Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Questioning People and Issues in Urban Education

Mollie V Blackburn and Lance T. McCready

In an effort to explore lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning (LGBTQQ) people and issues in education, we begin by articulating a conceptual framework that delineates our understanding of pertinent dynamics and offer a historical overview of LGBTQQ people and issues in urban education. We then discuss the current urban education landscape, with a particular focus on prominent themes in the literature: homophobia, academic performance, and activism. We conclude with a consideration of directions for future work; this conclusion revisits concerns raised in our conceptual framework.

Conceptual Framework

LGBTQQ people and issues in urban education tend to be undertheorized with respect to the social, cultural, economic, and political dynamics that create and maintain the boundaries of urban space, which includes youth-serving institutions in the city, including but not limited to schools. Therefore, we first provide a conceptual framework for the chapter that takes into account the ways politics of resource distribution, immigration, cultural pluralism and multiculturalism, segregation and gentrification, to name a few dynamics, shape urban space and therefore are related to LGBTQQ people and issues in urban education. We argue that using a conceptual framework intended to problematize and theorize urban space opens up new possibilities for understanding the complexity of LGBTQQ people served by, and issues taken up in, schools and organizations that serve LGBTQQ youth.

Perhaps the best way to start a consideration of LGBTQQ people and issues in urban education is to consider the term urban itself. Urban has come to connote many different things, of course, but at its most essential level, it denotes meaning about physical and imaginary space. Physically, cities are defined by spatial relationships. Population density, the geographic arrangement of districts with different functional activities, and residential status hierarchies are just a few of the more obvious socio-spatial dimensions of city life (Rury & Mirel, 1997). Because schools are so often defined by their immediate social environment, the social geography of cities and their larger metropolitan regions exerts a telling effect on urban education. The most well-resourced schools, for example, are often located in the most affluent neighborhoods. Underperforming schools tend to be located in poor or low-income communities (Kozol, 1992; Lipman, 2008, 2005). Thus the first step in developing a framework for LGBTQQ people and issues in urban education is to consider the social, political, economic forces that shape cities themselves. One could ask the following: What are the spatial relationships that have shaped the existing conceptions of LGBTQQ people and issues in urban education? What are the factors shaping the larger social and political environment of lives of LGBTQQ people in the city? What are the differences between LGBTQQ people and issues in urban education in different cities noted by observers over the years? What are the forces of historical change that have affected LGBTQQ youth programs in urban schools, and how has the research community thought about them, if at all?

It seems many of the crises affecting LGBTQQ people and issues in urban education for the past several decades parallel a larger set of developments in many dimensions of urban life. For example, large census metropolitan areas in North America are increasingly characterized by growing ethnic and racial diversity and coupled with increasing income polarization (Abu-Lughod, 1999; Badcock, 1997; Marcuse & van Kempen, 2000; Wilkinson, 2010). This is evident in both gay-straight alliances (GSAs) and alternative schools for LGBTQQ youth, both of which we discuss later in this chapter. Take, for example, the GSA that McCready (2010) studied. He found that a racially diverse secondary school in Northern California boasted a GSA that unintentionally excluded students of color. He found that the race-class housing dynamics in the surrounding neighborhood and community paralleled achievement and engagement patterns in the school, including extracurricular activities, and, even more specifically, the GSA. That is to say, students who were more privileged in terms of race and class were more likely to take advantage of the GSA, making it a less viable resource for poor and working-class students of color. This is just one example of how the challenges facing LGBTQQ people in urban education are related to polarizing forces of race and class in cities themselves.

The work of researchers, educators, and policy makers, locally and nationally, in both metropolitan and rural locales is related to LGBTQQ people and issues in urban education. Practitioners in these areas need to understand and be prepared to address multiple social and cultural issues that intersect with sexual and gender identities and discrimination. This necessitates an intersectional analysis. Intersectionality can be defined as a theory to analyze how social and cultural categories of identity and oppression are interconnected.

Historical Overview

We offer this historical overview with an awareness that the extant scholarship on the topic privileges White people and cisgender people, or “individuals who have a match between the gender they were assigned at birth, their bodies, and their personal identity” (Schilt & Westbrook, 2009, p. 461), particularly men. Although we work to disrupt such privileging in our discussion of the current landscape, it is worth keeping this limitation in mind when reflecting on the history of LGBTQQ people and issues in urban education. Also, throughout this historical overview, we reference other social movements in the United States in order to provide a frame of reference for the ones of focus in this chapter, that is, those focused on LGBTQQ people and issues in urban education.

