Counseling Students Who Are Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender or Questioning
Though approximately 10 percent of adolescent students are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning their sexual identities, orientations, or genders (LGBTQ), there is a dearth of school services to support these students. These students struggle with issues such as loneliness, rejection, poor self-esteem, self-hatred, fear, isolation, confusion, denial, guilt, and depression. Their learning is frequently compromised by truancy, dropping out, and academic failure. School counselors should be prepared to support LGBTQ students' learning by helping to create a positive school environment; providing empathetic and respectful counseling services; educating students, parents, faculty, and staff about LGBTQ issues; advocating for the inclusion of LGBTQ content in curriculum; and providing LGBTQ students with the resources they need to support one another. Counselors should also be sure to comply with the policies of their states and professional organizations.
Keywords Adolescents; At-Risk; Bisexual; Counseling; Gay; Homophobia; Homosexuality; Lesbian; Questioning; Reparative Therapy; Sexual Identity; Sexual Minority; Sexual Orientation; Social Justice; Transformational Ministry; Transgender
Public schools in America have a legal, ethical, and moral obligation to provide all students with equal access to education and personal safety. However, some sexual minority students feel that school is not a safe environment, and students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) are at risk for failure. These adolescents, who comprise about 10 percent of the students in the United States, encounter similar societal and developmental demands as their adolescent peers, but they have an added burden of a "stigmatized sexual identity" (Fontaine, 1998). According to Ginsberg (1998), "At a time when self-identity and peer group acceptance are inextricably interwined, gay/lesbian adolescents are constantly reminded that they are unacceptable, a kind of breed apart." They struggle with issues such as loneliness, rejection, poor self-esteem, self-hatred, fear, isolation, confusion, denial, guilt, and depression. Their learning is frequently compromised by truancy, dropping out, and academic failure. Students who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning and also come from certain minority cultures, such as African-American, Native American, and Latino, have additional challenges associated with biased cultural perceptions of homosexuality ingrained in their respective cultures.
According to the 2011 National School Climate Survey, conducted by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, "Schools nationwide are hostile environments for a distressing number of LGBT students, the overwhelming majority of whom hear homophobic remarks and experience harassment or assault at school because of their sexual orientation or gender expression" (Kosciw et al., 2012, p. xiv). In this survey of more than 8,500 American students aged 13 to 20, nearly 82 percent reported being verbally harassed at some point in the preceding year because of their sexual orientation, and nearly 64 percent because of their gender expression. More than 38 percent reported being physically harassed (e.g., pushed or shoved) because of their sexual orientation, and more than 27 percent because of their gender expression. More than 18 percent reported being physically assaulted (punched, kicked, or injured with a weapon) because of their sexual orientation, and more than 12 percent because of their gender expression. More than 55 percent of LGBT students reported experiencing electronic harassment (cyberbullying) (Kosciw et al., 2012). While LGBTQ students face special problems because of their identity, they are among the most underserved students who receive the least amount of help in schools (Burke, 1995). As a result, LGBTQ students experience high rates of suicide, violence victimization, substance abuse, teenage pregnancy, running away, and HIV-related risky behaviors (Earls, 2005).
Many schools fail to provide adequate safeguards and support services for LGBTQ students. Quinlivan and Town's research (1999) identified silence as a key practice of schools that creates and sustains a chilly "climate of denial and avoidance," leaving LGBTQ students feeling isolated, invisible, and vulnerable. This silence creates a culture of "institutionalized homophobia—evidenced by many examples of benign neglect such as subject omission from curricula, nonexistent or unenforced antidiscrimination policies, and lack of visible services for gay and lesbian youth—[that] serves to deny the very existence of homosexual students in the schools (Fontaine, 1998, par 8).
Counselors are in unique positions to break this silence and create more positive cultures "through provision of information, support of respect and tolerance, active programming to address the concerns and attitudes of students and teachers, and engagement in both the articulation of policy and its translation into practice" (Henning-Stout, James, & Macintosh, 2000, p. 181).
The school counselor is often the first individual in the school environment in whom LGBTQ students confide. A counselor can play a significant role in helping students discover who they are and develop a "strong and positive cultural identity" (Pope, 2003, p. 41). It is the responsibility of counselors to "take a leadership role in protecting and advocating for sexual minority students as well as developing and implementing school policies that eliminate verbal and physical harassment of all students" (p. 41).
In its position statement on gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and questioning youth, the American School Counselor Association (2005) describes the role of the school counselor as one who “works with all students through the stages of identity development and understands this development may be more difficult for GLBTQ youth. It is not the role of the counselor to attempt to change a student's sexual identity but instead to provide support, regardless of identity, to promote student achievement” (American School Counselor Association, 1995). Additionally, the statement describes counselors as individuals who are:
• Aware of their own beliefs about sexual orientation and gender identity;
• Knowledgeable about the negative effects that result from stereotyping individuals into rigid gender roles; and
• Committed to the affirmation of youth of all sexual orientations and identities (American School Counselor Association, 1995).
Specific interventions that counselors can utilize to meet the needs of all students and create an inclusive, accepting school environment include:
• Develop a welcoming counseling center that exhibits "positive recognition" for LGBTQ students;
• Provide a "safe haven" for students to explore their feelings about their sexual orientation;
• Encourage adoption and dissemination of policies that prohibit harassment and identifies and responds to incidents of harassment;
• Promote violence-prevention policies and programs to allow for a protected environment for all students;
• Work to create a school climate that values diversity;
• Train students and school staff members to mediate conflicts;
• Model "ethical practice through accepting and affirming attitudes, language, and behaviors in daily interactions with all students and staff";
• Encourage student activities that bring diverse students together and promote "intergroup understanding";
• Work with local law enforcement officials to stop hate crimes and civil rights violations;
• Assist all student to understand their emotions about their sexual orientation/gender identity in a nondiscriminatory way;
• Demonstrate "empathic understanding" for the emotions and feelings these students have experienced;
• Use verbal terms and slang that is inclusive of sexual orientation/gender identity;
• Respect student confidentiality;
• Decrease LGBTQ students' feelings of isolation by being their "ally and protector" and someone in whom they can confide;
• Be familiar with sources of friendship and support for LGBTQ students;
• Guide students' "coming out" experience to friends and family;
• Provide support in dealing with family conflicts;
Education & Awareness
• Advocate for equal educational opportunities for all students, despite their sexual orientation/gender identity;
• Keep informed with accurate information about issues related to sexual development and orientation in order to help dispel inaccurate myths and negative stereotypes;
• Conduct parent information sessions that address LGBTQ student issues in a "realistic, accurate, and sensitive manner";
• Conduct in-service trainings designed to advance understanding and recognition of diversity seen in school staff members and shared evidence-based practices to meet student needs;
• Provide age-appropriate and inclusive knowledge about concepts such as diverse family structures, relationships, and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases...
(The entire section is 4163 words.)