Recognizing the Importance of LGBTQ+ Youth Leadership in Schools

About the author : Stephen Dunmore

CEO North America Schools at Sodexo

Published on : 6/13/22
  • As we wrap up another school year it feels only natural to focus on the summer that lies ahead. June signifies much more than the onset of summer, however. June is LGBTQ+ Pride Month, a time when we come together to recognize and celebrate the contributions of the LGBTQ+ community. While there has been hard-won progress made toward full equality for the LGBTQ+ community, there is still a lot of work to do, especially to support our youth. Research from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN)’s 2019 National School Climate Survey shows that 59% of LGBTQ+ middle and high school students feel unsafe at school; 98.8% have heard the word “gay” used in a negative way at school; and 86.3% have experienced harassment or assault at school based on their sexual orientation.

    These shocking statistics are compounded by fresh attacks on LGBTQ+ youth in the form of recent legislation proposed in more than a dozen states across the country that aims to ban and restrict the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity issues in classrooms. The passage of this legislation signals that there is an urgent need for action to create safe and affirming learning environments for students in all our schools. Fortunately, we have the knowledge and tools necessary to accomplish this, all that’s needed is the willingness.

    Effects of a Hostile School Climate

    Successful schools are those that provide positive environments that are responsive to the social, emotional, and physical needs of all their students, especially marginalized and vulnerable student populations. However, these new laws restricting what can be discussed in our schools are literally setting our children up for failure. LGBTQ+ students are an exceptionally vulnerable population frequently subjected to a school climate that is hostile to their identities and that creates unsafe and unsupportive learning conditions. The consequences of a hostile school environment can be poor school adjustment, lower grades, increased absenteeism, higher dropout rates and increased rates of depression and suicide. These are all very real consequences that can have a long-lasting negative impact on LGBTQ+ youth well into adulthood.

    The Power of LGBTQ+ Youth Leadership

    From climate change to immigration, examples of youth leadership in social movements abound and the LGBTQ+ movement is no exception. In schools with an administration that is apathetic or outright hostile to the needs of LGBTQ+ students, the students have taken it upon themselves to bring about change. One prominent example is the formation of Gay Straight Alliances and Gender and Sexualities Alliances (GSA) in thousands of schools in all 50 states. GSAs are clubs that provide a valuable student-led and adult-supported support system for LGBTQ+ youth. They can serve as needed safe spaces that inspire and empower youth to fight against injustices. In addition, they create valuable opportunities for youth leadership as students coordinate campaigns and events that raise awareness and change policies and practices. GLSEN’s national survey even found that LGBTQ+ students who attended a school with a GSA were more likely to feel safe at school, less likely to hear homophobic remarks and felt a greater sense of belonging. Encouraging leadership among LGBTQ+ youth can take many forms, but the results will consistently produce tangible advantages for our children, our schools, and our communities.

    Supporting Our LGBTQ+ Employees and Communities

    Sodexo is proud to support LGBTQ+ employees and communities not only during Pride month, but throughout the entire year. In February 2022, we received our 15th consecutive score of 100% on the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s annual assessment of LGBTQ+ workplace equality, an award of which I am most proud. I also encourage all my employees to participate in our internal resource group People Respecting Individuality, Diversity, and Equality (PRIDE), whose mission is to create a welcoming environment for Sodexo’s LGBTQ+ and ally employees to discuss issues facing the community and celebrate each win that brings us closer to full equality. PRIDE also actively supports non-profit organizations that assist at-risk LGBTQ+ youth. As part of Sodexo’s annual Stop Hunger Servathon event, PRIDE organized a fundraiser to raise $2,022 in 2022 among its members. Within a few weeks, they far exceeded that goal and raised over $4,000 that was donated to the Zebra Coalition, a non-profit organization in Orlando, Florida that provides supportive services to LGBTQ+ youth experiencing homelessness, bullying, and abuse.

    We are all responsible for creating welcoming, safe, and supportive environments at home, at work, and in our schools where LGBTQ+ identities are celebrated, not vilified. While progress may seem slow at times, there is inspiration to be found in some of the unlikeliest places. In cities and towns where the adults with authority have abdicated their responsibility to protect LGBTQ+ students and other marginalized youth in their schools, we are seeing youth step up to correct misconceptions others may have about the LGBTQ+ community and to demand social change in our schools. When it comes to protecting the rights of LGBTQ+ students, our children are showing the adults what real leadership looks like. That’s something worth celebrating this Pride month.