We can trace teachers who experienced and acted on same-sex desire all the way back to Plato and Socrates (Kofes, 1985). We can trace social movements related to homosexuality in cities in the United States back to the early 20th century (Jagose, 1996). However, because we are interested in LGBTQQ people and issues in U.S. urban education, it is worth looking back to mid-20th century. It was during this time, in 1954, that the case of Brown versus Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas determined that separate schools for White people and people of color were inherently unequal and therefore banned racial segregation of schools. It was also when Rosa Parks started the Montgomery Bus Boycott, in 1955. In other words, the civil rights movement in the United States was gaining considerable momentum. Also during this time, there was a “growing visibility of homosexual communities in urban areas around the country” (Blount, 2005, p. 854). This prominence provoked a “virulent backlash movement” (Blount, 2005, p. 854) within education, which resulted in suspicion of teachers who were not married. It suspicions of these teachers’ homosexuality were even vaguely confirmed, they were forced out ot classrooms and schools (Graves, 2009). According to Lugg (2005), “Historically, formal education policies have generally either ignored lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth and personnel or targeted them as a problem that needed to be repressed or eliminated” (p. 293). Therefore, schools, even urban schools, were not welcoming places for LGBTQQ people.

This, however, changed by the late 1960s. Recall that by this time, the celebrated March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, had happened, in 1963. It is worth noting in this context, though, that Bayard Rustin, the chief organizer of the March, was hardly recognized for his efforts because of being a gay man. During this time, teachers who self-identified as homosexuals had “experienced so much frustration with social sanctions that passivity and self-destruction eventually gave way to resistance. . . . LGBT teachers began fighting back" (Blount, 2005, p. 854). They began, by the late 1960s, filing lawsuits to allow them to keep their jobs, and although the trailblazers in this area were not successful in getting their jobs back, “their cases established legal precedent making such dismissals more difficult” (Blount, 2005, p. 854).

In the 1970s, community-based programs for sexual minority youth, or youth whose sexual identities differ from those of the majority or, more plainly, youth who are not straight, began forming in some cities (Clare & James, 2005). Around this time, LGBTQQ activists improved schools “simply by being open about their sexual orientations and gender identities. For many, the presence of openly identified LGBT individuals helped to alleviate fears of being the only one” (Hayes, Herriott, & Rice, 2005, p. 234). LGBT experiences started to be made visible in curriculum around this time as well (Hayes et al., 2005, p. 235), in part because of the increasing visibility of LGBTQQ people. With respect to students, the first GSA can be traced to a group of students at New York City’s George Washington High School who in 1972 founded the first school-based gay group on record in the United States (Johnson, 2007). It is also worth noting that in 1973, the American Psychological Association determined that homosexuality was no longer a mental disorder.

The 1980s, however, brought the AIDS epidemic and thus gay health issues to the fore (Blount, 2005; Hayes et al., 2005). Although this brought increased attention to gay people and topics, it did so, again, in ways that raised suspicions and fears. Countering this was the ongoing LGBT activism, which, in 1988, pushed the National Education Association to pass a “resolution favoring the development and implementation of school counseling that supported the unique needs of LGBT and questioning students — as opposed to more traditional counseling that strictly urged heterosexual conformity” (Blount, 2005, p. 855).

Advocacy organizations, like the national organization GLSEN, or Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network, and local gay-straight-alliances began to bring LGBTQQ people together with allies to make schools better places for LGBTQQ people (Blount, 2005).

More recently, LGBT-based secondary schools or classrooms have been established.

These programs tend to be established in urban communities where the number of LGBT youth and the pressures on them have risen to levels that require separate, safe learning environments.

(Clare & James, 2005, p. 755)

Such progress offers great hope for LGBTQQ people in urban education, but this progress comes with significant challenges as well, which we discuss below, throughout the various aspects of the current landscape.

Current Landscape

LGBTQQ people and issues in schools are taken up more in the context of urban school communities compared to rural or school communities (McCready, 2007). There are advantages and challenges to this fact, which we discuss throughout our examination of the resources available. Prominent themes emerging from our review include homophobia and its academic impact, cultural and economic challenges, as well as student activism, and are therefore considered below.


LGBTQ people living in urban communities experience some real advantages that their rural and suburban counterparts do not. The “concentration of population and the presence of alternative subcultures in urban areas, give LGBT youth more opportunities for existence and protection” (Lomine, 2005, p. 308). This concentration also provides more opportunities to establish “networks with other LGBT families” (Hulsebosch, 2005, p. 603). Moreover, in cities, LGBTQ people are more likely to find spiritual support in the form of “support groups within mainstream denominations, which assist youth in finding LGBT-positive perspectives and theologies, as well as inclusive religious groups” (Horne & Biss, 2005, p. 824). There are also more community-based organizations that cater to LGBTQ people in cities compared to rural communities (Bell & Binnie, 2004; Bieschke, 2005; Clare & James, 2005). Consider, for examples, the Hetrick Martin Institute in New York; the Attic Youth Center in Philadelphia; Kaleidoscope Youth Center in Columbus, Ohio; and ROSMY in Richmond, Virginia; among many others.

LGBTQ-specific services are more prevalent in some urban schools, too. Some services are offered at schools, but outside of official curricula, such as Los Angeles’s Project 10 (Uribe, 1995) and gay-straight alliances (GSAs) (i.e., Lee, 2002). Moreover, some cities, like Toronto, Ontario, San Francisco, California, and Columbus, Ohio, for example, have GSA networks that include multiple high school programs. Still, not every middle and high school in census metropolitan areas has a GSA (Kosciw, Diaz, & Greytak, 2008), and they should. Not because they meet the needs of all LGBTQQ students but because

LGBT students in schools with GSAs are less likely to hear biased language, such as homo-phobic remarks, are less likely to feel unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation and gender expression, and are less likely to miss days of school because they are afraid to go.

