Paving the way for LGBTQ youth towards positive youth development

Research on LGBTQ youth in a school setting have indicated that they are an at-risk population, attributable to negative outcomes including truancy, substance use, loneliness, and suicide. Flipping the narrative, this study explores the positive factors that are present surrounding LGBTQ youth.
Paving the way for LGBTQ youth towards positive youth development

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) population have been under the microscope across the world, as indicated by the various media outlets highlighting attacks targeting the LGBTQ population. Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN)’s national survey revealed that 92.6% of LGBTQ youth mentioned health concerns (e.g., depression, anxiety) as the main reason for not graduating high school, followed by academic (e.g., poor grades, absences), and safety concerns (e.g., hostile school climate, harassment, unsupportive peers and staff). 67% of the youth reported hearing homophobic comments in schools, 58% perceived a lack of safety as a result of their sexual orientation identity, and 43% perceived a lack of safety as a result of their gender identity and expression. Though much of the research on LGBTQ youth have been through risk- or harm-reduction lens (e.g., academic risks, social and emotional risks), this study attempts to focus on the positive systems surrounding LGBTQ youth.

The social support systems surrounding LGBTQ youth

The Ecological Systems Theory, as theorized by Urie Bronfenbrenner, views the individual’s development as a complex system of relationships across multiple systems surrounding the individual. As literature in this field typically examine systems of social support in isolation, this scoping review aims to provide a comprehensive search strategy to consolidate the research on the available social support systems for LGBTQ youth in schools. This study attempts to use the Ecological Systems Theory to shift the research to focus on a more relational, developmental systems perspective, acknowledging the interconnectedness of the systems and its associations to the individual.

Changing the narrative of social support: From passive recipients of support to opportunities and spaces for activism, skill learning, and engagement

Broadly, the following post touches upon two of the four research objectives:

  1. Identify and describe the current research on outcomes for LGBTQ youth, and
  2. Identify areas for future research for LGBTQ youth and social support in schools.

This study followed a scoping review design and reviewed 94 articles between 2007 through 2021. Data analysis involved both quantitative (e.g., frequency analysis) and qualitative (e.g., thematic analysis) methods, resulting in a multi-layered synthesis process that allowed for the identification of existing gaps in the literature.

Organized through the Ecological Systems Theory, social support can be defined as support that is provided across various systems related to LGBTQ youth, specifically the following seven identified systems: 1) family, 2) curriculum, 3) gay-straight alliances (GSAs, and other school programs), 4) peers, 5) school administrators and teachers, 6) school policies, and 7) school climate. Across the systems, there appeared to be a change in the narrative of social support where LGBTQ youth were moving away from being passive recipients of support to opportunities and spaces for activism, skill learning, and engagement. For example, in the family system, current research expanded beyond family acceptance and included active support through advocacy and allyship. This was similarly found in other support systems where providing social support for LGBTQ youth entailed the act of standing up, advocating, and challenging the LGBTQ-related issues present in schools and community. In the curriculum system, there was a push for a LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum to actively challenge and disrupt the homophobia and injustice present in schools. Within the GSAs, these were spaces that provided LGBTQ youth with skills and opportunities necessary to be active participants in fostering a LGBTQ-inclusive school environment. This research expanded on the change in narrative that may be an indication that social support is more than providing support to LGBTQ youth. Rather, social support includes opportunities for LGBTQ youth to take initiative to create change and develop skillsets to be successful in their school (i.e., both academic and social outcomes), aligned with more self-determined behaviours that lead youth to have a healthy and positive well-being.

A whole school approach to support LGBTQ youth: Future directions

An area of future research involves an exploration of methods to circumvent the larger sociopolitical context that limits the provision of LGBTQ support. One possible avenue to provide LGBTQ support can be under the guise of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). This framework suggests the need to support all students, housing LGBTQ support under the need to support all diverse students. In the review, educators and other school staff were highlighted as one of the key support systems for LGBTQ youth. One of the identified themes within the educator system involved the inconsistency in showing support through their actions. Several of the themes highlighted how students perceived their school staff members (teachers, counselors, school psychologists, administration, principals) as being hesitant to discuss LGBTQ issues. By being hesitant and uncomfortable to teach LGBTQ issues, a norm of LGBTQ silence exists in the school environment. Therefore, educators and other school staff members need to be comfortable in being inclusive of all students through their actions. Effective actions students have mentioned include consistent intervention against LGBTQ-specific harassment, and opening dialogue on the importance of inclusion and acceptance (i.e., through a LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum). When students heard LGBTQ-inclusive topics in their classes, they felt an increased sense of safety. It is therefore important to have educators be comfortable and open to teach LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum to increase LGBTQ youths’ sense of safety.

Findings of this scoping review also indicate an intersectional nuance. Differences in perceived support varied based on the ethnicity/race and subpopulation of LGBTQ youth. Intersectionality should be taken into consideration as issues of gender, class, ability, race/ethnicity, and sexual orientation/gender identity may influence how specific LGBTQ students experience social supports. This review endeavored to provide a positive outlook on LGBTQ youth’s school experiences by highlighting how these social support systems provide a space for LGBTQ youth to engage, as active participants, in opportunities to promote a positive and safe school climate for positive development.

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