America’s history with the LGBTQ+ community has been fraught with scandal, misinformation, panic, and general intolerance. However, in the years since Stonewall, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its diagnosis manual and Obergefell v. Hodges prevailed in the Supreme Court. Homophobia has become more invisible to the naked eye, and variances in sexuality have become more mainstream, with each new generation more accepting than the last. Despite all of these advances, the aspect of the American LGBTQ+ debate that remains unclear is the way school systems should poise themselves to handle this recent growth in LGBTQ+ students’ self discovery.
Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with three students from Highlands High School in order to gain more insight into their perspectives and experiences, discussing what Highlands can do to better accommodate LGBTQ+ needs. Since a Gay-Straight Alliance was firmly disavowed by a former principal a few years ago, the topic has been rather tense, which is what ultimately prompted me to explore further. Included in this roundtable discussion were Sam, a sophomore; Maggie, a junior; and Nate, a senior.
At Highlands, many students are bred in an affluent, white, conservative environment. I asked the students in the roundtable to reflect upon ways this environment could impact attitudes towards LGBTQ+ students, and discussion immediately thrived.
Nate: Part of the problem is that Highlands and Fort Thomas in general is a very gated and contained community, and a lot of people are similar in a lot of ways. So when someone enters the community and is very different, I feel like a lot of people don’t know how to handle it.
Sam: There is that very human fear of the unknown.
Nate: When somebody is different, especially when you don’t understand why, you either intentionally or unintentionally alienate them a little bit. It makes me sad, I guess, because I’ve been alienated before too. Not for LGBTQ reasons though.
The conversation shed a lot of light on the inherent ways in which LGBTQ+ issues are often erased when discussing Fort Thomas culture, including the atmosphere at school.
Though it is a common misconception that LGBTQ+ students are treated poorly by their peers, this is not often the case at Highlands. Instead, the majority of pressures on LGBTQ+ students originate from decisions made by the school administration.
Maggie: I just don’t think that there’s any representation… I mean there isn’t necessarily anything against it, but I don’t think there’s anything to represent the community. If we get opportunities for counseling, they’ll talk about depression but they never mention issues about struggling with sexuality.
Maggie is a strident supporter for improved mental health services at Highlands and in schools across the country, specifically services targeting LGBTQ+ youth. She continues her thought, switching the focus onto the lack of LGBTQ+ history taught in school. When I ask her why she thinks it is important to teach LGBTQ+ history in schools, her answer is sharp and steadfast. The other students also join in the discussion.
Maggie: I think that putting in LGBT people throughout history shows that it has existed forever, it’s a normal thing.
Nate: That kind of thing also leads to a lack of empathy, because when you don’t understand somebody, it’s really hard to put yourself in their shoes. So if we were able to see examples throughout history, and if we just continue to educate about people today and in the past and how they’ve been treated, I think that would lead to a much better situation in general.
Sam: Historical education about LGBTQ issues relieves the fear of the unknown. And a lot of people think transgenderism wasn’t a thing before a hundred years ago, but we are rarely educated about multi-spirit cultures and Native American cultures, or Egypt or India or other ancient civilizations.
Once we started discussing the ways education about LGBTQ+ history improves understanding and empathy, it got me thinking about other aspects of LGBTQ+ education: specifically, sexual health.
Julianna: How well do you feel LGBTQ+ issues are addressed in health classes here at Highlands?
Maggie: I remember the abstinence course that we were required to take in middle school. They did not mention homosexuality at all.
Julianna: What topics would you like to see discussed further in a health class?
Sam: I think a discussion of safe dating, not just for LGBTQ people, but in general, would be really helpful. It does especially affect that community because the murder rate of transgender individuals is really painfully high, especially for transgender people of color.
Maggie: I also feel like the issue of protected sex is already limited when it comes to straight couples, but when we get to LGBT couples there is really nothing out there. Like I said before, it’s really just not being put out there because it might make some people uncomfortable. You really just need to put it out there and normalize it.
Nate: They really need to get rid of that fear, because if you’re afraid of making people uncomfortable, then you’re taking the risk of not ever being able to change their ideologies and mindsets. In school, they don’t really tell us enough about any of that stuff. There may be people who are questioning in a class, and maybe if they were educated, they could make that change they’ve been wanting to make.
Maggie: You really just need to put it out there and normalize it.