(CLSEN, 2007, p. 3)

Thus, GSAs are important for all schools to have, including urban ones.

In addition, there is evidence of teachers’ and administrators’ efforts to combat heterosexism to do this through training efforts, consider NEA’s National Training on Safety, Bias, and LGBT Issues (https://neacsjpd.org/training-session/safety-bias-lgbtq/); others learn to do this through teacher inquiry groups, such as the teachers in Acting Out! Combating Homophobia Through Teacher Actinism (Blackburn, Clark, Kenney, & Smith, 2009); others learn to do it in their teacher preparation programs (Clark, 2010); still others learn to do this through their own trial and error. Overall, though, it seems urban educators, as a group, continue to have mixed reactions to the idea of the mandatory inclusion of antihomophobia in their social justice work. Urban educators in North America may privilege race, class, ethnicity, immigration, and citizenship differences in their efforts to address power, privilege, and discrimination in schools (McCaskell, 2005). There are, however, a few schools in the United States designed specifically to provide a safe and supportive academic environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ)1 youth, such as the Harvey Milk School in New York City and the Alliance School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (Clare & James, 2005).

The Harvey Milk School, for example, is named after a gay leader and has images of rainbows and paintings modelled after Keith Harings, who was a gay artist and activist. While not specifying LGBTQQ students on it’s web page, it invites students “who have not met success in at least one other high school” to come to this school that “fosters and supports a diverse, selfrespecting, confident community” (https://www.hmhsnyc.org/AboutUs). The Alliance School advertises as a “safe place for students regardless of sexuality, identity, appearance, ability or beliefs” (http://www5. milwaukee.k12.wi.us/school/selections/alliance-school/); its commitments to LGBTQQ students are made clear in a variety of ways, including an image of a gender creative adolescent. Moreover, in the Great Schools website, there are reviews by stakeholders, like this one by a parent:

This school has a zero tolerance policy towards bullying. It is one of the few safe places in MPS for kids who are different, whether that be in beliefs, appearance, ability, or any of the numerous other arbitrary standards that kids use as an excuse to pick on one another. It gives these students acceptance, and allows them to not only try, but to actually succeed. My child went from failing to a 4.0 GPA, because he felt safe and accepted, and was able to concentrate on his work, rather than on escaping the bullies at his old school.


Although these schools raise the question of shouldn’t all schools be safe for LGBTQQ students, which of course they should be, in the meantime, they offer an alternative for LGBTQQ students, at least in those cities.

Given these resources and services, one might assume that urban communities and schools are meeting the needs of queer youth, especially in comparison to suburban and rural locales. In fact, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s (GLSEN) recent national school climate survey (Kosciw et al., 2008) suggested “students in small town and rural schools were less likely to have access to LGBT-related resources and supports than students in urban and suburban schools” (p. 94). The experiences of queer urban youth, however, suggest a more complicated story.


Even with the rich resources to support gay life available in many urban communities, youth in cities across the United States continue to report school environments rife with homophobia (Table 27.1). Such environments are the result of verbal and physical abuse enacted by homophobic students and the perpetuation of such abuse by the failure of adults in schools to address such abuse. These environments are exacerbated by adults in schools who overtly exhibit homophobia.

That homophobic students verbally and physically abuse LGBTQ youth in U.S. schools is well documented by the 2010 GLSEN study (Kosciw et al., 2010) that found 84.6% of LGBT students experience verbal harassment because of their sexual orientation and 63.7% because of their gender expression (p. xvi). It also found that 40.1% of LGBT students report having been physically harassed

Table 27.1 Characteristics of Participants’ Schools

Sexual Orientation

Gender Expression

Verbal Harassment



Physical Harassment



Physical Assault



Source: From Kosciw, Greytak, Diaz, and Bartkiewicz


because of their sexual orientation and 27.2% because of their gender expression. Moreover, 18.8% of this population reported being physically assaulted because of their sexual orientation and 12.5% because of their gender expression (p. xvi). It is worth noting, though, that the GLSEN study is not limited to urban schools; only 30.1% of LGBTQ students who responded to the GLSEN survey characterize their schools as urban (p. 11).

To illustrate that such homophobic abuses are occurring in urban schools, we turn to accounts captured by qualitative studies, in part as a complement to such quantitative studies as the GLSEN school climate surveys, but also to hone in on the experiences of urban youth, something that is not a goal of these larger-scale studies. For example, in the Bay Area, which is renowned for being “queer-friendly,” David, who was a Black gay male, said, “ ‘people used to think I was a girl and 1 used to get teased a lot because of that. . . . People eventually started throwing things at me and shit ” (McCready, 2004a, pp. 138—139). Somkiat, a gay student who attended a racially diverse Midwestern city school and was not “out” (openly gay), described his daily experience this way:

Everyday they make fun of me and stuff. They call me gay and faggot and stuff. And, when I’m in class people, guys don’t want to sit by me because they think I’m going to touch them and whatever. . . . When I’m late for class, 1 really don’t want to go in because I’m scared [that] when 1 walk in they’ll make fun of me. They always do that. My teacher, she sees it too. She always talks to me after class is up. ... 1 feel like there’s nobody there to protect me.

