What Schools Can Do to Help Gay/lesbian/bisexual Youth: A Harm Reduction Approach

By van Wormer, Katherine; McKinney, Robin | Adolescence, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview
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What Schools Can Do to Help Gay/lesbian/bisexual Youth: A Harm Reduction Approach

van Wormer, Katherine, McKinney, Robin, Adolescence


The harm reduction model is gaining currency in the addictions field worldwide. The theme of this approach, from the treatment perspective, is to "meet clients where they are " and help them protect themselves from harm. According to Denning (2000), "The primary principle is to accept the fact that people do engage in high-risk behaviors and to commit to helping those people reduce the harm associated with their behavior" (p. 4). The harm reduction approach is relevant for gay and lesbian youth, who are the same as all young people when it comes to many of the risks related to early and secretive sexual activity, accompanied, as it so often is, by alcohol and other drug use. Here, however, problems are compounded by the absence of social support, adult role models, and relevant sex education within a heterosexist school environment.

We do not need extensive research to understand the situation: mistreatment of youth who seem different, mistreatment by other youth who fear, deep down, that they may be different too. Further, those who are taunted the most generally lack the protection of family members, teachers, and religious leaders, the people to whom youth usually turn for support. This paper discusses the social dynamics of school harassment and then describes promising programs that are being developed for the benefit of all children. An argument is made for schools to hire, not fire, openly gay and lesbian teachers to serve as positive role models, and for every school to employ one or more social workers to help create a climate of support and acceptance.


Data, limited though they may be, from various international sources on suicide rates, substance-abuse involvement, and other self-destructive behaviors indicate that the school system in the U.S., Europe, and to a lesser extent Canada is largely a toxic environment for gender-nonconforming girls and boys. The fact that these data are relatively limited reflects the lack of research that has been conducted on the intense discrimination that some children experience. Research on strategies for reducing homophobia (fear of homosexuality) and heterosexism (neglect of, and prejudice against, nonheterosexuals) is also sadly lacking.

When formal instruction about sexuality occurs in school classrooms, homosexuality often is omitted or mentioned in a negative context. By addressing only intercourse prevention, abstinence-only programs present a very heterosexist view of sexuality. The assumption is that there are no gay, lesbian, and bisexual students in the class or that they do not count. Schools, which could do so much, are doing little.

Statistics on verbal, physical, and sexual harassment at school tell the same story worldwide. A survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN, 1999) showed that 90% of students from across the U.S. had heard anti-gay epithets at school, many from teachers. Sixty-nine percent of the gay and lesbian teens reported verbal or physical harassment at school.

In the United Kingdom, attention is being devoted to the fate of schoolchildren who face intimidation (Charles, 2000). In an interview of 190 lesbian and gay young adults who were bullied at school, researchers found that four out of ten bullied about their sexuality attempted suicide or harmed themselves by cutting or burning their skin. Many dropped out of school. More than one in six suffered post-traumatic stress disorder in later life. It was found that the bullying started at age ten, before they had even begun to think of their sexual orientation. It was concluded that the schools were doing little about the problem; some counselors were even making things worse.

In parts of the Middle East, all forms of out-of-wedlock sexuality are suppressed with a vengeance: adulterers and gays are beaten or worse. In a climate of severe oppression of women, lesbians rarely reveal their sexual orientation.

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What Schools Can Do to Help Gay/lesbian/bisexual Youth: A Harm Reduction Approach


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