AUSTIN (KXAN) — Dr. Stephen Russell has spent the past 25 years researching LGBTQ+ youth, a group that has increasingly become the target of political attacks and legislation.
He started on this research in the early 2000s with the first studies to use nationwide data on LGBTQ+ children. He is currently a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and the principal investigator of the school’s Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) Health and Rights Lab.
“What we understand now are the important and terrible vulnerabilities, suicidality, mental health, substance use, abuse and victimization that LGBTQ+ kids experience,” Russell said. “We have a really strong data now that we didn’t have a decade ago, and there are things that make a big difference.”
Russell’s research on LGBTQ+ youth has focused on a school context, an area where LGBTQ+ students and educators face growing restrictions.
“It’s a place where, even before they tell their families, that young people come out with their LGBTQ identities,” Russell said.
With the advances in research, Russell identified solutions to make life easier for LGBTQ+ students: clear and inclusive school policies and state laws, better teacher training on LGBTQ+ issues and anti-discrimination, including LGBTQ+ history and topics in the curriculum and Gender-Sexuality Alliance (GSA) clubs.
Russell said school policies and state law should be clearly rooted in anti-discrimination and anti-bullying around sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. He said Texas does not have such laws, but around half of Texas’ school districts do have inclusive policies.
“There’s data from different levels, comparing aggregated data across states and comparing states that have inclusive policies versus those that don’t, all the way down to data from individual kids,” Russell said, “In classrooms when these policies exist, that climate is safer and individual kids feel safer. It shouldn’t be controversial.”
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton noted in his letter to the Austin ISD that the state prohibits teachers from “instructing on human sexuality”.
Russell points to history as a key place to teach students about LGBTQ+ history and people, citing examples such as Harvey Milk (first gay official elected to a city council in the U.S.) and Obergefell v. Hodges (Supreme Court ruling that same-sex couples have a right to marry).
“Invisibility has been the dominant educational approach for LGBTQ kids,” Russell said. “Something like Pride Week consistently makes a difference for historically marginalized groups. We’ve known this since the 70s with Black History Month, when students see themselves represented they are more likely to feel comfortable and more likely to want to learn.”
Teacher preparation during college and continuing education training that covers LGBTQ+ issues makes a difference as well, and so does administrative support that stands behind teachers.
“Understanding discrimination and bullying, and how to intervene, isn’t something that every teacher was trained to do. Learning how to create safe and supportive climates for all students is important,” Russell said.
With an increasingly hostile climate around LGBTQ+ people, Russell worries the debates undermine the wellbeing of gender diverse and transgender children.
He relates the current moment to 2008, when California voted on Prop 8; at the time, there was “an exponential increase” in homophobic bullying in schools. The political rhetoric of adults emboldened violence against LGBTQ+ children.
“There is still prejudice and discrimination against LGBTQ people. It seeps into our everyday life, because of the dominance of cisgender and heterosexual norms,” Russell said. “But what’s happened in the last 20-30 years is that visibility and social changes allow young people to understand and see themselves better.”