School social workers are acknowledged as valuable supporters of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth. They provide counseling and support, and foster an environment of inclusiveness. Inclusiveness for LGBT students incorporates support from their peers in the school environment. But how do LGBT students experience the school environment?
In a recent issue of the journal Children and Schools, Stuart L. Roe, PhD, has published his findings in a phenomenological study of students’ experiences in the school environment. The phenomenological approach seeks to understand the lived experiences of study participants, and incorporates in-depth interviews with research participants in order to have a deeper understanding of their collective experiences. Two broad questions guided Roe’s interviews: 1) What has been your experience with support from peers? and 2) How have your experiences in school shaped those experiences with peers?
Roe interviewed seven participants in depth. Six were male and one female; all were white. Their ages ranged from 16 to 18. From his interviews, Roe says five particular themes emerged:
- Peers are an important source of support for LGBT youths, in word and in deed
- LGBT youths fear judgment from non-LGBT peers
- Not all peers are supportive
- Gay-straight alliances (GSAs) serve as a form of support
- LGBT adolescents go online for support
Although LGBT youths need the support of peers, they often fear their judgment, which affects when, how and to whom they come out. They often seek support from close friends, but sometimes even those people are not supportive.
One finding Roe thinks is particularly interesting: LGBT students reported that even when they do not participate in their schools GSAs, simply by having a GSA available at their school made them feel the school environment was more supportive of its LGBT students. Just the presence of a GSA in the school made a positive difference in their lives.
Students also reported that the internet has been a helpful resource for information on LGBT life and issues, but that also the internet can be a source of misinformation and discouragement from sources opposed to LGBT people.
The author draws from his study some salient implications for school social workers, particularly that social workers should foster interventions that increase empathy among the student body. Furthermore, initiating and/or sponsoring GSAs, and providing information for safe online resources are important ways to support LGBT students.
Above all, positive, socially rewarding relationships with peers, both LGBT and non-LGBT, are critical for LGBT students’ wellbeing in the school environment.
Roe cautions that the small sample size may not be indicative of LGBT students in general. He calls for more studies, with a greater variety of persons, to be performed in order to greater understand the needs of LGBT students.