(Ngo, 2003, p. 118)

The personal impact of Somkiat’s classmates’ homophobia is compounded by the teacher’s lack of action. Talking to Somkiat after class instead of interrupting the harassment on the spot sends the message that, as Somkiat reasons, the teacher does not view herself as someone whose job it is to publicly advocate for her LGBTQQ students.

Dylan, an out2 gay student in Atlanta, experienced homophobia like Somkiat, only it was made worse by school officials’ failure to address the hatred:

One day in the parking lot outside his school, six students surrounded [Dylan] and threw a lasso around his neck, saying, “Let’s tie the faggot to the back of the truck.” . . . The school violence intensified. . . . “It gave permission for a whole new level of physical stuff to occur.”

(Human Rights Watch, 2001, p. 1)

Parents and/or guardians of LGBT students may also feel conflicted about confronting school officials about homophobia their children experience in school, especially if they believe that, based on their ethnic, racial, or religious identifications, homosexuality is a cultural abomination. Amina, a South Asian queer-identified student in Toronto reported that

Boyfriends, sex, and sexual orientation were topics not even on the radar. And if I did bring them up, I was set for another good yelling because they defined the pinnacle of Westernized Evil. . . . My father made a comment that he believed that being gay was a symptom of being exposed to Western culture. As far as he was concerned, Muslims could not be gay. If a Muslim was gay, well then he/she was just not really Muslim.

(Planned Parenthood Toronto, 2004, p. 14)

The tendency of school officials to fail to address homophobic abuse is also documented by GLS-EN’s school climate survey (Kosciw et al., 2008). According to this report, when LGBT students told school staff about “incidents of victimization, students most commonly said that no action was taken” (p. 41). Although this finding was more pronounced for suburban, small town, and rural schools, even in urban schools, only “21.7% of students . . . said that school staff intervened most of the time or always when hearing homophobic remarks” (p. 71).

Moreover, GLSEN found that 59.7% of LGBT youth reported hearing homophobic language and 67.7% reported hearing biased language about gender expression from teachers or other school staff. Although this statistic was not analyzed by GLSEN according to locale, and the dynamic has not been the focus of qualitative studies of LGBTQ youth in urban schools, that urban school officials exhibit overt homophobia has been captured in newspapers. For example, Marion Bolden, the superintendent of Newark Public Schools, made the executive decision to blackout a photo of Andre Jackson, a senior, kissing his boyfriend in the school yearbook. Ms. Bolden said she thought the photo was “suggestive” while Jackson said, “I didn’t intend to say ‘Oh hey look at me, I’m gay.’ It was just a picture showing my emotion, saying that I’m happy you know. It was to look back on as a memory” (“Gay Pair,” 2007). In Memphis, Tennessee, principal Daphne Beasley went as far as to make a list of student couples to see who was engaging in “public displays of affection,” and when she came across the names of two gay male students, she “outed them” or disclosed their sexual identity to their parents. One of the outed students, Nicholas (last name omitted), said it was “frightening to see a list with my name on it where not just other teachers could see, but students as well ... I really feel that my personal privacy was invaded. 1 mean, Principal Beasley called my mother and outed me to my mother!” (Friedman, 2008). Although Bolden and Beasley seem to err in opposite directions, both could have served their students better if they had more nuanced understandings of their students’ (dis)comfort with their sexual identities. In other words, if Bolden were comfortable with same-gender affection, she would not have felt the need to conceal an image of two young men kissing, and if Beasley knew more about the experiences of LGBTQQ students, she would have known that outing them to their parents sometimes results in those young people having their familial support, both emotional and financial, withdrawn from them, and would never out a student to his or her parents or guardians.

Overall, it seems LGBTQ youth experience homophobia in urban schools from students and staff, and school staff do not excel, relative to their nonurban counterparts, at addressing the abuse. This is made even more significant by the fact that such abuse impacts the academic performance of this population (Meyer, 2008).

Academic Impact

That homophobic school climates negatively impact the scholastic achievement of LGBTQQ youth and supportive school climates have the opposite effect are both documented by GLSEN’s school climate survey (Kosciw et al., 2008). With respect to homophobic school climates hindering academic achievement, this study found that:

the reported grade point average of students who were more frequently harassed because of their sexual orientation or gender expression was significantly lower than for students who were less often harassed. For example, the grade point average for students who were frequently physically harassed because of their sexual orientation or gender expression was almost half a grade lower than for other students (2.8 versus 2.4).

(p- 84)

In terms of supportive school climates strengthening academic achievement, the same study found:

Students who were out to all students and staff at their school reported a greater sense of belonging to their school community than those who were not out . . . [and] having a greater sense of belonging to ones school is related to greater academic motivation and effort as well as higher academic achievement.

