GLSEN Study Finds Anti-Gay Bullying and Uncomfortable Teachers in Elementary Schools

The Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) has released the first study to survey both students and teachers about their experience in bullying related to bias, homophobia and attitudes towards gender nonconforming individuals. The study was conducted using 15 minute online surveys given to 1,065 elementary students in 3rd – 6th grade and 1,099 K-6th teachers between November and December of 2010.

The study found that words such as “gay”, “fag”, “lesbo”, “that’s so gay”, “spaz” and “retard” are among the most common forms of biased language used to harass students.  Troublingly, only 2 in 10 students have learned about families with gay or lesbian parents — although now that Rachel’s gay dads will actually show their face on GLEE that’s sure to change, right?

Less than half of the teachers surveyed believe a gender nonconforming individual (44% for male nonconforming, 49% for female nonconforming) would feel comfortable at their school and less than half (48%) indicate they would feel comfortable responding to questions from their students about gay, lesbian and bisexual people. Even fewer (41%) would feel comfortable discussing transgender people.

While this is far from the first study to consider bullying, GLSEN’s study specifically evaluates the bias and homophobia for elementary age children. Senior Director of Research & Strategic Initiatives Dr. Joseph Kosclw explains,

..our report is one of the few that examines bias-based bullying at the elementary school level and the first to examine incidence of homophobic remarks and the negative experiences of children who do not conform to societal standards in their gender expression from a national vantage point.

As we’ve seen, if you’re being bullied and even the teachers don’t have your back due to bias or poor understanding of the needs of gender nonconforming individuals, you’re in trouble. Studies like this are key in establishing that the problem at the root of bullying issues isn’t just about discipline or behavorial issues — it’s about education. Education of students, for one — we can hope that if more than 2 out of 10 children know that gay people exist and grow up to raise children, “gay” can function more as a statement of fact and less as an epithet. But education of teachers and caretakers for young children is just as, if not more important. How can a teacher effectively address the bullying of a transgender student if they don’t even feel comfortable talking with students about the fact that transgender people exist? When adults don’t have the knowledge necessary to defend students who are gender non-conforming or of a different sexual orientation, the obligation to defend and explain falls on the student themselves, and that’s a failure of the system that’s supposed to care for and protect all students, even ones who aren’t straight or cis.

In conjunction with the study GLSEN has developed  Ready, Set, Respect! GLSEN’s Elementary School Toolkit, to help teachers figure out how to ensure students a safe and respectful learning environment.  The group will be hosting a webinar on February 1st to review the findings of the study. Things such as this toolkit, lessons teaching gender variance,  and teaching gay history will go a long way towards confronting and understanding bullying in the classroom.

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Jamie J. Hagen

Jamie lives in Boston and is currently a PhD student in Global Governance and Human Security at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She is a freelance writer and also a team associate for the Boston chapter of Hollaback!.

Jamie has written 76 articles for us.


  1. I hope that educators and administrators take notice of this study.
    What is truly sad is that most teachers are afraid of parent/community backlash if they do teach or even talk about gender or sexual orientation. And the teachers who are probably the most informed (because of their own sexual orientation), have even more to lose for talking about it, because in some states they can be fired if they are outed.
    I tutor in an after school program and I am going back to school to become a teacher, and I would feel highly uncomfortable discussing these issues with children. Not because I don’t know what I’m talking about or because I don’t care, but because I could be fired. I would stand up for a kid who was being bullied, but I would stop short of including lessons on gender nonconformity in the classroom.

    The real way to stop bullying of students is to stop the bullying of our teachers by protecting them from discrimination and wrongful termination.

    • This is so true. It can’t just be one teacher, or the gay teacher, who stands up for queer kids, because the backlash from parents, other staff, and even kids, can be toxic.

      What we need is a cultural shift from every adult within the schools. They need to consistently enforce a zero-tolerance policy of gender- and orientation- based bullying.

      On one hand, it doesn’t seem like this should be so difficult, since I assume most schools already have a zero-tolerance policy for bullying based on things like race or disabilities. But on the other hand, many teachers do still police gender and sexuality in ways they probably aren’t even conscious of (making kids line up by gender, telling girls to sit like “ladies,” saying things like “just ignore him, he’s just teasing you because he likes you,” or encouraging the little romances that spring up between girls and boys.)

      For the queer teacher, confronting the other heterosexist adults as well as the students is exhausting, isolating, and potentially dangerous. I don’t think we should put this burden solely on her or him.

  2. I’m an elementary school teacher and (fortunately!) work in a great school district with a non-discrimination policy. I am completely out at work and my school district holds trainings using the “Everyone Counts” curriculum which supports teachers in addressing GLBT issues in the classroom. We also have children of gay parents in our school (including mine).

    Unfortunately, even in my school, there are teachers that feel uncomfortable talking about these issues. Many adults, even those who are well-meaning, have a hard time discussing the existence of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people with children. Mostly they’re afraid of parents, but I also think that straight people have to deal with their own internalized homophobia when they discuss GLBT issues and it’s hard if they’ve never had an opportunity to do so. We had a training a few years ago and even I learned some things! I think teacher education is SOOOO important. And if there is not a non-discrimination policy that includes gay, lesbian, and transgender teachers then it will be impossible to create a safe environment (for adults or kids).

    I feel so sorry for teachers across the country who have to be closeted at work. I think there is nothing more powerful for my students than knowing that an adult they adore (their first grade teacher) is also gay. My adolescence would have been a lot less tormented if I’d had some role models early on!

  3. My 11 year olds would be absolutely FINE if I turned around one day and said “You know what? The real reason you can’t use ‘gay’ as an adjective for ‘stupid’ in my classroom is because I’m gay, and it’s offensive to me.’ They would *get* that conversation probably more clearly than most conversations I’ve had with them about why you can’t use gay or retard or shut up or that’s stupid or I hate this in my classroom. They care about me, just like I care about them, and it would become a NON ISSUE.

    The people that wouldn’t get it are my colleagues and the parents. My administration won’t even include bullying based on sexuality/gender representation in our extensive (every other Friday, class meetings for 45 minutes) anti-bullying program. But the girls in my class and I wore ties in support of the boy wrestlers, and nobody gave a shit.

    Was it Maddow that said eventually the old people with the outdated views will die, and you won’t have to deal with it anymore? Yea, that.

    • This. Kids are so much more open-minded than adults. When it comes to LGBT issues, I’d wager that… 100% of elementary-age kids don’t really care. It’s the adults that have a problem.

  4. Conversation I overheard between two kids I teach in an after-school program:

    “What did [my first name] say we’re supposed to do?”
    “He said we..”
    “You can’t call him ‘he’! He’s a girl!”
    “But she wears boys’ clothes!”

    To paraphrase Andrea Gibson, some days it feels like I’m the best education on ‘self’ these kids are ever gonna get.

    • hahaha when i worked with kindergarteners, they asked me daily whether i was a boy or a girl. i think they thought i could change it at will. i’d go for a few days wearing boyish clothes, and then one day i’d wear purple and they’d get confused all over again.

  5. More and more I’m really glad that I somehow got lucky and ended up at a school where no one gave me shit for being the little tomboy that I was as.

  6. This is really important. Schools could be doing SO much more. Kudos to the teachers/administrators/parents who don’t shy away from this stuff!

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