I was a curious student who spent my free periods talking to teachers, and I could find my way around the library blindfolded. But for most of my life, I absolutely dreaded going to school.
My peers were creative, constantly finding new ways to physically and verbally bully me. My crime? I was too feminine for a boy: belting Broadway tunes in a high voice, plastering my backpack with all things pink, and failing every sport I tried to play.
I have memories of boys chasing me with tarantula jars, covering me with mud, and stabbing me with pencils. Yet what hurt even more were three words that I heard almost more than my name: “You’re so gay.” Whether they were directed at me, someone else, or just casually thrown around to call out those that didn’t fit the traditional idea of what a boy should be, they hurt all the same.
I always felt ashamed, like I needed to hide who I really was. At the time, my school lacked LGBTQ+ inclusive programs. We never learned about the queer community in health or history class, and we lacked spaces like a Gender & Sexuality Awareness (GSA) Club on campus. There was no one to teach me—or my bullies—that the term “gay” meant anything more than “disgusting,” “repulsive,” or “weak.”
My story isn’t unique. Among LGBTQ+ students:
- Ninety percent experience harassment in school.
- Nearly two-thirds feel unsafe.
- Thirty percent report missing school.
- Suicide ideation and serious attempts are three to five times more likely.
Sources: GLSEN National School Climate Survey, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Fortunately, I attended a high school that took LGBTQ+ inclusion more seriously. For the first time, I met students and teachers who proudly embraced their own LGBTQ+ identities, helping me to accept mine. Realizing the enormous impact a school’s culture can have on LGBTQ+ youth acceptance, I started a nonprofit called The Empathy Alliance when I was 14 years old. My goal was simple: Make schools safer for LGBTQ+ students so no one else would experience what I did.
I work with educators from across the country who care deeply about every single student, but lack the training and tools to succeed. What they may not know is that a few simple changes can vastly improve LGBTQ+ student outcomes:
- Institute specific anti-LGBTQ+ bullying programs: Don’t assume general antibullying programs adequately cover LGBTQ+ harassment. The fear of being outed—and the shame and/or silence around queer issues—makes LGBTQ+ students much more vulnerable, and teachers need special sensitivity training on handling complaints. In my book, Read This, Save Lives: A Teacher’s Guide to Creating Safer Classrooms for LGBTQ+ Students, I provide over 100 actionable tips for educators interested in changing their school climate. Focusing on prevention to stop bullying before it even starts is key.
- Enable students to advocate for themselves: GSA clubs allow students to convene and identify issues, all while providing a supportive environment that is shown to improve mental health. As a principal, consider sponsoring this club yourself, and create other avenues to listen to your students.
- Clearly signal adult and institutional support: Train teachers to appreciate generational shifts in our understanding of sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation. Update your school’s dress code, allow gender neutral bathrooms, encourage correct pronoun usage, and implement “Safe Space” classroom signs. Clarify how students can report incidents and when teachers and staff should intervene in cases of bullying. Celebrate national events like Day of Silence, National LGBT History Month, National Coming Out Day, and Spirit Day.
- Modify the curriculum so it’s 2020-ready: Make health and sex-ed more LGBTQ+ inclusive. Include figures like Alan Turing, Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Sally Ride, Florence Nightingale, and Bayard Rustin in academic curricula. By highlighting the achievements and history of LGBTQ+ figures, you show students positive representation and counteract stigma.
To help make these changes and meet other educators working towards the same goal, attend the Time to THRIVE Conference in February. Hosted by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation and sponsored by the National Education Association and NASSP, it’s a great place for educators to build cultural competency, learn best practices, and gather resources from leading LGBTQ+ experts.
With your help, my dream of safe and inclusive schools for all students can come true.
Sameer Jha is a student at Stanford University, a Human Rights Campaign youth ambassador, and founder of The Empathy Alliance.