It’s Getting Better for LGBT Youth in Our Schools, Right?

We can generally agree that in terms of social attitudes toward LGBT people, the United States is a better place than it was ten years ago. However, new research shows that for a significant proportion of young LGBT students, life can be a daily struggle against taunting, discrimination and even physical violence.

A Northwestern University study on victimization of LGBT students found that while for the majority of school kids it really does “get better,” for around a third of LGBT-identifying children the story is far from positive.

Beginning in 2007, researchers examined the levels of harassment faced by 248 teens (average age around 18) from the Chicago area who either identified as LGBT or indicated that they had felt attracted to the same gender. The researchers first assessed the teens’ mental health to form a baseline and then carried out seven interviews with the subjects over the next four years. Throughout this period, teens reported incidents of bullying to interviewers who tracked their mental health using standard measures.

The researchers then categorized the young adults by severity of victimization they had faced. As that is somewhat ambiguous, the study describes the classifications as follows:

  • Class 1 had low, decreasing victimization
  • Class 2 had moderate, increasing victimization
  • Class 3 had high, steady victimization
  • Class 4 had high, decreasing victimization

What researchers discovered was that despite greater awareness of anti-LGBT bullying, there was still pervasive discrimination and victimization being reported by a high percentage of participants.

But there was some positive news too.

Just over 65 percent of the sample fell into the Class 1 category, meaning that the majority had faced victimization but, fortunately, it decreased as they got older.

However, a significant proportion of the sample fell into the “moderate, increasing” (10 percent) and “high, steady” (five percent) victimization categories. In addition, nearly a fifth of young people in the sample reported high but decreasing victimization (19 percent).

Using controls like initial mental health of subjects as well as birth sex, the researchers determined that LGBT youths who fell into Class 2 and Class 3 were at a higher risk of depression than those in Class 1.

The researchers do not unpack what this could mean, but we can reasonably conclude that effective early intervention on bullying might stave off long-term consequences. By the same token, the researchers found that those in classes 2, 3 and 4 were at an elevated risk of post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.

We might shrug our shoulders at this research a bit: The sample size is small and the data isn’t that surprising. However, unlike other preceding research, this new study didn’t focus on incidents of bullying during a single time-frame but instead allowed for researchers to look at the accumulated harms of bullying.

As the study press materials note, consistent dirty looks might be hurtful, but they’re unlikely to leave the lasting impressions that physical and severe emotional abuse can foster. Researchers were able to glimpse that, for many LGBT youth, even when bullying stops, its harmful impacts continue–sometimes years after those incidents have ceased.

Brian Mustanski, an associate professor in medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, says of the research: “We were happy to see that for most kids, the levels of victimization were lower overall or decreasing over time. But we were struck by how severe it was for some of these kids who were getting highly victimized over their four years of high school.”

Mustanski goes so far as to say that some of the incidents reported added up to “criminal offenses.” Though society often dismisses bullying as simply a part of growing up, if these kinds of incidents happened to adults it would be a very different story.

“With bullying, I think people often assume ‘that’s just kids teasing kids,’ and that’s not true,” Mustanski explains. “If these incidents, which might include physical and sexual assaults, weren’t happening in schools, people would be calling the police. These are criminal offenses.” 

Of course this isn’t to suggest that criminal charges should be brought against young people who engage in this kind of bullying. We know that funneling young people into the justice system is not the solution, aside from extreme circumstances. Juvenile detention quite often sets offenders up to repeat the same patterns of behavior that got them there in the first place.

However, what the Northwestern research does highlight–even though its figures can’t be taken as nationally representative–is that sustained victimization against LGBT young people must be taken seriously–and stopped.

Explicit LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination laws, like trans inclusion for restrooms and changing facilities, are vital to ensuring protection for every child, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. To accomplish this, we need federal legislation like the Student Non Discrimination Act, as well as state level legislation like that already in place in California and Illinois.

Above all, we must also ensure that those laws are properly implemented because, as figures out of New York City recently demonstrated, just having inclusive laws isn’t enough; Teachers and school administrations have to be empowered to use those guidelines in order to prevent anti-LGBT bullying. As this research demonstrates, though, dismissing victimization cannot be an option.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

26 comments

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus1 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Karen C.
Karen C1 years ago

Kids should be taught from a young age to accept EVERYONE, and to accept themselves. Maybe even some adults now need to know that it's perfectly fine to have different sexual orientations or genders.

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Timothy W.
Timothy W1 years ago

Stardust, it will take a long time for a minority of people such as yourself to accept others who are not exactly like yourself, but the majority of people who educate themselves are quickly learning to think for themselves and accept that there are many different variations of our species. Those people are growing in numbers as quickly as people such as yourself are declining in numbers.

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Sue H.
Sue H1 years ago

Disappointing stats. Teach Tolerance!

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Michael W.
Michael W1 years ago

It isn't just LGBT children that face bullying and victimization. Anyone who is different from society's 'normal' . We need to teach children to tolerant of people who are different then them. Even when the person does something that they disagree with, or makes then 'uncomfortable'.

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pam w.
pam w1 years ago

Dream on, Stardust! The world is changing and becoming more sensitized to the plight of transgender individuals and the discrimination that they and ALL LGBT people face. EVERSOPIOUS ''religious'' bigots will gradually learn to just accept and get over their hatreds. Perhaps they need to spend more time emulating their Jesus?

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Margaret Goodman
Margaret G1 years ago

Anne Moran wisely wrote, "It seems to me,, that everyone who is breathing,, for one reason or another, suffers from PTSD ..."

So I support all efforts to stop bullying. Childhood and adolescence are difficult enough as rites of passage.

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Margaret Goodman
Margaret G1 years ago

Stardust Noel wrote, "It will take a long time for people to get used to something unnatural like transgender. ... "

What's so unnatural about transgender? It happens naturally, just like being left handed.

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Sherry Kohn
Sherry Kohn1 years ago

Many thanks to you !

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Debbi -.
Debbi -1 years ago

I don't believe LGBT students will have an easier time until fearful bigoted adults stop teaching their children to hate what they do not understand. Bullying is _never acceptable. Bullies are only trying to impress their peers because of their lack of confidence in their standing, which causes so much grief and suffering for other all due someone's ego. Children, kids, learn to hate from adults. Children left on their own without hateful influence might be afraid of the unknown, but they do not hate.

The GOP is a good of example. They increase people's fear and spread hate. That is sick and so vary destructive. Anyone who is different or who thinks outside of the box is an easy target of bullies, not just the LGBT students.

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