8. Sexual and Gender Identity Development and School Climate: What do Professional Educators Need to Know? (1/3) – Best Practices for Education Professionals

Chapter 8
Sexual and Gender Identity Development and
School Climate: What do Professional Educators
Need to Know?
Noah S. Jawitz*, Matthew M. Wagar*, and Beverly A. Burnell
School climate and gender related issues that arise in middle and high school settings
are discussed and analyzed, with specific focus on the developmental processes and
challenges of youth who identify as gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, or transgender (GLBT),
or who are otherwise perceived as gender non-conforming. The role of the social en-
vironment of the school in these developmental processes, and the responsibilities of
education professionals, are described. Issues are addressed relating to school climate,
heterosexism, and bullying and harassment of students who identify or who are identi-
fied by others as GLBT or gender nonconforming. Social justice and advocacy strate-
gies for professional educators are presented as best practices for creating safe schools
for all students.
The middle and high school years are laden with exciting and bewildering challenges
and transitions. During this crucial period of development each young person is es-
sentially “preparing” for adulthood. Adolescents are forming and becoming aware of
their identities, thinking about college and other post-high school options, and de-
veloping a variety of relationships, all while decoding the messages from family and
society about “how to be” and “who to be.” All too often, however, as students are
journeying along their developmental pathways they find themselves the targets of
harmful behaviors from others because of real or perceived differences between them-
selves and those others. Differences with regard to age, ability, race, ethnicity, religion,
and economic or geographic circumstances are all facets of identity for which young
people have been targeted, stigmatized, and harmed (Dinkes, Kemp, & Baum, 2009).
An overwhelming proportion of harmful behaviors, however, including harassment,
bullying, and assault, takes place in schools and targets students because of actual or
perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression that is perceived as
gender nonconforming (Harris Interactive and the Gay Lesbian and Straight Educa-
tion Network [GLSEN], 2005; Kosciw, Greytak, Diaz, & Bartkiewicz, 2010; Swearer,
Turner, Givens, & Pollack, 2008).
No student should have to contend with fending off harmful behaviors within
the school environment. However, when a student is a target of harmful behaviors,
104 Best Practices for Education Professionals
adult education professionals need to act; the student should be protected, support-
ed, and feel condent that some sort of corrective action will take place toward the
perpetrator(s) (Morillas & Gibbons, 2010). Sadly, the harsh reality is that bullying and
harassment are prevalent in each and every school and often nothing is done, leaving
targeted students with feelings of insecurity, fear, and/or isolation, which often leads to
depression, low self-esteem, absenteeism, dropping out, and, most tragically, suicide
(DePaul, Walsh, & Dam, 2009; Kosciw et al., 2010; Pollock, 2006). It is vital that all
education professionals learn and implement a variety of whole-school intervention
plans, targeted group interventions, and individual interventions to address issues of
harassment and bullying that is perpetrated because of heterosexism and homophobia,
and also provide support for LGBT students at multiple levels of intervention (DePaul,
Walsh, & Dam, 2009).
A vast amount of relevant scholarship exists about each of the focus areas of this
chapter, including school climate, sexual and gender identity development, bullying
towards sexual minority students, and prevention/intervention/support strategies and
techniques. Throughout this chapter, we summarize ndings from the literature about
each of these topics, and present the alarming statistics regarding school climate and
safety for students who identify as or who are perceived to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or
transgendered (GLBT). A nal substantial focus of the chapter addresses strategies for
education professionals to pro-actively prevent bullying, to support GLBT students,
and to create safer school environments in which all students can pursue healthy aca-
demic, vocational, social, and personal development.
Gender is an aspect of culture characterized by deeply-held beliefs, guidelines, and
unwritten rules which are expected to be followed by all. The adolescent years are
crucial to sexual and gender identity development. During this time, adolescents of all
genders are faced with increasing pressures from a variety of sources such as parents,
peers, educators, and the media to conform to socially acceptable gender roles (Priess,
Lindberg, & Hyde, 2009). Gender identity and sexual identity are hidden aspects of
individual development that occur within this context of culturally sanctioned expec-
tations for “appropriate” gender-specific behaviors. “In our society, heterosexuality is
assumed from birth. It is when adolescents show signs of being different [from] the
norm that sexual identity becomes a visible aspect of development” (Striepe & Tolman,
2003, p. 523). Gender socialization begins early, but the years which are crucial in
sexual and gender identity development are the adolescent years (Carroll, 2010; Katch
& Katch, 2010; Priess et al., 2009).
