Switching Schools: Conversations Around Climate and Choice for LGBT Students in Online Forums

 

Introduction

“I agree that every parent should do his/her best to take the very best care possible in making decisions for their children… to that end, I’d look to others…” writes a parent of an LGBT child on a city message board. In fact, a number of parents of LGBT children feel similarly in knowing that their family has particular needs and seeks out advice as to how to address them. One of the most pressing challenges faced by LGBT students is finding a school that is supportive and affirming of their gender and sexual identities. In this paper, I aim to expand the literature on school choice to incorporate LGBT friendly climate as a new measure for how families assess choosing homes and schools. On what basis do families with LGBT students identify desirable schools? How does their mobility affect how they change them? Through the use of online forums and message boards, I first argue that families looking to choose a school seeks out concrete LGBT resources and visibility of LGBT community members, both in their schools and in their neighborhoods. Second, I find that the types of schools that best present these resources are often understood differently by parents and students. Finally, I explore several issues that limit mobility of families to identify and choose schools that are LGBT friendly. The impact of this paper, then, is to open the door for future research on families with LGBT students and choosing schools to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the school choice process.

Literature review

School choice has risen in the past decade due to an increased emphasis by education reformers on charter schools, magnet schools and school vouchers (Goldring and Phillips 2008). As a result, the literature on school choice has grown considerably in recent years. A large subset of this literature places emphasis on how families choose schools — by deciding on particular neighborhoods to live, whether to participate in a public school district, and, if in a choice system, which schools within the system to choose. Academic achievement is extremely influential in helping families decide which schools are most desirable (Goldhaber 1999; Hastings and Weinstein 2007). Perhaps linked to academic achievement, but certainly a factor in its own right, racial and class inequality is also plays a considerable role in how families understand school choice (Holme 2002; Goyette 2008; Lareau and Goyette 2014). In this regard, the racial and socioeconomic climate of a school has been lightly studied as a factor for choosing schools (Ball, Bowe and Gewirtz 1996). However, very little work has been conducted on how other inequalities in schools — particularly on the basis of gender and sexual identity — and how they affect families’ understandings of what makes a desirable school. In short, the school choice literature doesn’t acknowledge how pursuing safe climate for LGBTQ students affects families’ choice of schools.

It is well-established that safe climates LGBTQ people are incredibly diverse and unequal, especially within the sphere of housing and neighborhood. The gay neighborhood is perhaps the most significant place for socialization amongst queer residents of a city (Chauncey 1994; Knopp 1997). The purpose for a gay enclave was in response to a historical intolerance for gay lifestyles; many found it necessary to congregate as a means of living in a safe community that would allow for the exploration of the social and political dimensions of gay life. Castells (1983) research on the Castro district, a gay neighborhood in San Francisco, argues that queer residents began a gentrification process as they moved into the neighborhood, thereby displacing working- class residents of the district. The upper-class gays who lived in the area made large financial and personal sacrifices in exchange for a safe social space for the development of their personal and political identities. This process of upper-class gay gentrification and inevitable displacement of lower-income residents became a national urban phenomenon (Lauria and Knopp, 1985). Such migration is likely not available to many queer residents in lower classes, which has limited their opportunity to socialize in gay neighborhoods. (Knopp, 1997; Barrett and Pollack 2005). Some scholars argue that the need for a closed gay neighborhood is no longer a necessary component of gay life. However, the demographics of queer acceptance (Bowman and O’Keefe 2004) prove that major metropolises and resort communities — typically expensive areas — are most tolerant of diversity in sexual identity. The financial freedom in migrating to more accepting locations and locating housing accepting of different lifestyles further advantages middle- and upper-class queer populations and motivates them to develop a social and political queer identity in the neighborhood. Not only is there a need for supportive spaces in neighborhoods, but the mobility that these accommodations require falls along class lines.

As an extension of the residential areas that support the development of queer identity, LGBTQ students have particular needs and face particular challenges within schools. The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN)’s 2013 School Climate Survey reports that 55.5% of LGBT students do not feel safe at their schools as a result of their sexual identity, and 37.8% because of their gender identity. Three quarters of LGBT students have faced verbal harassment within that calendar year, and over half reported the existence of LGBT-related discriminatory policies at their schools. Safe and affirming environments have been shown to affect educational outcomes: LGBT students show lower academic achievement than their counterparts as a result of missing school to avoid harassment, being less likely to pursue higher education, and reporting higher levels of depression (Nieto 1992; GLSEN 2013).

