In the United States, nearly 100,000 LGBTQIA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual) students attend non-affirming religious secondary schools yearly (Green et al., 2019; Institute of Education Sciences [IES] & National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2019a, 2019b). Because organized religion can have both beneficial and harmful outcomes on LGBTQIA+ youth (Wolff, 2016) and a secondary school environment has a significant impact on a student’s sense of academic success and well-being (Forber-Pratt et al., 2021), it is essential to understand and implement best practices that support LGBTQIA+ students in non-affirming religious secondary schools. Using phenomenological methods within a qualitative approach, this study focused on the lived experiences of LGBTQIA+ students who attended non-affirming religious secondary schools to evaluate success factors and best practices that lead to supporting positive student outcomes. To honor the complexity of experience and empower participants, this study integrated the frameworks of appreciative inquiry (Cooperrider & Srivastva, 1987), critical theory (Freire, 1970/2020), Spencer’s (1995) phenomenological variant of ecological systems theory, and Yuan’s (2016) theology of compassion for the marginalized. This study used purposive and snowball sampling to recruit 12 participants. Semi-structured interviews produced data relevant to the phenomenon being studied. The study found that in order to ensure positive outcomes for LGBTQIA+ students at non-affirming secondary schools, school leaders must shift their school culture, institutionalize supports, and communicate the unconditional love of God, among other recommendations. Without implementing best practices, non-affirming schools risk distorting the gospel message and exacerbating the mental health challenges common in this vulnerable, at-risk population.

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Education, Secondary; Church schools; Sexual minorities—Students

Date of Award


School Affiliation

Graduate School of Education and Psychology



Degree Type


Degree Name


Faculty Advisor

Gabriella Miramontes