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Strengths & Silences: LGBT Students in Rural Schools


Andy Marra
Public Relations Manager

Dec 11, 2013

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NEW YORK - December 11, 2012 - Rural lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students feel less safe, face heightened victimization and have fewer supportive resources than LGBT students in suburban and urban areas, according to Strengths and Silences: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Students in Rural and Small Town Schools, a new study released today by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN). The report documents the experiences of more than 2,300 LGBT secondary students who attend schools in rural areas, using data collected from GLSEN's 2011 National School Climate Survey.

"Strengths and Silences is the first in-depth look at the significant challenges faced by LGBT students in rural areas and small towns," said GLSEN Executive Director Dr. Eliza Byard. "These students are frequently the most isolated - both physically and in terms of access to critical resources and support - and our findings require us to both honor their resilience and respond to their needs."

Strengths and Silences reveals heightened incidents of student victimization based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression in rural schools compared to suburban or urban schools. Findings also indicated that an unsafe school climate for LGBT students contributes to poorer grade point averages (GPAs), absenteeism and lowered aspirations to pursue post-secondary education.

"As bad as bullying can be at all schools, it seems to be amplified in the South and magnified in rural communities," said Morgan Yeager, a high school freshman from Portland, Tennessee. "It still seems impossible for me to be openly transgender. I am fearful of the responses I will get from the people in my school community. But GLSEN has given me the materials and strength to work for change in my community."

The national study also reports that LGBT youth attending rural schools have limited access to LGBT-related resources, including inclusive curricula, supportive educators, enumerated anti-bullying/harassment policies and access to student clubs commonly known as Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs). Although these resources are less prevalent in rural areas, they are nonetheless associated with substantial improvements in school climate and students' wellbeing.

"Although research on the educational experiences of LGBT youth has grown considerably over the past 25 years, less was known about the experiences of rural students specifically," said Dr. Joseph Kosciw, GLSEN's Senior Director of Research and Strategic Initiatives. "The findings demonstrate that attending school in a rural area or small town can add to the isolation that can come with being an LGBT youth. Yet, given that resources such as GSAs and supportive school staff can provide important benefits for rural youth, even more attention to developing and supporting LGBT-related resources in rural schools is warranted."


Hostile School Climate and Student Victimization

  • 87% of rural LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, 45% reported being physically harassed and 22% reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation.
  • 68% of rural LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, 31% reported being physically harassed and 16% reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their gender expression.
  • 91% of rural LGBT students heard "gay" used in a negative way (e.g., "that's so gay") and 79% of LGBT students frequently or often heard other homophobic remarks (e.g., "dyke" or "faggot") at school.
  • 3 in 5 (61%) rural LGBT students heard remarks about students not acting "masculine" enough; 42% had heard similar comments about students not acting "feminine" enough frequently or often at school.
  • Only 13% of rural LGBT students reported that school personnel intervened always or most of the time when they heard homophobic remarks, and 11% said school personnel intervened when they heard negative remarks related to gender expression.
  • Rural LGBT students reported feeling unsafe in specific school spaces, most commonly locker rooms (45%), bathrooms (44%) and physical education/gym class (37%).
  • Rural LGBT students who experienced higher levels of victimization were less likely to plan to attend college than students who experienced lower levels of victimization (85% vs 93%).

Presence of Interventions and Support

  • 11% of rural LGBT students reported having an LGBT-inclusive curriculum (i.e., having been taught positive things about LGBT people, history, or events in their classes), significantly less than the 18% of suburban and 20% of urban students.
  • 39% of rural LGBT students whose school computers had Internet access said that they could access LGBT-related websites, compared to 44% of suburban students and 44% of urban students.
  • 27% of rural students reported having a GSA at school, compared to 55% of suburban students and 53% of urban students. But when there was a GSA at school, rural students were more likely to attend than urban and suburban students.
  • 25% of rural LGBT students reported having a school administration supportive of LGBT students, compared to 35% of students in suburban schools and 36% in urban schools.
  • 28% of rural students reported that other students in their schools were accepting of LGBT students, compared to suburban (33% accepting) or urban (46% accepting) areas.
  • 18% of rural students attended schools with policies that enumerated sexual orientation or gender expression, including only 5% who said that their schools enumerated both categories.
  • Although they were less prevalent in rural areas, access to LGBT-supportive resources were associated with significantly better well-being and connectedness to school, and substantially lower levels of victimization.

Key Differences By Locale

  • Rural LGBT students reported feeling less safe than students in suburban and urban areas and rural students living in the South and Midwest were more likely to feel unsafe based on sexual orientation than were students in rural areas of the Northeast or West.
  • Rural LGBT students heard most types of biased language more than urban and suburban students, particularly with homophobic remarks being particularly significant.
  • Rural LGBT students were more likely to feel unsafe at school due to their sexual orientation (71% vs. 62% of suburban and 58% of urban school students) and gender expression (49% of rural students vs. 42% of suburban and 42% of urban students).
  • Rural students were more likely to report discriminatory policies or practices against LGBT people by their school or school personnel compared to suburban and urban students.
  • Rural LGBT students were significantly less comfortable talking about LGBT issues to school personnel than either urban or suburban students.
  • 36% of rural LGBT students had missed class and/or a day of school in the past month due to feeling unsafe, compared to 30% of suburban LGBT students and 30% of urban LGBT students.


Data used in Strengths and Silences: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Students in Rural and Small Town Schools come from the sixth installment of GLSEN's National School Climate Survey, which was conducted during the 2010-2011 school year. GLSEN used two methods to obtain a representative national sample of LGBT youth to participate in the survey: 1) outreach through national, regional, and local organizations that provide services to or advocate on behalf of LGBT youth, and 2) targeted advertising on the social networking site Facebook. For the first method, we asked organizations to direct youth to the National School Climate Survey, which was available on GLSEN's website, through their organizations' emails, listservs, websites, and social networking sites. Additionally, a paper version of the survey was made available to local community groups/organizations with limited capacity to access the Internet. To ensure representation of transgender youth, youth of color, and youth in rural communities, we made special efforts to notify groups and organizations that work predominantly with these populations. For the second method, we posted advertisements for the survey on Facebook, targeting all users between 13 and 18 years of age who gave some indication on their profile that they were lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.

When examining differences between rural students and suburban and urban students, we draw from the full sample of 8,584 LGBT secondary school students, specifically the 8,158 students for whom we collected reliable locale information. This report also examines in greater detail the experiences of the 2,387 students in the survey who attended schools in rural areas. These rural LGBT students were between 13 and 20 years of age, and most were White (78%) and identified as gay or lesbian (64%).



GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, is the leading national education organization focused on ensuring safe schools for all students. Established in 1990, GLSEN envisions a world in which every child learns to respect and accept all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. GLSEN seeks to develop school climates where difference is valued for the positive contribution it makes to creating a more vibrant and diverse community. For information on GLSEN's research, educational resources, public policy advocacy, student organizing programs and educator training initiatives, visit