Different characteristics of schools show patterns of addressing these challenges differently. LGBT students are less likely to encounter verbal harassment in private, non-religious schools than they are in public schools or religious schools. LGBT students in public schools are more often victims of harassment based on their gender and sexual identities and are also less likely to have access to LGBT resources than their counterparts in private schools (religious or otherwise). These trends are exacerbated in the South and Midwest, especially in rural areas where choice systems are less prevalent (GLSEN 2013).

Though it has been established that many LGBT students experience marginalization in schools that affects the quality of their education, it is unclear whether all students have the access to mobility that they may require to seek out a supportive school climate. This paper, then, aims to unpack the ways in which families with LGBT students understand school choice. In it, I pay special attention to conversations that assume mobility. I focus on conversations driven by families who are moving or switching schools or neighborhoods as a direct result of having an LGBT student. How do these families with mobility imagine school choice? What do these families look for in choosing neighborhoods and schools for LGBT children?

Research design

This study uses online forum posts to understand how families with LGBTQ students understand school choice. The rise of the Internet has enabled families to conduct more thorough research from various sources about neighborhoods, districts, schools and even specific teachers (Weininger 2014). While a great body of literature is dedicated to how parents use the Internet to access official data published online by school districts and state agencies, little attention has been paid to conversations among families that exchange experiences and reputations of particular neighborhoods and schools. In this way, the Internet increases families’ access to networks of other families with similar interests in locating schools that meet the educational needs of their LGBTQ students.

Two message boards were used in this study. One forum, city-data.com, describes itself as focused specifically on conversations around cities, where “subjects range from relocation and city descriptions to hobbies and parenting” (City Data). The message board’s 1.5 million members write up to 15,000 new posts per day. The posts analyzed from this forum are all from parents and guardians of LGBTQ students. The other forum used, emptyclosets.com, aims to create “a safe online community for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender people coming out” (Empty Closets). Its 70,000 members have written almost 3 million posts in over 200,000 threads, the majority of which are sorted into a sub-forum devoted to for support and advice. Mostly LGBT youth comprise its online community.

In searching for posts to consider for this study, three criteria are used. First, the post has to be written by a family member of any sexual orientation seeking advice for a child who identified as LGBT. Second, the thread must place an emphasis around schools and the possibility of choosing neighborhoods or specific schools for LGBT students. Finally, the original post of the thread must be explicitly seeking advice, either as to how to choose schools or which schools were most fitting for the students’ educational needs.

Data

A breakdown of the data sources for this analysis appears below.

Demographic No. of Threads No. of Posts
city-data.com Parents 7 96
emptyclosets.com Youth 3 42
Total 10 138

The forum data used is available here.

Once the data was collected, it was coded for four different themes:

  1. Resources and visibility in schools
  2. Resources and visibility in neighborhoods
  3. School type (neighborhood, magnet/charter, private)
  4. Class concerns and limitations

Analysis

Resources and visibility in schools

When giving or seeking advice for how to ensure safe educational environments for LGBT students, families often turned to the resources, reputation and visibility of certain schools and districts in particular. We see this in the number of posts that offer suggestions of schools that offer a Gay-Straight Alliance or other safe school organization:

poppydog: … the link to the high school Gay/Straight group I posted is for the whole of the Triangle… Apex (Raleigh suburb) has a strong Gay/Straight Alliance, too. Here’s a video they made [link to video].

ferrickhead28: You can also call up local high schools and ask if they have a LGBT [sic] organization within their school.

Such posts are indicative of a larger trend — desirability of a specific space within the school that was designated for LGBT students and their allies. It is important to note here that having a Gay-Straight Alliance does not necessarily speak to the general school climate, but rather to the will of a select group of students and teachers in the school to create a safe space within the school. It is possible that such an organization does not have the support of the majority of the school community, but thrives on the backs of a small group of marginalized students who are able to connect in spite of their discomfort or unsafely in the rest of the school environment. Still, though, this was the most mentioned resource for families to measure whether their students would be safe at their schools. I attribute this frequency to the ease and comfort in such organizations serving as as concrete assurances that there is at least some space in which a student can feel safe at their school.