Gender identity “commonly refers to a person’s subjective sense of identity as
either male or female;” whereas “… gender expression [refers to] ways in which we
outwardly display or express our inner sense of gender” (Carroll, 2010, p. 5). Girls ex-
perience pressure to conform to cultural ideals of beauty, especially to be thin (Wisdom,
Ress, Riley, & Weis, 2007). Boys face different but equally important pressures, such
as to act “macho” or “tough” and deny any feelings or emotions (Wisdom et al., 2007).
Gender and sexual minority adolescents experience many of the same struggles faced
Sexual and Gender Identity Development and School Climate 105
by heterosexual boys and girls, intensied by specic challenges in development and
acceptance of non-conforming sexual and/or gender identity.
Heterosexism is “the assumption that the only healthy and legitimate type of sex-
ual and affectionate relationship is heterosexual” (Carroll, 2010, p. 55). Cultural at-
titudes of homophobia and heterosexism are directly linked to bullying in our schools.
Scholars argue that anti-gay language serves certain functions within schools. Use of
anti-gay language has been identied as aiding students in gaining approval to t in
with certain social groups, afrming perceptions of personal worth by distinguishing a
desirable group (heterosexual) from an undesirable one (homosexual), and lastly, may
serve as a defensive mechanism of sorts for having homoerotic thoughts, essentially
by attacking a part of self that society says is unacceptable (Varjas, Dew, Marshall,
Graybill, Singh, Meyers, & Birckbichler, 2008).
Schools, and the peer groups within them, are highly inuential social contexts in
which children learn about masculinity, femininity, and sexuality. A direct relation-
ship exists between gender and sexualized forms of violence and bullying within the
educational environment, a relationship based in the cultural belief that heterosexuals
are in some way superior to those who identify as gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender,
or who otherwise do not conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity.
Often, youth feel the need to maintain this paradigm; males will be dominant, strong,
and masculine, while females are expected to be submissive and feminine (Striepe &
Tolman, 2003). Students who do not mirror the dominant gender and sexual stereo-
types are more likely to be targets of bullying, assault, humiliation, and social exclu-
sion (Pollock, 2006). Tharinger (2008) contends that:
Until we take more responsibility for being part of systems that implicitly and ex-
plicitly participate in and benefit from the dominant masculine hegemony, we will
at best be able to aid youth ‘manage their visibility’ of homosexuality or gender
nonconformity to help keep themselves safe … Until that time, we will not be able
to work effectively toward changing environments that are built on masculine privi-
lege and hegemony and that, in turn, serve to oppress gender nonconforming boys,
as well as many girls and women (and often exact a high cost from dominant mas-
culine boys as well). (p. 226)
Bullying, including use of anti-masculine comments, such as being called gay,
clearly has a negative effect on the overall development and psychosocial functioning
of young men in our society. The message that adolescent males appear to be receiving
is that being perceived as gay means that they are somehow dysfunctional or defective.
The result is a cruel cycle of bullying, harassment, and teasing, leaving young men
stuck in a gender straitjacket. As men learn that their value is placed on their mascu-
linity, which is often portrayed through power and violence, their gender identity and
sexuality in turn reects this. Kokopelia and Lakey (2004) posit that “homophobia
is the measure of masculinity” (p. 497). In essence, feelings, tendencies, and actions
expressed by a male, that are not associated with being traditionally masculine, will
ultimately lead to a perception that he is less manly, ultimately diminishing him
(Kokopelia & Lackey, 2004). As boys and girls start searching for their sexual identi-
ties, they face intense pressure to conform to gender stereotypes.
106 Best Practices for Education Professionals
One of the many struggles with which gender minority adolescents must cope is de-
pression. As adolescent boys and girls face increased pressures to conform to stereo-
typical gender roles, they will, in turn, develop different coping attitudes and behaviors
(Priess et al., 2009). Due to the high rates of depression among adolescents, multiple
studies have been undertaken to identify the different reasons why depression occurs.
Media images and peer pressure play a significant role in the expectation for girls to
be thin (Wisdom et al., 2007). Once girls enter puberty, they experience an increase
in sexual behaviors which puts them at high risk for being the targets of violence and
vulnerable to depression stemming from either an increase in emotionality or worry
about body image which is learned from the media (Wisdom et al., 2007).