(p. 89)

Again, these findings are not uniquely pertinent to urban students. (As a reminder: approximately one-third of survey respondents described their schools as urban.) The following accounts, however, are focused on students in schools in cities, and they highlight the former dynamic, that is, homo-phobic schools hinder the academic achievement of LGBTQ students.

Teddy in San Francisco and Kira in Philadelphia both reported being good students before coming to know themselves and/or being known as not-straight. Teddy, a Filipina American, Catholic student, withdrew from school when she came to understand herself as lesbian her junior year. She was not out to anyone else, but she struggled with internalized homophobia:

  • 1 loved school. I excelled academically until high school. . . . However, in my third year, my grades dropped dramatically, I stopped going to classes for weeks at a time, and I just barely graduated. What changed? 1 realized I was a lesbian in my junior year. I was depressed and withdrew from interacting with my friends from school. Mostly, 1 would skip class to spend my days in a park alone with a book or my guitar. Although there were a few on-campus resources for queer youth, they were never announced publicly and I never knew of them.
  • 1 never told anyone I was lesbian until I was twenty.
  • (Consolación, 2001, p. 84)

Whereas Teddy’s educational success was hindered by her internalized homophobia, Kira, a selfdescribed biracial, working-class dyke, raised by an African American foster mother, was a strong student whose schooling was thwarted by homophobia. Kira attended a magnet high school for the arts in Philadelphia, the type of school depicted as safe for queer teens in popular media such as the Hollywood film Fame. For Kira, however, it was difficult to find a peer group, and the isolation brought on by not having friends eventually caused her to leave school:

  • 1 had friends that just stopped talking to me and never explained why. ... I didn’t really care that 1 didn’t have any more friends. I just wouldn’t, I just wouldn’t go to school. . . . It’s really hard to sit at a lunch table if you don’t talk to anybody. . . . When you go to “ok,” so you don’t go to lunch, then, eventually, you just don’t go to school.
  • (Blackburn, 2003, para. 43)

As these voices of queer youth in urban schools reveal, homophobia negatively affects academic performance.

Cultural and Economic Challenges

On the one hand, the neighborhoods and communities that constitute metropolitan areas tend to be more racially and ethnically diverse than rural communities (Holloway, Wright, & Ellis, 2012). They also tend to have more programs and services for LGBTQ youth, even if not located in schools. On the other hand, at the same time that metropolitan areas are becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, they are becoming less economically diverse, leading to income polarization (Badcock, 1997; Wilkinson, 2010). In other words, it is increasingly difficult for working and middle-class families to live comfortably in the core cities. Cities are becoming places for the extreme haves and have nots: the poor, who tend to be racial minorities, and the wealthy, who tend to be White and members of some Asian ethnic groups. The conditions of ethnoracial diversity and income inequality in metropolitan areas present unique cultural and economic challenges for LGBTQ youth.

Concerns include having to endure multiple forms of hatred, to cultivate multiple marginalized identities, and to negotiate multiple understandings of sexuality. Human Rights Watch, for example, found that “harassment against LGBTQ students of color is prevalent and is usually combined with racial and ethnic harassment” (Baez, 2005, p. 389). So, oftentimes, an urban LGBTQ youth needs to “cultivate both a sexual identity and an ethnic identity,” “resolve any conflicts” between his or her “ethnic reference group and to a gay community,” and “negotiate any stigmas and discrimination encountered because of the interconnections of homophobia, racism, and sexism” (Savin-Williams [1998] as cited by Pallotta-Chiarolli, 2005, p. 304). In addition to increased biases and multiple identity negotiations, there is, among urban LGBTQ people, specifically immigrant populations, the issue of navigating different and sometimes competing notion of sexuality. So, for example, immigrant communities often comprise “nonwhite, nonnative speakers of English who understand their sexual identity from a non-Western or at the very least dual cultural frame of reference” (McCready, 2005, p. 879). For example, in some African and South Asian countries homosexuality is illegal. Non-Western languages may or may not have specific words for nonheterosexual identities that connote the same meanings as the Western sense of “gay,” “lesbian,” “bisexual,” or “transgender.”

In addition to cultural challenges, there are economic constraints. There is the massive resegregation of public schools, for example, which is due, in part, to segregated housing patterns and the waning commitment of the federal government to enforce court-ordered desegregation in the 21st century. Essentially what this means is a return to neighborhood schools in urban communities that are racially segregated, and in most cases, areas of concentrated poverty as well. Urban LGBTQ youth who attend segregated schools in poor communities are likely to face a host of problems, related to the structure and organization of these schools. Racially segregated schools in communities where the median family income is below average are less likely to have programs specifically aimed at LGBTQ youth; there simply are not enough economic resources to support such efforts (McCready, 2005).

Public schools with a weaker residential tax base may attempt to maximize their resources through specialized courses or curricula such as magnet schools and international baccalaureate programs that are attractive to middle-class families (Clotfelter, 2004). In most cases, students with academic potential come from families with more economic, social, and cultural capital. Several national census studies indicate that in racially diverse communities, these families tend to be White or Asian. In such environments, Black and Latino students tend to be placed in lower-tracked classes where work or “getting a job” is emphasized over issues of college attendance or sexual identity (Kozol, 1992).