Posters also sought out explicit affirmation of school diversity initiatives as a concrete measure of school safety for LGBT students.

Zen_master: Columbus Academy at one point prominently hosted on their website a mission statement to be inclusive of all walks of life and made a specific mention of LGBT. [link to school page]

As a whole, parents took seriously the formal, institutional structures in place to ensure a safe environment for their children. The greatest resource a parent could feel assured of before sending an LGBT student to a new school, it seems, was an explicit commitment to diversity and affirming space at the school. Whether that took the form of enabling organizational space or directly messaging a promise to encouraging diversity, forum members found it most desirable for schools to have openly endorsed their families’ needs.

Within the larger school community, posters also found visibility of LGBT community members in schools to be an important resource for LGBT students. Some made mention of anecdotes of students’ positive experiences in schools (“I know someone who is openly gay and graduated from a Raleigh high school… and he says he had plenty of friends”), while others offer suggestions of schools where LGBT faculty and administration were prominent (“I went to Indianola Informal K-8… the principal is a gay man”). The acceptance of LGBT community leaders gave posters confidence that LGBT students will also be accepted, and perhaps even nurtured, at their schools.

Resources and visibility in schools

Some forum members showed skepticism that families could determine which schools had LGBT friendly climates without looking at the geography of the school.

no kudzu: I don’t know how anyone can choose a gay friendly school. Remember the turn over is high and different groups and in “leadership”. But I would guess that schools reflect what is going on in the community and that would be the best indicator.

Many parents felt similarly, and turned to resources in the neighborhood community to gauge whether schools would be safe for their students. Perhaps the most mentioned characteristic of a desirable neighborhood was degree of LGBT visibility within the area. This could take the form of electing a gay mayor or hosting an LGBT event (such as a pride parade or film festival). Also seen as desirable was whether the neighborhood carried the reputation of serving many LGBT couples with children.

ohioaninsc: You’d probably want to find out what schools serves Victorian Village or German Village…being that these neighborhoods have a higher concentration of LGBT couples, they are bound to have some children in the schools.

jbcmh81: Clintonville has a fairly sizable lesbian population. That might be reflected in the schools around it.

Closeness to a university or living in a college town played favorably among parents of LGBT children, as well. This was found to be beneficial in two ways: first, parents imagined the university’s resources would be accessible to high school students, as well. In a thread about moving to Columbia, South Carolina — home of the University of South Carolina — one poster surmised that students would be able to find “some LGBTQ resources at USC that may trickle down to the high schools.” Second, parents interpreted the highly-educated demographic of college professors and graduate students to be more accepting of LGBT students. In a thread about moving to North Carolina, a message board user wrote that “the large [University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill] professor[s’] children population and general influence really keeps students more open.” In both cases, parents presupposed that the university would be an accepting environment with LGBT friendly climates of their own, and that the influence of these spaces would find their way into the area’s public schools.

Finally, parents also looked for neighborhood resources not connected to schools at all to supplement the possibility of school-based resources and an accepting school climate. Parents researched youth organizations and found local support groups and organizations helpful to their search for where to send their children to school. Solely the existence of one LGBT center was a helpful assurance for one family:

poppydog: I don’t know that much about Columbia’s LGBTQ environment, but the Harriet Hancock Center looks like an awesome resource.

Though these resources were not explicitly imagined as affecting school climate, they were seen as desirable to families with LGBT students — perhaps in the hope that if schools were not able to provide a safe space for students, there would be support in other places for them.

School type

While the majority of message board conversations around switching schools dealt with the zoned neighborhood school, perceptions of public choice systems and private schooling were also crucial to understanding families’ choice of neighborhood and school.

A widespread assumption of magnet and charter schools was their marketed demographic of students who were unhappy in public schools. This often lead to referring to charter and magnet schools as more accepting of students from diverse backgrounds and needs:

poppydog: I know my kids’ charter is very accepting of “different” kids and while your child is liable to experience negative behavior by others to some degree wherever they go, some place like my kids’ school where there’s a small student body and several “out” kids and many geek culture kids might work, too.