It has become more acceptable for girls to take on masculine behaviors such as
those exhibited while playing sports or in leadership roles, but it is discouraged for
boys to take on feminine traits such as gentleness or concern. In a study of school-age
youth in grades ve and nine, Priess, Lindberg, and Hyde (2009) sought to determine if
there was a relationship between the occurrences of depression in boys and girls, with
respect to stereotypical indicators of masculinity and femininity. These age groups
were chosen because they are transition periods within adolescence during which one
could expect to see intensication in gender-role identity (Priess et al., 2009). These
researchers found that girls between the ages of 11 and 15 showed an increase in de-
pressive symptoms and at 15 years old endorsed a high level of depressive symptoms
when faced with the pressure of tting into feminine gender roles (Priess et al., 2009).
Girls, and boys, who increased in masculinity showed fewer depressive symptoms
overall, and developed fewer depressive symptoms during the period from ages 11
to 15. These authors contend that it is not that boys are less likely to face depressive
symptoms during adolescence, but that, in order to be considered masculine, boys are
discouraged from expressing or discussing such symptoms.
It is more difcult to study levels of depression within boys, because boys rarely
admit when they are depressed. Media and peer pressure support the notion that boys
are expected to not feel and, specically, to deny any depressive feelings. Boys are
more likely to express feelings of anger and aggression as a way to show emotions.
When boys enter puberty and are in the process of developing their sexual identities,
they acknowledge feelings, but feel pressure to hide them because of a concern that
their masculinity would be questioned (Wisdom et al., 2007). This behavior reects
the idea that “U.S. society approves girls’ expression of feelings and approves boys’
denial or concealment of feelings” (Wisdom et al., 2007, p. 156).
One issue which is more prevalent in adolescent girls than boys is anorexia.
Anorexia is becoming more common in adolescent girls as a way to feel thin, sexu-
ally attractive, and in control. Many girls fear that as they enter puberty, they will
start to develop breasts and curvy hips and lose their rm, straight, latency-age bodies
(Magagna & Goldsmith, 2009). Anorexia can become addictive. In a study presented
by Magagna and Goldsmith (2009), one girl states,
I don’t want to die, but I want to starve. I don’t want to eat or drink except to have
enough energy to live. I like to hear my stomach rumbling. I like the pain of starva-
tion. I enjoy it. I feel strong when I am in control. When I lose control I feel weak.
(p. 66)
This girl explains the purpose of her anorexia and her reasons to continue doing
it. A young girl wants to feel sexually attractive to her peers. She also has a need to
feel attractive to her father and be pleased by her attractiveness, both physically and
emotionally, while not feeling her father is being seductive toward her (Magagna &
Goldsmith, 2009). While trying to gure out their sexual identities and desires, girls
face contradictory expectations of being thin and feeling “sexy” while developing into
An issue which is more common among adolescent boys than girls is gender role
conict. Boys feel that in order to have their sexual identities accepted, they must live
up to the gender role expectations of males. Four components of male gender roles
have been identied: Success, Power, and Competition (SPC), Restrictive Emotional-
ity (RE), Restrictive Affectionate Behavior Between Men (RABBM), and Conict
Between Work and Family Relations (CBWFR) (Galligan, Barnett, Brennan, & Israel,
2010). Culturally sanctioned male gender roles eliminate anything which is considered
effeminate or “gay.” As adolescent boys try to t into the expected gender roles of
heterosexual men, they may exhibit low self-esteem, low intimacy, anxiety, relation-
ship dissatisfaction, or sexual aggression towards women (Galligan et al., 2010). It is
important that educators understand the prevalence of gender role conict for adoles-
cent males and how this conict can inuence a male’s decision to disclose his true
sexual identity and personality. A male individual who struggles with gender identity
development will often violate the socially accepted male role, especially if he be-
comes aware that despite being born biologically male, he feels he is a female (Wester,
McDonough, White, Vogel, & Taylor, 2010).
During the adolescent years, GLBTLGBT teens, in the course of their “coming-out”
processes, will cross boundaries that constitute socially acceptable masculinity or
femininity (Striepe & Tolman, 2003). Adolescents often feel pressured to follow a
heterosexual script, which contains the socially acceptable elements of gender, as a
way to remain safe among peers. Violating the heterosexual script can have negative
effects, such as rejection, discrimination, and/or violence, on adolescents (Striepe &
Tolman, 2003). For teens who realize they are different with regard to their sexual
and/or gender identity, coming out and accepting one’s sexual identity can be both an
internal and external struggle.
Coming to the realization of same-sex attractions can bring on mixed feelings
for an individual, and is a struggle for many adolescent males and females. Males
and females develop awareness of their sexuality at different ages and in different
ways. Males will often develop same-sex attractions and self-label at younger ages,
based on sexual context, such as feelings aroused by another boy in the locker room
(Savin-Williams & Diamond, 2000). Females tend to develop same-sex attraction and
Sexual and Gender Identity Development and School Climate 107