage teachers in same-sex relationships to be as open about their families as teachers in opposite-sex relationships are. Homosexual teachers are often discouraged from talking about their families around students (Macgillivray, 2000), but teachers who visibly break from the heterosexual norm can act as important role models to contradict stereotypes and show students that non-heterosexual people live successful, happy lives (Elia, 1993; Mufioz-Plaza et al., 2002). Other steps schools should take include implementing a zero-tolerance policy for harassment and a sexual minority-inclusive nondiscrimination policy (Elia, 1993; Mufioz-Plaza et al., 2002).

Formal policies and school-wide practices are not sufficient to resolve the problems of homophobia and heterosexism in high schools or the resulting emotional trauma for non-heterosexual kids. In fact, social conditions are often even more important than formal policies as causes of these problems (Short, 2006). For example, the policy changes outlined in this paper would be unlikely to change some of the peer group norms which predict homophobic bullying among high school students (Poteat, 2008). However, these recommendations are important components of the larger process of combating homophobia and bolstering non-heterosexual students’ resilience in overcoming it. The available evidence overwhelmingly suggests that such measures can be at least partially effective. Given the magnitude of social and institutional heterosexism and its serious risks for non-heterosexual students’ school performance, psychological well-being, and survival, adopting immediate policy changes is an educational imperative.


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