Another economic challenge facing LGBTQQ urban youth is homelessness (Cruz, 2008). LGBTQQ youth from rural and suburban communities migrate to cities in search of intimate relationships, programs, and services for sexual minorities. However, there are not enough programs and services for all youth who identify as sexual minorities, and most that do exist are located in or near the “gay ghettos” or neighborhoods with LGBTQ nightclubs and community centers. Most youth who migrate to cities, where the standard of living is more expensive than rural or suburban communities, find it difficult to sustain employment with a salary that pays for housing, food, and transportation. Most jobs available to youth with a high school diploma or less are part-time and in the service industry (department store, coffee shop, fast food, and so forth). Moreover, these jobs are competitive and subject to the whims of the market. In the absence of economically stable support networks and viable employment, LGBTQQ youth in urban environments are at risk for engaging in sex work (for money) or substance abuse (drugs, alcohol) to temporarily escape the economic and cultural challenges they face.

It is imperative to balance a look at all of these significant challenges with a look at student activism in order to avoid misunderstanding LGBTQQ urban youth only as victims rather than as complex people who are sometimes victims but also, other times, agents who assert themselves and demand their rights even in the face of such challenges.


Despite the challenging cultural and economic conditions of urban environments, we found that LGBTQ youth have an amazing capacity to make a difference and affect social change in both large and small ways (Quinn, 2007), within and beyond school walls (Rodriguez, 1998). Recall, for example, the first school-based gay group on record in the United States was at a high school in New York (Johnson, 2007). Queer youth in urban schools continue this activism today through professional development, official curricula, and GSAs.

David, for example, designed professional development sessions on meeting the needs of queer students. When he returned to his Bay Area high school he parlayed his experience working at a local queer youth center into antihomophobia workshops and panel presentations for administrators. He said, “To be able to sit up in front of the administrators and talk about my experiences was really something. After that I became even more vocal in classrooms, voicing my opinion” (McCready, 2001, P. 50).

Queer youth also find ways to make space to assert themselves and work against homophobia within the official curricula of schools. Justine, a middle-class, lesbian, African American student at the same urban magnet high school that Kira attended, brought a lesbian love poem from the queer youth center where she spent time and photos from a lesbian history book of her own to school for a class project (Blackburn, 2002—2003). Thus, she found ways to “make space” within the parameters of her curricula by including materials and information about herself as a lesbian, which in turn educated her classmates and teachers about the lives of queer people.

Another way queer students in urban schools engage in antihomophobia work is through GSAs. Lee’s (2002) study of a GSA in Salt Lake City captures youth voices naming several benefits of their GSA with safety being one the most important. For example, Erin, who is implicitly identified as lesbian when she refers to the gay community as her community, said, “I personally feel a lot less scared, because of the group. Because we have numbers now. Because we are visible” (p. 21). Erin, among others, also reported improved relationships with “administrators, teachers, family and peers” (p. 18) as a result of their participation in the GSA. She said, “I feel more willing to identify with a need to wimp out” (p. 18). In addition to feeling safer and sharing better relationships with people at school, and perhaps because of these things, the students in the GSA asserted that their academic performance improved as a result of their participation in the club. For example, Kelli, a lesbian, said:

  • 1 faced a lot of harassment being one of the only “out” students at East High School before the club. And I was terrified to go to school. 1 avoided going to school. I failed most of my classes my freshman through junior year. My senior year 1 attended regularly and held down the best GPA I’ve had since I’ve been in school.
  • (p. 17)

The experiences of young people in Salt Lake City suggest that GSAs hold tremendous promise as organizations that support the development of queer youth in schools. This finding is supported by GLSEN’s 2008 school climate survey (Kosciw et al., 2008).

However, there is a growing number of studies of GSAs that suggest that queer youth who attend urban schools in non-White, multiracial, poor, and working-class communities experience difficulty starting and/or accessing their schools’ GSAs. For example, McCready’s (2004b) study of Project 10, which functioned as a GSA at a Bay Area high school, revealed the shortcomings of this club when it came to meeting the needs of queer students of color. Jamal and David both described the club as inaccessible because it was “under surveillance by their heterosexual Black peers” (p. 42). “Jamal believed these dynamics were particularly evident when students read the daily Bulletin announcing school-wide events, including Project 10” (p. 42). When Jamal was in predominantly White classes, Project 10 announcements would be read aloud with little event, but when a similar announcement was read in predominantly Black classes, Jamal said,

they would skip over it like the club did not exist. They would either speak through it, or it was just treated differently than the other club announcements. . . . [T]here was a runningjoke at school, like people wanted to go and see who actually went to the club. . . . Like you don’t want to be seen walking up to the third floor on the day that Project 10 is meeting.

