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Taking Pride in Campus Diversity

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National Symposium Focuses on supporting LGBTQ+ Youth

Peers for Pride 1

For some high school students, the start of the fall semester is a time of excitement and anticipation. But for those within the transgender community, that first day often spurs questions such as, “Will I have to answer to the wrong name or pronoun? Will I feel welcome and accepted by my peers?”

Stephen Russell
Stephen Russell

The most vulnerable students, says UT Austin Human Development and Family Sciences Professor Stephen Russell, are students who identify with this community. According to his recently published study, transgender adolescents are twice as likely to have suicidal thoughts as the general population, and they are up to four times as likely to engage in substance use.

“We have known for a long time—before my studies—that there’s a dramatically disproportionate risk for gay and transgender kids,” says Russell, who studies adolescent development.

Although Russell’s findings paint a bleak picture, new results from his 2018 study show some promising insights. The study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, shows that when transgender youths are allowed to use their chosen name in places such as work, school and at home, their risk of depression and suicide drops.

Findings such as these can lead to big changes in schools across the country, which is why the Stonewall National Education Project Symposium holds nation-wide conferences to bring educators, mental health practitioners, allies and activists to the table. Inspired by Russell’s keynote speech at the 2016 symposium, the Stonewall directors decided to hold the next convening at UT Austin.

“After we were introduced to his research, we became more aware of the great work coming out of UT and the Gender and Sexuality Center,” says Emery Grant, director of programming and education.

Russell said the symposium provides an exciting opportunity for scholars and educators to explore new ways of transforming learning environments where everyone thrives.

“The people at Stonewall are from the school districts and state departments of education that are and have been at the forefront of thinking about what to do about classroom practice and also school and district policy,” Russell says. “It’s just a really amazing group of people because they’re absolutely dedicated.”

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Participants addressed a number of measures for improving safety and inclusion on middle and high school campuses, including anti-bullying policies, mental health intervention and LGBTQ+ inclusive curriculum. To make the biggest impact, the symposium focused on the most marginalized population of students.

“LGBTQ+ students, particularly students of color, are continuously tracked as the most vulnerable population in schools when it comes to suicidal ideation, substance abuse and disciplinary actions,” Grant adds. “These are very serious issues that have a long-term impact on the life of a young person.”

Although these problems persist within the American education system, Grant believes that change will come with time.

“We have to foster community conversations that can shift hearts and minds toward inclusive policies and practices,” Grant says. “We have to help people see that it’s not just an outside agenda. It’s about the health and safety of young people in your own town right now.”

Liz Elsen, director of the Gender and Sexuality Center, is proud to host the symposium at UT Austin. She looks forward to future symposiums, where she can share her knowledge and experience—and also learn new strategies for fostering a safe and inclusive campus culture.

“Every year we have hundreds of students that come to our open house or visit us when we’re tabling,” Elsen says. “For a lot of them, it feels very affirming to see UT prioritize the safety of LGBTQ+ youth and to find a place where they can be comfortable.”