Adolescence is a difficult stage in life because it is a time for many when social status is seen as very important and self-esteem can be fragile. One’s social status can directly affect one’s self esteem and overall happiness. Unfortunately, many of those who possess a higher social status in middle and high school use it against those who are deemed socially inferior to them, whether that is due to race, attractiveness, intelligence or sexuality. In other words, the adolescents at the bottom of the social pyramid are often subjected to bullying and harassment from their socially “superior” classmates.
Bullying and harassment have become a widespread problem in schools all around the United States and have proved to have serious implications, such as problems in academics for those who are victimized by bullies. Victimization from bullying and harassment can be linked to lowered self-esteem, anxiety, depression, avoidance of school, and suicide (Hawker & Boulton, 2000).
Unfortunately, one of the most victimized groups of students subjected to bullying and harassment is the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and queer youth.
According to the National Youth Association, 9 out of 10 LGBT students have experienced harassment while at school. It also states that LGBT teens are bullied two to three times as much as straight teens. These high rates of bullying may explain why more than one-third of LGBT kids have attempted suicide (Hawker & Boulton, 2000). Specific harm aimed towards LGBTQ community, known as gay bashing and gay bullying can be defined as verbal or physical abuse against a person who is perceived by the antagonist to be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered. This also includes those who are actually heterosexual but may appear to be non-heterosexual due to stereotypes. The three main types of bullying the LGBTQ youth is most subjected to are verbal harassment, physical assault, and cyber bullying.
The first main type of bullying, verbal harassment may be hard to detect because it leaves no physical proof, but rather mental and emotional trauma. However, it is still a popular and damaging tactic used by bullies to hurt the LGBTQ youth everyday. In fact, according to River’s study in 1996, it is the most popular tactic among bullies. Also, according to bullyingstatistics.org, many victims of verbal bullying experience lowered self-image, and can have lasting effects in emotional and psychological ways. This type of bullying can lead to low self-esteem, as well as depression and other problems (Hawker & Boulton, 2000). According to River’s study in 2001, many LGBTQ adolescents report being exposed to verbal harassment and stigmatization. River’s recent survey shows that 82% of the LGBTQ youth in schools are subjected to verbal slurs (Rivers 2001). According to another study from the Mental Health of America in 1998 on verbal abuse, students hear anti-gay slurs such as “homo”, “faggot” and “sissy” about 26 times a day, which would be about once every 14 minutes throughout their school day.
Anti-gay language used on a regular basis in school settings is creating an unfriendly and unwelcoming atmosphere for the LGTBQ students, which may be causing them to be isolated and socially withdrawn (Swearer, Turner, Givens, &Pollack, 2008). Although not all anti-gay slurs heard in school are meant to be malicious, it is still hurtful for the gay youth to hear. Many adolescents who use gay slurs may not be homophobic, but more ignorant to LGBTQ issues. Obviously not all homophobic name-calling is directed at young gay and lesbians. For example, researchers found that terms such as ‘‘gay’’ and “homo” are often used to refer to anything unmasculine or ‘‘uncool’’ (Duncan, 1999). Regardless of intention, the constant degradation of these words causes a hostile and uncomfortable environment for the LGBTQ youth (Thurlow, 2001). Homophobic slurs such as “That’s so gay,” or “no homo,” are popular among adolescents and often go unpunished due to the heteronormative atmosphere dominating schools (Thurlow, 2001).
Many students may feel hesitant to speak out against anti-gay slurs out of fear of being persecuted themselves. In the U.K. a series of surveys commissioned by Stonewall reported that as many as 93 percent of young gay, lesbian and bisexual people who are ‘‘out’’ at school suffer verbal abuse (Thurlow, 2001). It is evident that it is not a coincidence the LGBTQ youth face the most harassment of any minority at school. Along with verbal abuse, LGBTQ youth also experience physical violence in schools across the country everyday. Back in the 1980’s and 1990’s sociologists such as Joyce Hunter thought that much of the physical abuse happening towards the LGBTQ population stemmed from the stigma and fear that came from the AIDS epidemic that was spreading rapidly among the gay community in that time. In a study as recent as 2003, 60% of LGBTQ youth had reported being assaulted physically due to their sexual orientation (Chesir-Taran, 2003) These physical actions towards the gay and lesbian youth has caused many to fear going to school. In fact, many LGBTQ students avoid school in order to escape the physical harassment. This drop in attendance has detrimental effects on the student’s academics (American Educational Research Association).
