For Chase Stein, the hardest part of coming out as a lesbian in the eighth grade was the social isolation and lack of resources at her Michigan middle school.
"I lost a lot of friends and connections that were meaningful to me," she said. "It was a traumatic experience."
"When I would walk by kids in the hallways, I would hear them whispering about me," Stein said. "I felt super isolated. It was even more dangerous than the overt bullying."
Even the school counselors seemed untrained to deal with Stein's sexual orientation, which was a "huge part" of her identity, she said.
"They treated me as if I were the only LGBT person they had ever encountered," she said. "I couldn't really feel comfortable speaking with them."
But today, as a 17-year-old senior at Wylie E. Groves High School in the Beverly Hills suburb of Detroit, Stein said she feels not only "accepted," but safe. She belongs to an active gay-straight alliance and has access to a library full of materials on sexual orientation in the school library.
Life is getting better for students like Stein, according to a report that was released today by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).
Its 2011 National School Climate Survey finds that use of anti-gay language has continued to decline and, for the first time, victimization of students based on sexual orientation has begun to drop.
GLSEN, a national organization that focuses on ensuring safe schools for all students, has been documenting the experiences of LGBT students every two years since 1999.
The latest survey includes responses from 8,584 students between the ages of 13 and 20, representing all 50 states and the District of Columbia, as well as 3,224 unique school districts.
GLSEN collected data through national and community-based organizations and targeted online advertising on Facebook.
"We are seeing a trend and we are seeing it sustained over time," GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byard said. "The picture out there still remains unacceptable, but it's a consistent story -- in places where schools act and do the right thing, students do better. There are pockets of hope in this picture."
Byard said schools appear to be safer places for LGBT students for four main reasons: support and response from trained adults; bullying prevention programs; gay-straight alliances that give LGBT students a sense of community; and "accurate and positive depictions" of those students in the curriculum.
"This marks the 12th school year that I have worked at GLSEN on these issues," she said. "The work is hard, and when you see how bad it can be out there and to actually see change begin to happen in historical time, it's thrilling and critical to keep going."
Stein said access to school resources and trained support have helped her feel not "so alone." There is also a strict anti-harassment policy and teachers show no tolerance for homophobic language or behavior.
"My first day of high school at orientation, one of the freshmen called the other kid a 'faggot,'" Stein said. "The teacher snapped at him and went off, 'You will never say that again in my classroom or in the school,or I will make sure you are reprimanded appropriately.' That was a powerful experience for me that a teacher didn't tolerate that kind of language."
In the last several years, numerous youth suicides associated with LGBT bullying have grabbed headlines.
In one of the youngest cases, 11-year-old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover hanged himself with an extension cord in 2009 after school bullies repeatedly called him "gay." His mother, Sirdeaner L. Walker of Springfield, Mass., now sits on GLSEN's board of directors.
In 2001, when there was, according to Byard, "a sea of disrespect," an estimated 84.3 percent of students said they heard daily use of words like "faggot" and "dyke." Today, that number has dropped to 71.2 percent. After hitting a spike in the expression, "That's so gay," in 2007, usage began to drop, in part because of a GLSEN campaign with the Ad Council that was launched in the fall of 2008.
Despite Progress Anti-Gay Bullying Persists
Despite this progress, the survey found a majority of LGBT students are still faced with obstacles that affect their school performance and psychological well-being.
Nearly 82 percent said they had been harassed at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation, and nearly 64 percent said they felt unsafe. Almost 30 percent said they had skipped a day of school in the last month because of safety concerns.
Transgender students experienced more hostile school climates than their gay and lesbian peers -- 80 percent reported feeling unsafe at school because of their gender expression.
A "considerable number" of students reported discriminatory policies or practices by school staff, most commonly related to dates at school dances and public display of affection.
Being "out" led to higher levels of victimization, according to the report, but higher levels of psychological well-being.
Since the 1990s, GLSEN has worked with school districts in every state to put safety and education programs in place.
"People go into teaching because they care about young people," GLSEN's Byard said. When we reach out to educators directly, they will act.
"Schools have seen that young people are suffering and the school is suffering," she said. "We can partner with school districts to put interventions in place. But we have definitely hit a turning point."
Even the White House has acknowledged the importance of school-based programs after hosting a conference on bullying this year. The Democratic Party platform also includes a pledge to "continue our work to prevent vicious bullying of young people and support LGBT youth."
Stein, who is active in state and national LGBT initiatives and hopes to study economics and politics in college, said she, too, feels "definitely hopeful."
"I have noticed a shift even in the last couple of years," she said. "In the eighth and ninth grades, I was very depressed. My high school culture has shifted for me and has come to terms with my identity. Student attitudes have also changed. Now, they don't just tolerate me, but a majority accept me as I am."
Chase said even though she has "tons of friends," she still hears the words "dyke" and "faggot" daily at school. But more often than not, when she calls attention to their language, students respond, "I'm sorry I offended you. ... It was my mistake."
"They understand," she said.