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Caitlin Ryan Headshot
Stephen T. Russell, Ph.D. Headshot

The Real-Life Costs of Anti-LGBT Bullying

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The rain had just cleared when Peter, age 5, brought his favorite toy horse to the first day of kindergarten. His curly hair framed a sweet face that some might call cherubic but the bullies in the schoolyard called faggot and sissy. They pinned him to the fence, pushed his stuffed horse and face into a mud puddle and didn't stop until 13 years later when Peter left school to live in a gay neighborhood and work as a clerk in a local store. A gifted student who was extremely artistic, Peter suffered years of abuse at the hands of school bullies that led to painful psoriasis at 7; losing 60 percent of his body weight from an eating disorder at 12; a suicide attempt; bouts of anxiety and depression throughout childhood and adolescence; and post-traumatic stress as a young adult that bound him to the familiar streets of the historic gay neighborhood he was afraid to leave because groups of two or more men on the street filled him with dread. Peter knew he was gay at age 13 and his peers assumed he was, too. And the high levels of LGBT school victimization he sustained because of this marked his future in devastating ways.

When we started our research with the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University nearly a decade ago, we didn't know that our findings on the relationship between family reactions and most recently, LGBT school victimization in middle and high schools, would have such a powerful influence on health and mental health in young adulthood. We would see many students like Peter in the school victimization case studies we did that mirrored the findings in our latest research publication in the Journal of School Health which shows the pervasive effects of LGBT school victimization on health and adjustment for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) young adults.

In this new study, we found that LGBT young adults who reported high levels of LGBT school victimization during adolescence were 5.6 times more likely to report having attempted suicide, 5.6 times more likely to report a suicide attempt that required medical care, 2.6 times more likely to report clinical levels of depression and more than twice as likely to have been diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease and to report risk for HIV infection, compared with peers who reported low levels of school victimization. Alternatively, LGBT young adults who reported low levels of school victimization showed higher levels of self-esteem, life satisfaction and social integration compared with peers with high levels of school victimization during adolescence. Most likely targets for abuse were gay and bisexual males, like Peter, and transgender young adults. So while it may seem that many, including the mainstream media, have finally discovered that anti-LGBT bullying is widespread and that some LGBT youth have always been at high risk for attempted suicide, these are longstanding problems. Now, our new data start to show the long-term impact and serious human costs of anti-LGBT bullying and violence.

Over the past two decades, research has shown the kinds of actions that promote safe learning environments in schools. These include: clear and inclusive anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies that include LGBT identity and gender expression; active dissemination of anti-harassment policies and access to information on LGBT concerns; staff training and intervention when bias-motivated harassment occurs; the presence of gay-straight alliances and other student-sponsored diversity clubs; and the inclusion of LGBT issues in the curriculum. Despite this knowledge, a large proportion of students across the country live in states without laws that include protections related to sexual orientation and gender identity and many attend schools with environments that endanger their health and negatively affect their educational attainment.

Pending federal legislation, including the Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Student Nondiscrimination Act, will plug these gaps with urgently needed provisions to protect students on the basis of known or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity. In the past, schools have minimized and denied the impact of bias and victimization related to sexual orientation and gender identity by saying that such bullying is pervasive and expected so it cannot be prevented: after all, "Kids will be kids." Personal beliefs about the morality of non-heterosexual identity and gender diversity, along with lack of science literacy about the growing body of research on human development related to sexual orientation and gender identity have been used to block appropriate action by decision makers. It is time to get real -- and realistic: We know the serious impact of discriminatory bullying, and we also know the strategies that make schools safe for all students.

Beginning to quantify the social, human and public health costs of sustaining abusive school environments helps policymakers understand the cumulative costs to individuals, families and society. Bullying is a critical public health issue that becomes even more costly and widespread as new media increase opportunities for victimization. How many more children like Peter must have their futures shortened or foreclosed while we wait for laws to be passed that protect all students from harm?

Caitlin Ryan, PhD, ACSW is the Director of the Family Acceptance Project at SF State University. Stephen Russell, PhD is the Director of the Frances McClelland Institute at the University of Arizona and President-Elect of the Society for Research on Adolescence. Both collaborate on research for the Family Acceptance Project and are co-authors of the new school victimization study in the Journal of School Health.