According to StopBullying.gov, since LGBTQ students are more likely to avoid school they are at a higher risk for decreased academic achievement, including lower GPA and standardized test scores—and school participation. They are more likely to miss, skip, or drop out of school as well. LGBTQ youth that have been subjected to physical harassment, or youth perceived as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, are more are also more likely smoke, use alcohol and drugs, or engage in other risky behaviors (Rivers 2001). This also causes lesbians, gays or bisexuals to be twice as likely as their peers to be depressed and think about or attempt suicide (Russell & Joyner, 2001). This high rate is physical abuse may be one of the reasons why the American Educational Research Association reported that LGBT teens are 3.3 times more likely to think about committing suicide than heterosexual teenagers, as well as three times more likely to actually commit suicide.
These victims of physical abuse also have higher rates of unexcused absences from school (American Educational Research Association). According to the social comparison theory, anti-gay violence, such as hates crimes tend to occur due to heterosexuals wanting to make a distinction between themselves and homosexuals. Meaning that the bullies are not acting on their own, but in a group. Some research implies that heterosexuals preform violence upon homosexuals to create a negative evaluation of LGBTQ’s, which in return creates a larger separation between homosexuals and heterosexuals. In other words, heterosexuals wants to make a clear distinction between themselves and homosexuals, and therefore violence is used to create this differentiation (American Educational Research Association). Since the LGBTQ is such a small minority group in most schools it is easy for heterosexuals to make the homosexuals the out-group, whereas other heterosexuals benefit from in-group biases and treatment (Herek, Berrill & Berrill, 1992). What is so important about the social comparison theory and gay violence is that violence is one of the most effective and obvious way to create a differentiation between the in and out-groups.
Interestingly, Herek & Berill found that most crime related violent acts usually only involved one victim and one perpetrator, however when these violent acts were considered hate crimes, especially among gays and lesbians, the number of perpetrators averaged around four. Herek & Berill also found in their research that boys are at a high risk for being both the perpetrator and victim, most likely due to bullies wanting to assert their sexual superiority and masculinity over homosexual boys (Herek & Berill, 1992). In contrast to being pushed into lockers or being called homophobic slurs while walking down the hallway to class, LGBTQ students are subjected to a new form of harassment nowadays, which takes place outside of the classroom, and more specifically on the Internet. According to stop bullying.gov, Cyberbullying is bullying that takes place via electronic technology. This includes devices such as cell phones, computers, social media sites, text messages, web chat, and websites. One reason that this type of bullying is on the rise is because as technology advances, adolescents become more exposed to it, while adults become more disconnected.
This discrepancy in culture between adults and adolescents causes many parents to become unaware of what their children are doing on the Internet, which may put them at a risk for being harassed, or even preforming the harassment (Keith & Martin, 2005). One of the most recent and well-known cases of anti-gay cyber bullying is the story of Tyler Clementi, a gay Rutgers University student. Clementi was a victim of cyber-bullying because his roommate, Dharun Ravi, spied on his make-out sessions with a hidden webcam and outed him online. This caused Tyler Clementi to kill himself by jumping off the George Washington Bridge in 2010.Studies show that LGBTQ youth who are bullied online were more likely to have skipped school, to have detentions or suspensions, or to carry a weapon to school (Ybarra, Diener-West, & Leaf, 2007). In this same study, the majority of the participants who admitted to being the perpetrators of cyber bullying attributed anonymity for feeling more comfortable harassing others online due to the fact they had little fear of repercussions or of being traced backed to crime.
This leads aggressors to threaten, harass, or abuse others and to even assume a new persona or character online (Ybarra et al, 2007). The victims in this study reported that they felt more helpless when they were attacked via the Internet, than in classroom. One student from another study related to cyber bullying stated that said that she felt like there was no point in telling an adult about cyber harassment because there is no proof who actually did the bullying, simply because the perpetrator could easily say, “that wasn’t actually me, it was someone pretending to be me” (Keith & Martin, 2005) Although one study found that cyber bullying is the least common type of bullying (Wang, Nansel &Iannotti, 2010,) the fact that these cyber bullying victims feel as though they cannot seek help or end the victimization may explain this study found that these students had the highest rates of depression and helplessness.
Some studies, such as one in 2003 say that the high rates of suicide and depression among LGTBQ youth are proof of internalized self-homophobia (van Wormer & Mckinney, 2003). In other words, the LGBTQ youth are so exposed to homophobia that it has caused them to become self-hating and prejudiced against their own-selves. Hiding in the closet, not fitting in, and living in fear has caused a melting pot for self-hatred, and self-embarrassment. Findings from this research stated that those who are considered to be experiencing self-hating are at a higher risk for reckless and self-destructive behavior. The findings from this research even go as far as crediting the high rates of AIDS among gay communities to self-hatred. The results state that many gay men fail to use protection due to a subconscious belief that they feel guilty for being queer and are unable to deprogram the negative stereotypes they receive for being queer.
