By Luke Morales
School is an important place in every adolescent’s life. It teaches a student key skills which prepare them for their career, and it allows for them to develop an understanding of the world in which they live. Schools may be used as places for adolescents to experiment with what they want to be when they grow up—who they want to be, which can play an important role in their identity development, especially among LGBTQ+ youth. Homophobic attitudes, however, can inhibit this identity development, and research within Latin America shows just how detrimental antagonistic school environments can be in the lives of young LGBTQ+ students.
A study conducted in 2016 examines homophobic attitudes among adolescents in six Latin American countries by analyzing responses of almost 30,000 8th- and 9th-grade students. Though the majority of adolescents who participated in the study do not hold negative attitudes toward homosexuality, the proportion of adolescents remains large. For instance 30% of the surveyed adolescents believe that homosexuals should not be allowed in their schools and 34% agree that homosexuality should be treated as a mental disease (Chaux & León, 2016). Additionally, 39% consider that morality in a country suffers with the presence of homosexuals, and 40% would dislike having homosexuals as neighbors (Chaux & León, 2016). The study determined that, when compared to heterosexuals, members of the LGBTQ+ community have a higher chance of victimization in general, including threats, verbal harassment, physical assault, sexual assault, and more (Chaux & León, 2016). LGBTQ+ youth also report being victims of school bullying much more frequently than heterosexual classmates (Chaux & León, 2016).
The hostile environment where LGBTQ+ students learn has proven to adversely affect academic performance, psychology, and emotions (Kosciw & Zongrone, 2019). A 2019 study analyzes the effect of a hostile school climate in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay by creating three categories: absenteeism, sense of school belonging, and well-being. According to the study, LGBTQ+ students were “two or more times likely to have missed school in the past month if they had experienced higher levels of verbal harassment related to their sexual orientation” (Kosciw & Zongrone, 2019, p. 21). In addition, these students are more likely to feel excluded and disconnected from their school community: in all seven countries they had a lower sense of school belonging than the general student population (Kosciw & Zongrone, 2019). LGBTQ+ students who reported a higher frequency of harassment based on their sexual orientation also reported higher levels of depression and lower levels of self-esteem as well (Kosciw & Zongrone, 2019). The ostracization at the hands of their peers can leave LGBTQ+ youth with poorer well-being and negative educational outcomes, and it is the responsibility of surrounding adults to support all students, regardless of identity, as they figure out how they want to live in the world.
There are ways in which all students, both in the LGBTQ+ community and out, can be supported by teachers in their identity development, as shown in a 2019 Latin American study from the GLSEN Research Institute. When opportunities are available for a student to incorporate their out-of-school knowledge and personal experiences, for example, adolescents will more likely regard those learning experiences as meaningful (Verhoeven et al., 2018). Essentially, learning experiences are meaningful when students can recognize themselves in the content of what they are learning, and this representation is desperately needed among LGBTQ+ youth. Another way teachers can support adolescents in identity development is by fostering supportive classroom environments (Verhoeven et al., 2018). Open-minded peers who recognize each other for who they are and want to be are essential aspects of a supportive classroom environment, and this environment can “make adolescents feel confident in trying out new roles… in reflecting on their own thoughts and feelings, and in critically assessing social inequalities” (Verhoeven et al., 2018, p. 53). When supported by teachers, adolescents’ exploration of identity can prove to be a fun and freeing experience, and supportive teachers are critical because LGBTQ+ youth are historically less free when it comes to identity exploration.
Education is especially important among young populations, and psychological research has shown that discrimination toward LGBTQ+ adolescents in schools can hinder academic success and emotional welfare. Education systems should take advantage of the studies done which examine ways to support students, as does the GLSEN report, to teach students diversity and inclusion practices from an early age. These practices are important to promote education on equity, and the research examined in this article is a testament to how identity development is just as important as educational and professional development among adolescents. Being that Latin America is one of the most diverse regions in the world, mainstreaming equity and inclusion is vital to ensure the positive identity development of adolescents in all cultures and from all backgrounds. Today’s young populations will be tomorrow’s leaders: teaching acceptance of all differences will help pave the way toward a society where difference is seen as not a threat but rather a treasure.
Chaux, E., & León, M. (2016). Homophobic Attitudes and Associated Factors Among Adolescents: A Comparison of Six Latin American Countries. Journal of Homosexuality, 63(9), 1253–1276. https://doi.org/10.1080/00918369.2016.1151697
Kosciw, J. G., Zongrone, A. D., & Gay, L. and S. E. N. (GLSEN). (2019). A global school climate crisis: Insights on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender & queer students in Latin America. A report from the GLSEN Research Institute. In Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).
Verhoeven, M., Poorthuis, A.M.G., & Volman, M. The role of school in adolescents’ identity development. A literature review. Educ Psychol Rev 31, 35-63 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-018-9457-3