Other charter and magnet schools were seen as having climates where “anyone can fit in” or have “a more personal approach with each student.” The smallness and subsequent personalization of these alternative schools, matched with their perception as having more kids who do not socialize well into mainstream schools, made these schools more desirable to parents with LGBT children.

The students themselves, however, had a much more diverse set of perspectives on the value of neighborhood schools, choice schools, and private schools. The perception of many of these students was that public schools, by virtue of their size, were most likely to have some safe space for LGBT students:

Doreibo: in a [neighborhood] public school you can probably find heaps of people who you can associate with. The good thing about the public schools is the variety of students and the openness of it all.

Here, a student at a small private school argues that students are more likely to carve out a niche for themselves at a large school with many different groups of students as opposed to a small, more personalized environment. Other students agreed that “there are tonnes of people who you can associate with, [and] the variety would be beneficial—” forum members felt that at public schools “you will bet a better objective education, exposure to the real world with a much better diversity of population and probably better programs.” This demonstrates a tension between parents’ and students’ faith in the possibility of an entire school being accepting. From the parents’ perspective, a smaller community with more personalization is likely to be accepting and make an LGBT student feel comfortable. Meanwhile, LGBT students on the message board showed their skepticism that small schools could be supportive because they didn’t allow for diversity (which they understood as fragmentation of the student body by interest or background).

Class concerns and limitations

Despite what families found desirable about their schools, they also ran into obstacles achieving their ideal school environments. Many of these issues of limited mobility were rooted in social class. A series of limitations by virtue of class background were demonstrated by forum member kromburner, a lower- to middle-class father trying to move to a district where his gay son would be accepted.

In deciding between two urban metro areas in the Southeast, the user admitted his worry that he and his wife were worried about “snootiness” in one of the wealthy suburbs and inquired about “which area would be best for ‘commoners’ of average means.” Here, the poster found themselves pulled in two different directions — the culture of the most desirable LGBT friendly schools are in wealthy suburbs, yet his family is reluctant to assimilate into the upper-class neighborhood that would provide such an opportunity. Other posters were supportive of this tension, and yet pushed him to reconcile his cultural apprehensions for the sake of his child’s education.

kromburner’s situation also revealed the sacrifices that many families need to make in order to . Since the area he hopes to move to has “a very tourist-oriented economy … and not many jobs,” both parents are forced maintain their current employment and commute as many as three hours each way to work. Some posters made suggestions of other cities and neighborhoods that would fit kromburner’s child’s needs, but he eventually turns them down because they would were further than three hours away from his job. Other parents suggested bringing the son to the schools for visits and “spending quite a bit of time in the high schools—” a task that is not possible for families with rigid work schedules. The large burden placed on families to negotiate locations and schedules of work and school poses a serious threat to mobility. In all, the limitations placed on kromburner are ones faced and understood by many parents who know what positive school climates are possible to some LGBT children, but not necessarily their own. The class-based reasons for these obstacles provide a considerable limitation to how families understand school choice — in some cases, identifying a safe school is not immediately followed by choosing a safe school.

Conclusion

In this paper, I have used online message boards to understand how families with LGBT students understand and navigate choosing homes and schools on the basis of school climate. I have analyzed the ways in which families look for resources and visibility from their schools and neighborhoods alike, as well as presented tensions between parents and students in their understandings of how schools can meet their particular educational needs. Finally, I have begun an exploration of how families are limited by the school choice process.

As the first paper to assess how families with LGBT students understand school choice, there are obvious limitations to the extent of its applicability. It is important to recognize the sample population as not very diverse. All data took place on two online forums, reserved for those who have regular access to the Internet with enough time for casual networking on message boards. The threads sampled involved families who were undergoing the choice process midway through their children’s educational journeys, requiring at least some degree of mobility as a prerequisite; there was no representation of families who had no mobility whatsoever. The means by which the data was collected meant that no demographic data was collected to understand clearly how race, class and geography plays a role in these conversations.

From here, I call for more research on this topic in venues beyond the online forum. It is only once we collect more data that is inaccessible via these online spaces that we can fully understand the school choice process for families with LGBT students.

[3665 words]

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