With contributions from Paul Irwin-Dudek and Danielle Vazquez.

School climate for LGBTQ+ students. Students are reporting a multitude of positive and negative factors affecting their daily experiences at school. Interpersonal relationships— particularly within the LGBTQ+ community (such as through student-led Gender and Sexuality Alliances [GSAs])—inclusive learning, normalization of LGBTQ+ identities, and supportive teachers all foster positive school experiences. Not only are students themselves voicing the importance of these factors, they are also associated with positive academic outcomes. For instance, there is a link in the 2021 National School Climate Survey (NSCS) between students who reported having supportive staff and both missing fewer days of school and feeling safe.

Yet, students also enumerated abundant negative experiences related to the lack of supportive policies and adequate facilities, unsupportive administration, lack of LGBTQ+ representation, and negative remarks related to sexual orientation and gender identity. For example, 58.9% of LGBTQ+ youth reported experiencing discriminatory policies or practices and less than 20% reported protective school policies related to sexual orientation or gender identity/expression.  

Beginning with the 2005 NSCS, GLSEN has consistently found that LGBTQ+ youth with access to instruction on LGBTQ+ people, history, or topics report improved education outcomes, including: 

  • A decreased likelihood of absenteeism because they felt unsafe; 
  • Less severe anti-LGBTQ+ victimization; 
  • Improved mental health outcomes, including lower levels of depression; and 
  • Greater feelings of belonging, including peer acceptance.

These findings hold when specifically considering the experiences of LGBTQ+ youth who identify as transgender or nonbinary, Asian American or Pacific Islander, Black, Indigenous, and Latine. Despite these benefits, the 2021 NSCS found that only 16.3% of LGBTQ+ secondary students reported being taught any positive representations of LGBTQ+ people, history, or topics. We found that access to school-based sex education that addresses both lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) topics and transgender and gender-nonconforming (TGNC) topics is associated with a more positive school climate for LGBTQ+ students. 

The introduction and growth in support of LGBTQ+-inclusive learning policies since 2001 reflect a broader understanding of the importance of youth seeing their whole selves reflected in and beyond the classroom. New analyses of 2021 NSCS data demonstrate that, similar to instruction, LGBTQ+ inclusion in school libraries and via school internet, are both associated with a more positive school climate for LGBTQ+ students. 

Schools and local education agencies (LEAs) have been inundated with calls to remove and ban school library books and instructional materials by and about LGBTQ+ and BIPOC people. PEN America reports that the first half of the 2022- 2023 school year saw a 28% percent increase in book bans compared to January – June 2022. Among the 874 unique titles banned between July – December 2022, 30% include characters of color or discuss race and racism and 26% include LGBTQ+ characters or themes (8% specifically included transgender characters). Similarly, a recent survey of public high school principals found that 50% reported that certain parents or other community members sought to restrict teaching and learning about issues of race and racism, 48% reported opposition to LGBTQ+ student rights, and 33% reported efforts to ban school library books.

Experiences of students with LGBTQ+ families in schools. Our 2022 survey of LGBTQ+ parents/caregivers and students found that:

  • 80% of students reported hearing negative comments about their family; 
  • One in three students reported feeling excluded from a school or classroom activity sometimes, often, or frequently over the past 12 months because they have an LGBTQ+ parent or caregiver; and 
  • 68.6% reported being discouraged by a teacher, principal, or other school staff from talking about their LGBTQ+ parent(s) or family at school at some point.

In the same way that we understand that children cannot learn when they are hungry, we must also understand that children cannot learn when they feel unsafe. While physical safety is, of course, a critical minimum threshold for feeling safe, we must take an expansive, holistic view of what that minimum threshold encompasses because this reflects what we’re hearing from youth themselves. The path to just, equitable, and impactful education is deeply rooted in understanding and prioritizing the experiences of youth, especially those of intersectional LGBTQ+ students, who cannot focus on their schoolwork if their educators or classmates are disrespectful or dismissive—in other words, if they do not have psychological safety. 

To help schools cultivate a safe and inclusive environment for all their students, GLSEN focuses its programs, advocacy, research, and policy work around four key pillars: 

  • Activating supportive educators, who are crucial to creating LGBTQ-inclusive classroom environments; 
  • Advocating for inclusive & affirming curricula, which not only offers support to LGBTQ students but raises the awareness of all students; 
  • Passing and implementing policies to ensure that LGBTQ students can learn and thrive in safe, inclusive, accepting schools; and 
  • Supporting student-led clubs and GSAs, because student leaders are integral to creating community and pushing for change. 

Until systems work for those most affected, they fail for everyone. The only way we can improve the system is if we work on it through the lens of people who have had to navigate it the most. Young people who have experienced discrimination within the K-12 education system are key to solving this problem. For a long time, nonprofit partners were spokespeople on behalf of our youth. At GLSEN, we’ve been intentional about centering young people. They bring a different energy which has been life-changing and refreshing.