(p- 43)

Even when a student of color, like David, endured the scrutiny to attend a Project 10 meeting, he felt alienated and excluded. He called the group “a select group of White girls . . .just teatime for a few lesbians and their friends. ... 1 went two consecutive weeks and then I stopped going because it wasn’t doing anything for me. There’s nothing there for me” (p. 45). The combination of David’s Black peers skipping over the Project 10 meeting announcement, in a sense ignoring the fact that some Black students may want to attend a social/support group for LGBTQQ students, and the fact that mostly “White girls” participated in the group, alienated David and made him feel like such a group could not possibly serve his personal and/or social needs. Because of these dynamics, which McCready theorizes stem from racial segregation and the normalization of Whiteness, the GSA, at least at this school, failed to meet the needs of queer students of color.

Quinn’s study of queer girls of color starting a GSA at an all-girls public charter middle and high school in Chicago points to different, though equally troubling, social and cultural dynamics related to leadership and participation (Quinn, 2007). The group started in order to create formally a space for socializing and support:

At first we used to just . . . talk to a counselor . . .’cause everybody was pretty much in the closet, and . . .just we only knew who was gay or not. . . . And then after that, it seemed like somebody thought of a GSA. And then from then on, it just snowballed.

(p- 35)

When parents heard about the GSA from their children, some organized to oppose the group because they believed it was immoral, students in middle school were too young to hear about

the group, and it might cause them to question their sexuality. School administrators initially dismissed objections to the GSA; however, as the controversy unfolded, flyers announcing GSA activities were defaced and removed from the school’s bulletin boards, the pressure on administration became too great and the GSA was disbanded. Although the group was reinstated a year later, Quinn notes that at this school,

lesbian students claimed both cultural and sexual specificity by acting as loud black and often masculine girls. They rejected conformity to norms of leadership valued in the school and society — both raced and gendered — when they acted assertively and collectively to start the GSA.

(p. 42)

In this way, these girls challenged the notion that GSAs are for White girls and troubled the idea of what school leaders can look and be like. Both the McCready and the Quinn studies point to the complicated and ongoing nature of activism, particularly as it pertains to LGBTQQ students in urban schools.

In addition to efforts in schools, young urban LGBTQQ people are also leading the way in efforts to make change outside of schools. Consider, for example, the New York — based organization, FIERCE, which is an acronym for Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment (n.d.). It was founded by LGBTQ youth of color in 2000, and strives to

develop politically conscious leaders who are invested in improving [themselves] and [their] communities through youth-led campaigns, leadership development programs, and cultural expression through arts and media. FIERCE is dedicated to cultivating the next generation of social justice movement leaders who are dedicated to ending all forms of oppression.

(tmw. fiercenyc.org/itidex.php?s=84)

Such activism by LGBTQQ youth of color living in urban environments can serve as a model for urban educators who want to cultivate leadership among LGBTQ youth of color and make urban environments more relevant to and inclusive of their experiences. In other words, teachers might follow the lead of these students by educating other teachers about the needs of LGBTQQ students, of inserting LGBTQQ people and topics in curricula, and initiating and supporting extracurricular supports for LGBTQQ people (see, for example, the activist teachers in Blackburn, Clark, Kenney, & Smith, 2009).

Directions for Future Work

McCready (2007) posited that equity and social justice work related LGBTQQ people can be stymied by practitioners’ ambivalence about the “relevance of anti-homophobia to their social justice work in urban schools” (p. 74). So, this obstacle must be overcome and the opportunity to grapple with the complicated notion of intersectionality should be embraced.

In terms of research, an intersectional approach requires strategies that locate LGBTQQ people and issues in urban education in relation to the sociocultural, political, economic contexts of metropolitan areas. The research literature on urban education has tended to focus on the problems of low-status minority groups, the complexity of urban school systems, and the financing and governance of such systems (Gordon, 2003). Among urban educators in the United States, race-gender gaps (or disparities by race and gender) in achievement, discipline, and participation are considered most pressing (Lopez, 2003; Noguera, 2008). Researchers might consider, for example, how do LGBTQQ people in urban education experience these gaps?

Quantitative researchers using surveys and psychometric instruments need to include measures for LGBTQQ peoples perception of urban communities and schools, so that these constructs can be used to predict education outcomes in relation to sexual identity. In this way, researchers can see how urban school communities are related to academic achievement and engagement (see Battle & Barnes, 2010).

Qualitative researchers have a range of approaches at their disposal to better understand the relationship between urban contexts and school engagement of LGBTQQ people. For example, through a case study of Black gay male students’ experience of marginalization using ethnographic methods, McCready (2010) learned that gay and gender nonconforming Black male students narrated their experiences in ways that were both similar to and different from the dominant discourse of Black male student marginalization in the school. One student in particular challenged the het-eronormative, hypermasculine performance standards of the African dance program by wearing hair extensions and mimicking the movements of female dancers. Such performances of identity, McCready argued, are gay and gender nonconforming Black male students’way of “making space” in the social and cultural climate of the school where hypermasculinity and heterosexuality are viewed as the norm among Black male students (McCready, 2010). This and other stories of marginalization and empowerment point to the need for urban educators to devise more complex identity development models that take into account the ways LGBTQQ students’ gender and sexuality identities evolve in relation to the social context of urban communities and schools. In addition, the experiences of gay and gender nonconforming Black male students offer another way of looking at the complex relationship between LGBTQQ students’ identities and participation in urban school programs that are defined by race and class.

