Queer Treatment in American Secondary Education Institutions

Schools have the opportunity to create the foundations of diversity and respect in the classroom. Will they take it?

By Andrew J. K. O’Donnell

The Progressive Teen Editor-in-Chief


THE HALLWAYS OF EVERY GIVEN AMERICAN HIGH SCHOOL are festering with noisy teenagers and exhausted educators, creating a microcosm of the social order outside the walls of these academic institutions. Individuals who do not prescribe to social normality, either internally or externally, face unique and often unaided challenges within these communities. The treatment of queer individuals in the education system of this country is still extremely taboo and an issue which affects more than just community life within high schools.

Queer identifying individuals face a world which is inadvertently heteronormative in practice and function, creating a perpetuation of isolation and silence. These individuals, specifically queer students, are systematically placed in environments which lack the knowledge of how to create spaces where all students are able to thrive. The environment of American secondary education institutions cultivates a disregard for intersectionality and ultimately an atmosphere where social and academic isolation, minorities within the queer community, and administrative handling of queer issues are neglected to be acknowledged; producing a malpractice of healthy and inclusive educational systems.

In the macro-environment of the United States, an estimated one in four Americans suffer from a mental illness. The statistics surrounding mental health and the queer community is even greater, nearing a rate of 3 times the likelihood of a non-LGBTQ+ individual experiencing a mental illness. (Nami, Duckworth) These staggering numbers indicate there is a strong correlation between being a member of the queer community and experiencing mental illness, most commonly major depression and generalized anxiety disorders. A vast majority of the time, these conditions are brought on by ostracization by broader communities, academic institutions, and stigmas imposed by heteronormative social standards.

Depression is a mental illness which produces feelings of isolation, hopelessness, and a lack of pleasure from daily life according to materials provided by the Mayo Clinic. The age groups with the highest percentages of being affected are 14–18 and 65+. The latter grouping, is commonly brought on by feelings of inadequacy and the realization of life span periods becoming increasingly shorter. The previous grouping -14 to 18- is the age range which virtually all American high school students fall within. When you acknowledge the likelihood of a high school student experiencing depressive struggles, coupled with the stigmatism of being queer, it is unconscionable to not infer changes needs to be instituted. The students which fall into the queer community are already predisposed to a chance of struggling with mental illness three times greater than their straight peers, therefore, high school communities need to remain aware of how their environments are handling queer students.

The safety, both mental and physical, of queer students is rarely taken seriously and only perpetuates already existing mental illnesses and ostracization. Implementing school policies which value and support queer students, just as heterosexual students, is essential for any academic environment to be inclusive and safe for all students. Inclusive sexual education courses that include: the measures of safe sex for queer students, queer relationship information, and other aspects which are solely heterosexually focused, is a first step. According to healthychildren.org, it is estimated that nearly ten percent of our population is queer. To completely skip over the topics of queer relationships, in a class of two hundred freshman, invalidates the possible twenty students who are not straight. The erasing or lack of acknowledgment of queer relationships is a fundamental aspect of the continuation of mental illnesses brought on by isolation and disorientation. It can be concluded that our current academic environments force the message of queer stigmation, whether they realize this or not, through the teaching of heteronormative sex education courses.

When queer culture — which is human culture — is not intertwined with heterosexual culture, two messages are highlighted: queer individuals are not visible and straight dominance is valid. The ignoring of key historical figures as queer, prevents the possibility of informing all students of the great diversity our past as humans holds. In the humanities we have queer writers such as Willa Cather and Shakespeare, within the political realm Eleanor Roosevelt and Harvey Milk, along with multitudes of other artisans, leaders, and scientists. Queer history is American history, and to ignore that fact upholds the notion of heterosexual dominance, the submission of queer culture, and in turn continues to detach queer students who are predisposed to mental struggles because of these conditions. It is due to this lack of educational diversity that secondary institutions have a great deal of work ahead to become truly inclusive environments and cultivate a non-isolating environment for queer students.

The validation of intersectionality within social order is essential to providing all students with an enriching and encouraging education experience. Within the queer community, there are individuals who are even furtherly ostracized and marginalized. Queer students of color face a white dominated, queer stigmatizing world, and students who are gender nonconforming or not cisgender are faced with complications in everyday interactions.

