A few dozen students sat at long cafeteria tables, each with a blank paper figure in front of them. They would spend the next hour decorating the figures in a way that represents their identities.
“The word of the day is ‘identity,’” art teacher Lauren Rowe said, giving directions to the West Mifflin Area High School students.
The activity was part of a November joint meeting with the school’s gay-straight alliance [GSA] and the Stand Together Team mental health club. After the meeting, the figures were displayed in the hallways. To protect students’ identities, there were no names attached to them. “We want our school to see how we proudly identify ourselves,” said Rowe, who also serves as the Stand Together Team faculty sponsor.
At West Mifflin Area High School, the GSA and Stand Together Team have teamed up to more actively promote mental wellness. Freshman Sam Price, 14, who uses they/them pronouns, described feeling less anxiety and making more friends since joining the GSA. For them, the partnership between the two clubs is valuable. “We get bullied the most for who we are,” Price said of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer [LGBTQ] students. “Stand Together helps with that.”
LGBTQ youth are at a much higher risk for depression and suicide than their peers. A hostile school environment can have serious effects on LGBTQ students’ mental health and ability to learn, according to Jason Landau Goodman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Youth Congress, a statewide LGBTQ youth organization. In 2019, The Trevor Project, a national LGBTQ youth mental health advocacy organization, surveyed more than 34,000 LGBTQ youth and found 39% of the surveyed considered attempting suicide in the past 12 months.
A supportive school climate can improve the mental health of LGBTQ students. Two main ways schools can foster an inclusive school environment for LGBTQ students are by creating GSAs and by adopting LGBTQ-focused policies. Of the 43 school districts in Allegheny County, 24 said they have active GSAs or similar clubs (three districts did not respond to several PublicSource calls or emails).
Most districts do not include gender identity or gender expression in their nondiscrimination policies. Just two — Pittsburgh Public Schools and Wilkinsburg Borough School District — have separate, comprehensive transgender policies.
Avery Mitchell, 19, graduated from Pittsburgh’s Brashear High School in June 2019. In 2016, the district adopted one of the first gender-inclusive policies in the region. She described it as “‘transformative” for her mental health.
“Seeing that not only my school and the entirety of the district was so willing to affirm myself and students like me was a huge factor in preventing suicide for me,” said Mitchell, who is transgender. “I don’t know that I would have made it through high school had that not been in place.”
Allegheny County and Pittsburgh specifically are considered relatively accepting places for LGBTQ people, by some measures. Since 2009, the county has had a nondiscrimination policy protecting gender expression, gender identity and sexual orientation, protections that don’t exist statewide. Pittsburgh received a score of 100 out of 100 on the 2019 Municipal Equality Index by the Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBTQ advocacy organization.
But some students and advocates say more needs to be done to support LGBTQ youth. “The No. 1 source of mental health problems for LGBT youth is stigma and discrimination,” said Dr. Gerald Montano, medical director of the Gender & Sexual Development Program at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. Counseling can help LGBTQ students who are struggling with their mental health, Montano said, “but at the same time, the sources of stress are part of a system that do not value LGBT youth.”
Changing school climate through policy
One way school districts can support their LGBTQ students is by including sexual orientation and gender identity and/or expression in their general nondiscrimination policies. To further outline the rights of their transgender, non-binary and gender non-conforming students, districts can also adopt separate transgender or gender-inclusive policies. Such policies protect students whose gender identity does not match their sex assigned at birth, whose gender identity falls outside the categories of man or woman or whose gender expression is different from conventional expectations of masculinity and femininity.
According to the Pennsylvania Youth Congress, all but one of the 43 school districts in Allegheny County have nondiscrimination policies that include sexual orientation. Quaker Valley School District does not have a nondiscrimination policy. In response to being contacted by a PublicSource reporter, a district spokesperson said the school board will be considering adopting a nondiscrimination policy in an upcoming school board meeting. Only eight districts have nondiscrimination policies that include gender identity or gender expression. Pine-Richland School District included gender identity in its policy after being sued for discriminating against its transgender students.
Montano said having a separate transgender policy is ideal. It can outline specifics, like bathroom protocol and incorporating preferred names and pronouns into class rosters. Such policies have “a huge impact on how trans people feel safe at school,” he said.
Ciora Thomas, founder and executive director of local transgender resource and advocacy organization SisTers PGH, attested to the importance of separate transgender policies. “Just being able to talk about it and be open about it is important,” Thomas said. “There’s also a lot of teachers with bias toward the community. So enforcing those type of policies would protect students from those who may be transphobic or homophobic.”
Annemarie K. Harr is an attorney at Weiss Burkardt Kramer LLC. She has worked with area school districts, including Pittsburgh and Upper St. Clair, to make their policies more LGBTQ-inclusive. That can look different for each district: If the community is not supportive of a transgender policy, she said including gender identity and expression in the nondiscrimination policy may make more sense. “It really is about knowing your school community,” Harr said. ”Legally, they do have similar effects.”
Harr stressed the importance of training school staff on policy implementation. If that does not happen, it can lead to mishandling cases of harassment and inconsistent approaches from staff. Policies “only mean something when the people implementing them know what they mean,” she said.