In theorizing the notion of making space, McCready (2007) pointed to three conceptual tools that hold the possibility for different kinds of practices and interventions. Feminist intersectional perspectives or “intersectionality” helps urban educators uncover multiple identities and reveal different types of marginalization that occur among Black students (see Collins, 2000). The concept of multiple masculinities provides a framework for understanding how Black male students’ gender identities are constantly being built, negotiated, and maintained (see Connell, 1996). Moreover, multiple masculinities call attention to the existence of nonhegemonic masculinities (masculinities that are subordinated, or repressed) like those of gay and gender nonconforming Black male students. What seems to prevent urban educators from considering the critical possibilities of nonhegemonic masculinities is the ways these forms of masculinity, which can be embodied by boys, girls, men and/ or women, disrupt the societal norms of sex, gender, and sexuality and by extension, race, class, and ethnicity. One reason why some educators might be reluctant to show and discuss video of cultural icon James Baldwin in the 1970s is that he was unapologetically effeminate, which disrupted the dominant representation of Black men as heterosexual and hypermasculine at the time (Reid-Pharr, 1996). Thus, antihomophobia education is a crucial conceptual tool for urban educators who want to address intragroup marginalization based on gender and sexuality. Antihomophobia education is both dynamic and volatile because it invites students and educators to confront and negotiate a range of complex and contradictory subject positions associated with politics, gender identity, and sexuality (see Robinson, Ferfolja, & Goldstein, 2004).

In terms of policy development, this may mean, for example, ensuring confidentiality so that students whose family values emphasize heterosexuality and gender normativity are not made more vulnerable by reporting abuse. Trainings of teachers should include education about particular populations in the school and the stances taken on homosexuality and gender expression within these populations. In other words, notions of right and wrong should be rejected and replaced with complicated ideas that recognize multiplicity and variability' within the school community. Resources should be available in the languages spoken by the various student populations within the school, and they should represent diverse peoples and communities. Curricular materials should be similarly representative, and extracurricular efforts, such as GSAs, should be recognized both for what they do and do not accomplish in urban schools. When GSAs prove to inadequately serve the school’s populations, for example, alternatives should be generated from students and facilitated, indeed nurtured, by adults in the school. Such representation, recognition, and accommodation should be both policy and practice. Moreover, intersectionality should be viewed not as a burden but as a rich opportunity in terms of shaping policy and providing training, resources, and curricular and extracurricular supports.

One of the most exciting tasks for 21st century educators, researchers, and policy makers in urban education is to develop comprehensive approaches to their work, approaches that take into account how the social, cultural, and economic dynamics of the city affect LGBTQQ people in urban education. A good example of curriculum and policy work is the Respect Campaign (RC) launched by Out for Equity in eight Saint Paul, Minnesota, schools. RC was a two-year project including 12 schools that served to “identify obstacles to a respectful school climate, develop a vision for positive change, chart and implement a course of action and evaluate success” (Horowitz & Itzkowitz, 2007, p. 3). The project reveals an understanding that students in urban schools face multiple forms of oppression and discrimination that can make school feel unsafe. Based on this understanding, 1LC helped urban educators develop a multidimensional framework of a healthy school climate, one that addresses issues of homophobia and heterosexism, but also takes into account oppression and discrimination based on race, ethnicity, class, gender, and religion. Such work provides an example of an approach that seems to better meet the needs of LGBTQQ people in urban education.


LGBTQQ people and issues are taken up more in urban education than in any other educational context in the forms of social networks, resources, and supports, in and out of school. Still, even in these contexts, homophobia and transphobia exist significantly enough to impact negatively LGBTQQ students’academic achievement. Moreover, there are some cultural and economic challenges that impact urban LGBTQQ students more than their suburban and rural counterparts. Meeting and exceeding these challenges demands a conceptual framework designed to bring social, cultural, economic, and political dynamics to the fore. Such a framework invites understandings of LGBTQQ people in all of their complexity and intersectionality, including but not limited to identities shaped by race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, nationality, religion, and citizenship — understandings that are imperative in urban education.

Discussion Questions

  • 1. Identify and discuss important resources LGBTQQ you can access in cities? How might the social, political and/or economic dynamics of a particular city affect if, how, when and where a young person participates in local LGBTQQ youth programs?
  • 2. How can the concept of intersectionality help us understand the experiences of LGBTQQ youth in schools and communities?
  • 3. What does LGBTQQ youth activism look like in cities? What kinds of social change are LGBTQQ youth fighting for?


  • 1. Here we use LGBTQ instead of LGBTQQ in an effort to honor the language used by these schools.
  • 2. Out here means that this student self-identifies as gay, so he is out to himself, but also that others, including but not limited to his classmates, teachers, and administrators, know he identifies in this way. The term, used in this way, comes from the idea of being out of the metaphorical closet that one is said to be in when a person is LGBTQQ but doesn’t self-identify in that way yet and/or doesn’t reveal that identity to anyone else. Later we use the term outed. This means that someone other than the LGBTQQ person reveals the person’s LGBTQQ identity.


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