Sam: Talking about it, especially in a health class, would be something that is easy to implement and also just a good part of the solution. We already spend days in a health class talking about things that may not be specifically applicable to us. So even if you’re straight and LGBT is part of the discussion, I don’t think that is a problem at all.
The discussion progressed steadily, diving deeper into the intricacies of homophobia, what it means to truly discriminate, and the role religious ideologies play in our subconscious treatment of others.
Eventually, the topic of LGBTQ+ suicides and increased rates of depression led to a conversation about the intersection of different political issues, such as gun violence. The students had a lot to say. Transitioning back to the conversation about Highlands, I asked a new question.
Julianna: In your opinion, is this school a safe, friendly environment for LGBT+ youth? And if not, what can we do to change that?
Nate: If you mean safe as in danger, I personally don’t think anyone here is in imminent danger as far as I know. But whether they feel comfortable and accepted is a completely different thing. I can almost guarantee if somebody is afraid of letting people know, I would assume they would definitely start to feel a little lonely, a little trapped, and I don’t think that’s a very safe space.
Sam: I guess it sort of depends on what your situation is. It may just be the friends that I hang out with, but I don’t feel threatened or like the environment is hostile towards me. I just feel like myself.
Maggie: I mean. I hear slurs walking down the hallways that I’m not comfortable with. I know there are people that aren’t going to be accepting and who are going to pick on people about it, but I do feel like the population that has become accepting is more likely to help than they have been before. Here at Highlands, at least.
Samuel tells his own story about being personally addressed at a church festival over the summer, where he was asked by a student he had never met before whether or not he was gay.
When he asked why they wanted to know, they said they were looking for a gay friend.
Sam: Problematic in and of itself. It makes you feel sort of tokenized? And I honestly couldn’t tell if it was sarcastic or well-intentioned. Whether it’s well-intentioned or not, it’s still a problem. Finding the line between tokenization and acceptance can be really hard.
Since it was the problem that had first piqued my interest in this topic, specifically, I asked the students in the roundtable their opinions about the school’s policy condemning Gay-Straight Alliances as not being educational enough, which was most recently challenged three years ago.
Maggie: I definitely think if we tried again, it’s more likely that our new principal would be more accepting. I don’t see how a GSA club is not educational; we’re learning about our history, about each other. We’re learning about ourselves. That’s just as important as learning about anything else.
Nate: Let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment and say it’s not educational enough (which it definitely is). Why does it have to be educational at all? My friend and I started a card game club, after all. That isn’t exactly educational, it’s just something we enjoy. E-Sports Club is another great example of that.
Sam: You bring things from your home life into your work, into your school, even if you’re not intending to. Really, everyone is biased in some way or another. I think this is part of that being reflected.
To finish out the conversation, I decided to ask the students to discuss their final thoughts on the subject, and what Highlands High School could work to do better. They had a very diverse variety of opinions, insights, and ideas to share.
Sam: If we can think about these issues, like the GSA problem, calmly, using rationale, rhetoric, and a convincing case, I think that would probably be the best way to make progress. The establishment of a GSA would help people go from standing out to being outstanding.
Maggie: The issue needs to continue being discussed. A safe space, like a GSA, would be a great start. It’s really important that we normalize the issue. I keep emphasizing how important it is to make being gay a normal thing. If guidance, when they go up on stage to make their presentations about depression and suicide, mentioned homosexuality and the higher suicide and depression rates among those groups, it would help the people out there struggling with those things know that there are people to help them. There are people just like them; they are not alone.
Nate: I think that having advisory implemented here at Highlands, an open space for students to feel comfortable and safe to be themselves, is really important. No matter how genuine the move was, it was a step forward. Highlands now is certainly a lot more understanding than it was twenty years ago. We do have a ways to go, but I’m proud of a lot of the things the school has done and I hope they continue making changes like that for the benefit of everyone else.
The roundtable lasted only sixty minutes, but the scope of discussion expanded further than I ever anticipated. There are so many LGBTQ+ issues that directly impact students, many that we rarely even consider. Hearing from students that actually deal with these realities on a day-to-day basis really put the issue into perspective. Although, as discussed, Highlands High School has tried its best to accommodate student mental health problems on some level, overall it is evident that more accommodations and considerations for LGBTQ+ youth at school would make a world of difference — not only for the students affected, but also for the school climate and atmosphere in the long run.