According to Mitchell, LGBTQ-inclusive policies are valuable because they help educate students and staff about the issues LGBTQ students face. “The more the policy was talked about, the more kids were willing to open their minds,” she said.
Several organizations have model transgender and gender-inclusive policies, including the Pennsylvania Youth Congress and GLSEN and the National Center for Transgender Equality. In 2015, the ACLU teamed up with Gender Spectrum and several other national organizations to create a guide for supporting transgender students.
Several advocates and educators voiced the need to make curricula more LGBTQ-inclusive. Four states — California, Colorado, New Jersey and, most recently, Illinois — require schools to teach LGBTQ history. GLSEN is a national nonprofit focused on LGBTQ inclusion in education. According to its 2017 school climate survey, LGBTQ students at schools with an LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum performed better in school and were less likely to miss school because they felt unsafe.
Susan Fink is a licensed professional counselor and the former GSA adviser at Fox Chapel Area High School. She said heteronormative curriculum can harm students, especially if they are still discovering their identities.
“We’re not helping students work on their identity. We just pretend that everyone who ever did anything in history, that they’re all straight. And that’s not true,” she said. “One student said to me, ‘Mrs. Fink, I learned about gay sex from porn.’” The student felt that he should have had LGBTQ-inclusive sexual education in school. “He was right,” Fink said.
GSA adviser Devin Browne said Brashear plans to offer LGBTQ-specific mental health services in the near future. The school intends to partner with Persad Center, a local LGBTQ mental health service provider. Many Persad Center counselors are themselves members of the LGBTQ community, interim Executive Director Carlos Torres said.
GSAs go a long way
Goodman described GSAs as “safe havens” for students who are struggling with their identities. The number of schools that have them is growing locally and nationally.
According to GLSEN’s 2017 survey, LGBTQ youth at schools with GSAs were less likely to hear homophobic remarks, less likely to be victimized for their gender identity or expression and more likely to feel a sense of belonging in the school community.
“Being harassed for most of your life makes you feel excluded,” said A.G. Miles-Flurry, 14, a freshman at West Mifflin and GSA member. The GSA "make[s] you feel like you’re family.”
GSAs can also function as drivers of school-wide LGBTQ education and acceptance. Ten years ago, Brashear High School’s GSA began giving presentations on LGBTQ inclusion to freshman classes. Now, it's a permanent part of the school’s curriculum. According to Browne, the presentation, along with mandatory LGBTQ training for teachers, has made “a huge difference” in the school climate. Brashear’s student-led GSA stands for “gender-sexuality alliance.”
Shianne Steck, 16, a junior at Brashear, said a friend stood up for her when another student was being homophobic. “That wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t been exposed to the GSA and to our presentation,” she said.
Still, many LGBTQ students have negative school experiences. According to GLSEN, LGBTQ students in rural schools face more hostile school climates than students in urban and suburban schools.
“I used to think the city was bad, until I went into the outskirts of Allegheny County,” Thomas of SisTers PGH said. “There are kids and teenagers who won’t even transition, out of [fear of] retaliation of actual death.”
West Mifflin Area High School student Simon Kade Smith, 17, knows what it’s like to not be accepted at school. He moved to the district from West Virginia, where he says the harassment he experienced — including death threats and having rocks thrown at him — kept him from going to school. He sees West Mifflin as an improvement. Many people there “are proudly gay,” he said.
According to Thomas, race can also be a factor in how LGBTQ youth are treated. “Black and Brown TLGBQ are still experiencing horrible things in school and at home, so it just depends on who you are in Pittsburgh within the spectrum,” she said. Thomas uses TLGBQ as a way to differentiate transgender, which relates to gender, from sexual orientations. According to her, Black and Brown LGBTQ people in Pittsburgh have a harder time securing employment, housing and education, and can feel less safe in general. “We have to understand that the white privilege that we speak of doesn’t stop at being TLGBQ. If you are a white TLGBQ person, you still have that white privilege.”
Despite having a GSA, several students in West Mifflin’s group said they still experienced bullying. In Price’s experience, this year has been particularly bad. Some students, they said, purposely misgender and deadname other students, meaning classmates refer to a transgender person by the name they used before transitioning. Other students are harassed for their sexual orientation. Price wished that teachers were quicker to step in and help, and that the school was more serious about punishing harassers. “That kid could eventually kill themselves because they are gay, or because they’re transgender,” they said.
Alisa Welsh, GSA faculty sponsor in West Mifflin stressed the importance of having a GSA, particularly when parents aren’t accepting of their LGBTQ child’s identity. “A lot of these kids, this is all they have,” Welsh said.
Juliette Rihl is a reporter for PublicSource. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was fact-checked by Sierra Smith.
The Staunton Farm Foundation has provided funding to PublicSource to cover issues related to mental and behavioral health.
Where do Allegheny County school districts stand on LGBTQ inclusion?
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Yes*= has a diversity club that is open to LGBTQ students
Yes**= Pittsburgh Obama 6-12 does not have an active GSA. Pittsburgh Milliones 6-12 is unknown. All other Pittsburgh high schools have an active GSA.