“That’s so gay.”
Phrases such as this one, used dismissively by teenagers in what is often a casual, offhand way, can impair the health of LGBT youth long after classes end, a new study shows. The term is so pervasive, in fact, that an earlier survey found that 90% of American youth have heard “gay” used in a negative way.
A new report by the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University traced the effects of LGBT-victimizing bullying in school -- including unintentional epithets like “that’s so gay,” more direct verbal harassment, and physical violence -- beyond their initial sting in school hallways. Using data from the project's survey of 245 LGBT young adults, the paper links such bullying to long-term health and developmental problems.
It found that LGBT-targeted bullying related to gender expression or sexual orientation during school years led to increased young adult depression, suicidal thoughts, social adjustment issues and risky sexual behavior. LGBT young adults that reported high levels of anti-LGBT victimization as teens were 5.6 times more likely to report suicide attempts than those victimized less frequently. They were more than twice as likely to report being clinically depressed, and they were more than twice as likely to report having been diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease by young adulthood.
The report also found that young adult GBT males are targeted more frequently than their female counterparts, and that the amount of bullying a boy receives in school can help predict the health issues he will face later in life.
The report, titled “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Adolescent School Victimization: Implications for Young Adult Health and Adjustment” and published in the Journal of School Health, comes as both popular culture and policy hone in on the topic. The plot of last week's episode of the ever-popular Fox hit show Glee, for example, revolved around quiet, biting homophobic bullying: an openly gay male was (spoiler alert!) crowned Prom Queen.
“I don’t know if these issues are getting easier to talk about, but a lot of people are willing to have the conversation,” said Jeff Krehely, director of the LGBT Research & Communications Project at the Center for American Progress. “That has to do with the fact that a lot more people are out as L, G, B, or T than they were 10 or 15 years ago.”
Meanwhile, several related bills are currently pending in Congress. The Safe Schools Improvement Act would prohibit LGBT discrimination in public schools and forbid schools themselves from discriminating against students based on gender identity. The Student Non-Discrimination Act would seek to end LGBT bullying with a focus on online behavior. And just last week, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) introduced legislation aimed at curbing LGBT homelessness.
“When those policies are on the books, they’ll be a deterrent for people who might want to bully LGBT kids,” Krehely said. “They also give kids who are bullied a way to fight back and stand up for themselves.”
Advocates hope that these concrete numbers that show that the pain of LGBT victimization extends beyond students’ school years will give policy initiatives more bite. “Being able to have data that does that is really powerful in the advocacy that I do,” Krehely said.
Prior research on LGBT youth has focused on the effects of bullying during adolescence, finding that it might compromise mental health while victims are still in school. This paper is the first to take a long-term approach.
"While the focus for so long has been on youth bullying, there’s a price to be paid in later life," said Caitlin Ryan, Director of the Family Acceptance Project and co-author of the report. "The negative or adverse effects that happen in earlier stages affect the later stages of their lives."
For Ryan, the report is the culmination of ten years of research. “It shows that there’s a whole social context to LGBT victimization,” she said. “Effects may be happening in the present, but it also affects LGBT young people in the future.”
The effects of LGBT-targeted bullying, she said, are more serious and lasting than people think. “It’s not about special rights,” she said. “It’s tied to the human right of having an education and going into an educational environment that supports them.”
In other words, evidence of the long-ranging effects of bullying makes policy initiatives more important. “This paper provides another important tool in our approach to help our communities and families understand that these are important issues that need to be addressed,” Ryan said. “Schools sometimes minimize victimization related to young people, saying boys will be boys. But it’s more than that.”
She added that her group is seeking funding to develop materials that would teach parents how to cope with and prevent school victimization.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Jeff Krehely's last name.