This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of blogs showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. In celebration of PRIDE month, two IES training fellows reflect on the state and future of education research for LGBTQ+ students and those who support them. Erin Gill is a predoctoral fellow in the University of Wisconsin–Madison Interdisciplinary Training Program for Predoctoral Research in the Education Sciences where she is studying the policies and practices that influence LGBTQ+ students K-12 school experiences and well-being. Laura Bellows completed her PhD in public policy at Duke University and is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the University of Virginia Education Science (VEST) Interdisciplinary Post-Doctoral Training Program. In the fall, she will join the RAND Corporation.
What excites you about education research relevant to LGBTQ+ communities?
Erin Gill (EG): There has never been a more critical moment to focus on the needs of LGBTQ+ youth, and I am excited by education research that aids educators to counter anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments and helps them identify effective practices to support the needs of LGBTQ+ youth.
Our LGBTQ+ students need researchers, policymakers, and educators to understand their lives and experiences and advocate for meaningful change in K-12 schools because they deserve schools free of bullying and harassment where they can see themselves reflected in the lessons and curricula, express themselves and their identities, access facilities, participate in school activities and traditions, and be happy and healthy. Our teachers also need support. Although many educators seem eager to advocate for LGBTQ+ students and their needs, they can’t do so if they fear losing their jobs or are pushed out of schools. Educators, whose jobs may be on the line, need research that backs their LGBTQ+-inclusive practices (for example, inclusive pronoun use, integrating LGBTQ+ voices in lessons, and facilitating discussions about identity). Research can help educators identify effective practices and push back against individuals seeking to restrict LGBTQ+ students’ rights in schools.
Laura Bellows (LB): Conversations on LGBTQ+ issues have shifted dramatically since I first came out in 2003. Today, more youth are coming out at younger ages, and many youth and young adults have rejected binary systems of sexual orientation and gender entirely. However, experiences vary dramatically across the country. In some communities, students are learning about LGBTQ+ communities in the classroom—something I never would have thought possible 20 years ago as a high school student in Tulsa, Oklahoma. At the same time, some states are actively pursuing and passing policies meant to marginalize LGBTQ+ students. In my view, this new context should guide future directions in education research. First, to understand the needs of LGBTQ+ students, researchers need to understand this changing population. Second, we need to understand the impacts of these negative policies on well-being. And third, we need to understand how schools can help support LGBTQ+ students, parents, and school personnel, particularly in states with anti-LGBTQ+ laws.
What types of education research do you think would benefit LGBTQ+ students and communities?
EG: Research on how location and context affect LGBTQ+ students and educator-allies experiences would help schools identify how best to support their LGBTQ+ students.
As a former rural educator, I felt that LGBTQ+-inclusive policies and practices that work in urban schools may not work for rural LGBTQ+ youth. For example, Gender and Sexuality Alliances (GSAs) are often safe spaces for urban LGBTQ+ youth, but rural LGBTQ+ youth may not be as safe because they may lack anonymity due to the small and tight-knit nature of rural communities. LGBTQ+ students experience vastly different school environments. Some schools protect them from discrimination and harassment, openly talk about gender and sexuality in the classroom, and provide gender-inclusive facilities. At other schools, the students face bullying, never have an opportunity to discuss or express their gender or sexuality, and don’t have access to gender-affirming facilities. We need research on the state, community, and school context that affect LGBTQ+ student experiences and outcomes of LGBTQ+-inclusive practices.
What might be a barrier to conducting education research relevant to LGBTQ+ students and communities?
LEB: One major barrier facing researchers interested in education research and LGBTQ+ communities is a lack of data.
District and state longitudinal data systems enable K-12 education researchers to study a variety of questions about teachers, other school personnel, and students. Because these systems capture the entire population of students and school personnel, they lend themselves well to examining smaller populations. Yet data systems contain almost no information related to LGBTQ+ status. However, we must balance this concern with real concerns about disclosing LGBTQ+ status. LGBTQ+ teachers may be nervous about disclosing in official data systems, given past initiatives to ban LGBTQ+ individuals from teaching or portray LGBTQ+ teachers as predatory. LGBTQ+ students may also feel uncomfortable identifying as LGBTQ+ in their official records. At the same time, students are still exploring and discovering their identities. Students must be able to update their answers to questions around sexual orientation and gender identity in official systems with some frequency if such data are collected.
Despite these concerns, I am hopeful there is a path forward for creating administrative data systems that can both illuminate the dynamic experiences of LGBTQ+ populations in schools and also protect their confidentiality.
Produced by Meredith Larson (Meredith.Larson@ed.gov), a program officer for IES Postdoctoral Training grants.