The same researcher also found that high rates of might be due to high drug addiction rates among queers that may be brought on by self-hatred (van Wormer & Mckinney, 2003). Although the recent suicides and murders of LGBTQ youth such as the death of Matthew Shepard in 1998 are unwarranted and tragic, they have started paved the way for protection of all students institutionally, regardless of sexual orientation. Promptly after the death of Shepard the organization known as PFLAG implemented 150 chapters in the U.S. schooling system (van Wormer & Mckinney, 2003). These chapters helped raise press for non-discriminatory policies in schools, support straight-gay alliances, donate LGBTQ literature to libraries, and to train teachers in crisis interventions.
GSA clubs in schools have been credited as one of the major factors in helping teenagers create openly gay lives with peers and relate and support them (van Wormer & Mckinney, 2003) According to the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network, there are over 3000 gay-straight alliance programs in high schools across the country. Van Wormer & Mckinney describe harm reduction principals as a guide produced by the U.S. Department of Education and Justice to minimize violence against students. Recently, the state of Massachusetts was the first state to enforce teachers to discuss homosexuality as well as heterosexuality in age-appropriate ways to prevent students from feeling left out.
According to the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network, there are three different federal laws protecting LGBTQ students from bullying and harassment in schools. The first type of law that prevents bullying and harassment of LGBTQ students is known as the Enumerated Anti-Bullying Laws. The states that have implemented this specific law include: Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. With this law LGBTQ students can feel safer at their schools and know that these laws will protect them and there will be repercussions for those who do not follow them. The second type of law protecting LGBTQ students is known as the non-discriminatory law.
The following states have implanted this non-discriminatory law: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington. With this law implemented LBGTQ students cannot not be denied basic fundamental rights, and are guaranteed the same opportunities as heterosexual students. Unlike the first two laws, the third law may harm or stigmatize LGBTQ students. This is because this law bans LGBTQ students from receiving extra or special protection, even though it is proven they are at a higher risk for being harassed and bullied. “No promo homo” laws, local or state education laws that expressly forbid teachers from discussing gay and transgender issues. The states that allowed this law to be implanted are: Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah.
Apart from the government and organizations pushing for protection of LGBTQ youth in schools, public figures have also reached out to the young gay community to remind them how important they are. In 2010 the famous gay author Dan Savage created the “It Gets Better Campaign,” in response to the suicides of teenagers who were bullied because they were gay. The website consists of LGBTQ people posting videos directed towards others struggling with their sexuality and who might be contemplating suicide.
According to Savage, the website was an overnight success with a claim of 30,000 video entries between 2010 and 2012, including videos from celebrities and respected public figures, such as Barack Obama. This campaign is helping to raise awareness of the injustices and prejudices plaguing the American school systems, which are having detrimental effects on the LGBTQ youth. Another recent and popular campaign that has been gaining much attention recently is known as “The Trevor Project.” This non-profit organization is also helping raise awareness of the recent LGBTQ youth suicides and according to the gay affiliated magazine, The Advocate; the organization offers the “Trevor Lifeline,” which includes a telephone number, which will connect people with suicidal thoughts to professional counselors.
Because the LGBTQ youth is such a small minority in schools across the country, it is to no surprise that they are at the highest risk of being subjected to bullying and harassment in school. This harassment includes, verbal abuse, physical assault and cyber bullying. Therefore it is no surprise studies that were previously mentioned show that 9 out of 10 LGTBQ students have reported some sort of bullying in school. With the extremely high rates of depression, fear and suicide among the gay youth, it is important that there is a social reform implemented across the country, especially in the schooling system.
Regardless of personal opinion and beliefs on homosexuality, everyone deserves to feel safe and happy in their classroom. Thanks to anti-discriminatory and anti-bullying laws implemented in some states, many LGBTQ youth have been working towards equality. However there is still much progress needed. With positive organizations such as “It Gets Better,” and “The Trevor Project,” hopefully the rates of bullying, harassment and suicide among the LGTBQ youth will drop, allowing these young students to witness history for themselves and their queer allies. As Ellen DeGeneres once wisely said, “Things will get easier, people’s minds will change, and you should be alive to see it.”
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