People who know not only what an issue looks like, but what it feels like, should be the people helping to make decisions on what should be done. Over and over again, we find that there is expertise that has not been tapped into. If we aim to center our work around equityif we are to really make human services that are humanspace must be made for these experts and we should not only be uplifting their voices, but compensating them.

In addition to uplifting voices, philanthropy, in general, needs to understand racism. One of the biggest challenges we have is calling out racism. Part of this is too often centering whiteness in conversations around Black and Brown LGBTQ+ youth. We must work to change the language we use and be explicit in our understanding of how recent policies affect Black queer youth in America differently from other youth of color and their white counterparts. 

Black queer youth are most impacted and until we recognize that, we will continue to repeat history and leave them at the mercy of a K-12 system that traumatizes them. By stating this publicly, GLSEN has actually lost critical funding from legacy funders who would prefer our organization to support white cis-gender youth. We know from our research that when we focus on the most marginalized voices, every student prospers.

There are two related policies that GLSEN encourages foundation funders to emulate:

Trust-based philanthropy. A radical reimagining of how foundation giving has been traditionally practiced—one that seeks to create a more equitable nonprofit sector, —trust-based philanthropy comprises six strategies: 1) multi-year, unrestricted funding; 2) knowing the organizations in your funding landscape; 3) simplifying and streamlining paperwork; 4) increasing transparency and responsiveness; 5) soliciting and acting on feedback; and 6) offering support beyond money.

Leverage your network. One vital way foundations can offer support beyond money is to leverage your networks on behalf of your grantees. While there may be nearly 150,000 private foundations in the United States, the space is nevertheless interwoven and non-competitive—all funders want to see their grantees succeed. Given that a single funder can rarely sustain a particular program by itself, and unsolicited proposals often go unfunded even when they are permitted, it is advantageous to everyone to the advantage of all parties if foundations are more proactive in introducing their grantees to other funders. 

Of all institutional funders, private foundations have the most room to push the conversation forward regarding the most pressing issues of our time, including ensuring that LGBTQ+ youth are safe, healthy, and able to thrive. Therefore, we encourage foundations to be more vocal in your support, especially during times of strident backlash.

More specifically to foundations focused on states or municipalities, we encourage them to think more expansively about how local change is made—and who makes it. As a national organization with local chapters and other partners throughout the country, much of our work occurs at the state or municipal level, and yet it can be very difficult to raise funds from local foundations as applicants are usually required to be physically based within their geographic areas of interest. This places an additional burden on our local partners, who often look to GLSEN’s national office for fundraising capacity and limits our ability to respond accordingly.

In 2020, UCLA’s Williams Institute estimated that 1 in 10 youth in the United States aged 13 to 17 is LGBT. In 2023, the CDC found that nearly 1 in 4 high school students identified as LGBTQ+. Simultaneously, as discussed above, LGBTQ+ students experience heightened bullying, violence, and exclusion in American schools, harms which coincide with lower school attendance, social-emotional wellbeing, and academic outcomes.

Additionally, specific student subgroups that traditional education funders target with their resources are disproportionately LGBTQ+. Between 20 and 40% of homeless youth, for example, are LGBTQ+. Thirty percent of foster youth are LGBTQ+.

Furthermore, research suggests taking measures to improve school climate for LGBTQ+ youth also improves climate for all students. For example, schools with a GSA for three or more years see a lower risk of suicide for all students, not just LGBTQ+ students.

There are several sources that funders can dive into to learn more:

GLSEN’s NSCS is our flagship report on the school experiences of LGBTQ+ youth in schools, including the extent of the challenges that they face at school and the school-based resources that support LGBTQ+ students’ well-being. The survey consistently indicates that specific school-based supports are related to a safer and more inclusive school climate, including: supportive educators, LGBTQ+-inclusive curricula, inclusive and supportive policies, and supportive student clubs, including GSAs.

The full GLSEN 2021 NSCS report includes information on LGBTQ+ middle and high school students’ experiences, including:

  • Hearing biased language, from both students and educators;
  • Experiences of harassment and assault;
  • Anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination;
  • Effects of a hostile school climate on educational outcomes and psychological well-being; and
  • The availability and utility of supportive school resources.

This report also examines demographic and school differences in students’ experiences and explores LGBTQ+ students’ access to and involvement with GSAs. In addition, this installment of GLSEN’s NSCS also includes an exploration of how school climate has changed over time. Because this data is from the 2020-2021 academic year, when schools had to respond to the COVID pandemic, we also discuss key differences between the experiences of LGBTQ+ students in online only, in-person only, and hybrid learning environments.

GLSEN Navigator

LGBTQ+ youth have access to varying levels of support and protections under state laws. Our maps provide communities with information on the policy landscape, experiences of students, and resources on how to advocate for positive school transformation that benefits all youth, including LGBTQ+ students, in K-12 learning communities.