Racism within the queer community is not uncommon. The dominance of white, cisgender males is just as prevalent within the queer community as it is in the secular social sphere. Academic environments which are dually white and straight catered, oppress the validation of queer students of color even more so. The suicide rates within teen demographics is astronomical, levels reaching 4 times the average for queer teen suicides, and non-white queer teens are at a double likelihood of suicide rates as their white queer peers. When queer students, whether white or not, come from families which are not supportive or even abusive, experience an education system which silences their personhood there is a huge void in validation of life. As queer students are constantly fed the message that their identity is not worth validating, the rates of mental illness and suicide will continue to climb.

This horrible path of queer isolation is even harder to walk for students who are not cisgender. More than half of Trans* youth have seriously contemplated suicide, and twenty-five percent of Trans* youth have attempted suicide. (The Trevor Project) Trans* or gender nonconforming students experience an education where they are denied the ability to utilized basic human experiences. Bathrooms are gendered, and therefore students who are not cis-identifying have to use the restrooms of the gender they were prescribed at birth or face ridicule, unsafe situations, and even administrative punishment. Gender inclusive restrooms provide a safety for students who are trans* or non-conforming, and also displays validation from the administration for these student’s well-being.

Pronouns are utilized in communication to indicate who or whom an individual is speaking with or referring to. Common pronouns include: he, she, it, or they. In our social vernacular we have become accustom to personally describing an individual based upon our own inferences of their pronouns. This is extremely detrimental and isolating for students who use pronouns which would not match how they are socially perceived on basis of gender, or who are gender neutral in nature. Educators who make an effort to utilize appropriate pronouns for each student will cultivate a healthier, safer, and ultimately more productive class environment. A student who feels validated in who they are at their very core, will be more likely to succeed in coursework and participate in classroom discussions. Providing all students, queer or straight and queer/white or queer/minority, with validation as a human being — each allotted the chance to receive an enriching education — will reduce the numbers of queer ostracization, ignorant stigmas, and unhealthily disproportional heterosexual dominance.

The influence of administrations within a secondary education institution’s environment is paramount for sustaining a safe space for all students, queer included. An administration must do more than merely state they, “do not discriminate based on”, the various demographics of their student body. Maintaining policies which inadvertently shame or isolate queer students, or any minority for that matter, is counterproductive and creates an unsafe environment for students. Policies and traditions which possibly are not rooted in malice, but are excluding in nature, impacts the message students interpret from their educators.

At a high school in Omaha, Nebraska the graduation ceremony is queer exclusive. Red robes are worn by female students, and black robes are worn by male students. Though this tradition may not have been intended to be exclusive, it has remained so. Students who are trans* are forced to wear the hues of their socially prescribed gender, as well as students who are gender non-conforming. This decision by the administration only allows for students who are aware of their personhood, to feel shamed and isolated in how they are able to graduate with their peers.

Graduation is not the only queer shaming activity within high schools. “Powderpuff” and “Powderbuff” events are not only sexist, they are also queer exclusive. Students who are non-conforming or trans* are not able to play in such a manner that they would feel comfortable in. Even more recently, the NSAA for high schools has decided to have trans* exclusive rules regarding sports teams. These regulations only impose more barriers between queer students and the rest of their communities. It is damaging to students who are queer and even students who are straight, as policies which divide — oppress, but they also deter the possibility of a cultivation of a diverse and enriching community atmosphere.

If graduation from high school was the end of queer mistreatment, there may be more hope within queer individuals. But, in reality, the high school community is a microcosm of how social order functions in the greater society. The experiences queer students had during high school will likely continue on into their adult lives. Men and women have always been two separate groups, which invalidates the existence of non-binary individuals. The implementation of socially accepted, systematic racism will continue to allow trans* black females to be murdered at alarming rates. Queer hate speech and propaganda from religious groups, will continue to lead to isolation and disorientation as individuals are constantly battered with the possibility of an eternity of damnation. With all of these horrendous social situations, and so many more, queer students will continue to face isolation and mistreatment for their entire lives.

The foundation of what social normality looks like begins in the hallways of a high school and the homes which the students return to. Secondary education institutions have a duty to safeguard the personhood of all students, whether they are the majority or not. If schools begin to claim responsibility for queer treatment and push to improve their policies in the classroom and greater academic community, subsequent generations of queer student may find their difference to become a respected and celebrated aspect of society and education. The education system has the ability and choice to strip these issues of their taboo cover, but it would mean changing the status quo. The status quo must be safe for all students, and this is obtainable, if the education of diversity and respect begins in the foundation of classrooms.


Follow us on Twitter at @hsdems and like us on Facebook. Send tips, questions and applications to apeng@hsdems.org. The opinions expressed in TPT pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of High School Democrats of America as a whole.