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Creating Safe School Environments for LGBTQ Students

Side by Side (formerly ROSMY) Executive Director Ted Lewis and youth advocates Mary Jane French, Xander Chapman and Ely Bowles.
Side by Side (formerly ROSMY) Executive Director Ted Lewis and youth advocates Mary Jane French, Xander Chapman and Ely Bowles.

Access to bathrooms in public schools and government facilities continues to capture headlines across the country. But there are many other challenges faced by LGBTQ youth. Catherine Komp has more for Learning Curve.


National surveys show that LGBTQ students face high levels of bullying, harassment and physical assault. This leads to missed school days and lower GPAs as well as anxiety, depression and suicide ideation. Ted Lewis is Executive Director of Side by Side, formerly ROSMY, Richmond’s LGBTQ youth advocacy organization.

Ted Lewis: LGBTQ youth are at significant risk for suicide. Some quick national statistics are LGBTQ youth are four times more likely than their heterosexual and cisgender counterparts to attempt suicide. One of the most recent studies done on transgender youth specifically found that 50% of them will attempt to suicide by their 20th birthday and so to think that one in two transgender young people are looking to take their own life because of the harassment that they face is really startling and so I think that schools are looking for ways to create those safe places and that's what we're seeing is schools doing their best sometimes, but we're talking about a significant culture shift, not just with the school administration but the youth in the schools and that’s going to take some time.

Knowing more about gender identity and expression would have helped Ely Bowles, who grew up in rural Virginia. Bowles was born biologically female, but identifies as male. He says in middle school he started experiencing gender dysphoria - that’s distress when one’s gender identity doesn’t match their biological sex.

Ely Bowles: I had all these feelings, but where do I go with them? Who do I talk to? And what do they mean? A lot of the attitudes around the rural county were very conservatives and they weren’t affirming towards LGBT identities and in fact, they were hostile.

Bowles and another Side by Side advocate Mary Jane French say support from teachers and resources about gender could have helped them through a difficult time.

Bowles: Whether it be an LGBT club in my middle school, or whether it be a teacher acknowledging LGBT identities, saying I’m an advocate, I’m an ally, I support those identities. And not just saying I support it, but also saying, here are a list of resources that I know whether they’re in Richmond that you can get in touch with, here’s some contacts that I know.

French: Being given the terminology to know, okay cool maybe these experiences and feelings that I’m having as a child are not things I have to avoid mentioning to people and are things I can mention and explore what this might mean for me.

Xander Chapman: I knew like Ely that I was different, I just couldn’t put a name on it.

When Xander Chapman transitioned in high school, he says students asked inappropriate questions about anatomy. Teachers dissuaded him from signing up for a boys-only gym class. And he was eventually reported for using the boys restroom. 

Chapman: I think I had the best experience because it wasn’t completely bad but I think that also the struggle I had to deal with from other students and conflicts with teachers has made me into a stronger person. Dealing with bathrooms that was a whole nother issue.

Access to bathrooms has captured a lot of media attention, with the court case of Gavin Grimm and the Gloucester County School Board, the backlash against North Carolina’s HB 2 bill and the lawsuits challenging federal directives to allow students to use facilities that correspond with their gender identity. Kim Gray is Richmond’s 2nd District School Board member. She says their unwritten policy is to accommodate every student.

Kim Gray: When a student approaches the administration for an accommodation, we work with that student in any way possible to find a place where we can all be in agreement and keep that student safe from bullying or any kind of physical harm and also keep the students comfortable and respect their privacy. Right now, for the most part when we have trans students that are availed access to bathrooms that are unisex and they’re provided the accommodations they need within the school building.

Gray says they have heard from families asking about privacy. She’s also concerned about funding for retrofitting facilities. Side by Side’s Ted Lewis says these questions are important.

Lewis: And to be completely honest I don't think we have all the answers yet. I think that there is a misconception of what young people do in bathrooms and I think there's a misconception in particular about transgender youth in bathrooms. The youth that we work with tell us, like most people they want to go to the bathroom, get in and out, go back to class and back to their life as quickly as possible without incident. The majority of research shows that actually transgender youth are more likely to be harassed in bathrooms than cisgender or non-transgender youth. So I don’t have all the answers for the privacy question. I think that there are some big questions we need to answer but I don't think banning transgender youth from using public bathrooms is the best answer to that question.

For Bowles, Chapman and French using public restrooms causes a lot of anxiety. They don’t feel safe and take precautions.

Bowles: Whenever I hear these conversations about transgender people in the bathroom, there’s always conversation about other people’s safety. But whenever I’m in a public space, I don’t go to the bathroom because I feel uncomfortable with my safety.
Chapman: I never go into the bathroom and am at ease. There’s always this lurking fear that somebody is going to find out and I’m going to be harmed.

Advocates and transgender youth say that the bathroom issue also diverts attention from other challenges, like job and housing discrimination, access to healthcare and violence against the trans community - especially transgender women of color. Side by Side is working to educate school systems about these issues and provide the resources needed to create safe and inclusive environments.

Lewis: The training that we've done most recently consists of general terminology, what are the right terms to use when we talk about LGBTQ youth. We talk about risk factors but we also talked about preventive factors in terms of helping LGBTQ youth thrive within our school system, so that’s everything from paying attention to depression and suicide ideation at the risk side. But also the protective factors of a supportive family, programs like gay straight alliances or having inclusive curriculum within the school. So we try to share our knowledge of 25 years of working with LGBTQ youth in Central Virginia around who are they, what do they need and how can schools step in to be an affirmative place where youth can thrive.

Ely Bowles discovered the positive impact of an affirming environment at the small, private high school he attended in Richmond.

Bowles: My peers, although they didn’t know a lot of information about what a transgender identity was, they were very open to learning and listening to me and saying Ely, we don’t know what this means and we don’t really know who you are, but we love you and we think the world of you, so tell us more, let us learn and we want to learn, which was great. It was a learning experience for me but it was also a learning experience for them too, and it was great to grow together.

Bowles, Chapman and French are all in college now, studying areas like psychology, government, social work and cinema. All advocates with Side-by-Side, they say connecting people, education and telling more diverse stories will help shatter myths and stereotypes. And Ted Lewis says all students would benefit from infusing LGBTQ people and their accomplishments into school curriculum.

Ted Lewis: So the ability to talk about for example Langston Hughes, a celebrated American poet often taught in middle school but not talking about the same-sex relationships he had. So, the ability to talk about the fullness of people we study in history, the ability of LGBT young people to see themselves in books, the history, the arts I think is really imperative.

A growing number of resources are available for schools. In addition to Side by Side’s trainings in Central Virginia, a coalition of national non-profits created Schools In Transition: A Guide for Supporting Transgender Students in K-12 Schools. For Learning Curve, I’m Catherine Komp.