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Bullying and Mental Health

Nearly 90% of LGBTQ youth have reported being bullied and feeling unsafe at school. The good news is that there are a variety of resistance strategies you can teach your child that can build their resilience and self-confidence.

 

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Despite great strides towards sexual and gender minority acceptance in nearly all of America’s institutions, from government to entertainment, schools still lag behind, with many rainbow teens reporting bullying at an alarming rate. If you are the parent of a rainbow teen or pre-teen in primary school, unfortunately, there is a strong chance that they are experiencing some degree of bullying due to their sexuality and/or gender identity/expression. The good news is that there are a variety of resistance strategies, individual and collective, you can help them employ so that they can make it through stronger than they may ever have thought possible.

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Precise data is difficult to come by, but according to several recent studies conducted by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) nearly 90% of LGBTQ youth have reported being bullied and anywhere from 58-87% of them said they have felt unsafe at school due to their identity [1].

 
Different rainbow identities face different levels of antagonism. For instance, nonbinary AMAB youth (“nonbinary” = people who do not identify as either male or female; “AMAB” = assigned male at birth) reported victimization by bullies at a rate of 86.7%, higher than both AMAB youth who identify as transgender (78.2%) and cisgender LGBTQ youth (66.9%) [2]. Gay males are more likely to experience bullying than their bisexual peers (28.2% to 18.9%) [4]. However, female bisexual students have been found to be more likely to experience bullying than their lesbian peers (38.5% to 28.1%) [4].

 
Similar to physical and verbal bullying, cyberbullying is much more commonly experienced by rainbow youth than their heterosexual peers. Over 48% of LGBTQ students have been bullied via text messages or social media within the last year compared to 18% of their heterosexual counterparts [5]. 13% of LGBTQ victims reported being cyberbullied often and 10% of those skipped full days of school to avoid additional harassment. In this study, only 6% of their heterosexual counterparts skipped school to avoid bullying [5].

Bullying has been proven to exacerbate preexisting challenges that rainbow youth face as well as impart new ones. These challenges include worries that they will be outed, fear of parental non-acceptance, keeping their sexual behavior and risk behaviors a secret, experimentation with substances, and poor school performance [1]. Rainbow youth who are bullied are more likely to be depressed, consider or practice self-harm, have anxiety and depression in their early and later lives, and have lower self-esteem [1,7].

In 2017 it was found that 33% of youth who reported being cyberbullied also reported symptoms of depression [8]. The American Academy of Pediatrics reported that 62% of transmasculine and 49% of transfeminine adolescents have depressive disorders [5]. These psychological effects have led many victims of bullying to attempt and commit suicide.

In 2019, 29.4% of LGB high school students report having attempted suicide, compared to 6.4% of their heterosexual peers [9]. Definitive statistics about suicide among rainbow youth are difficult to discern due to the questionable status of self-reported incidents as opposed to medically or legally documented ones, however according to national data from the CDC, 42.8% of LGBT students and 17.7%. of heterosexual students say they seriously considered attempting suicide. In the same year, 9.4% of LGBT and 2% of heterosexual youth made suicide attempts that were serious enough to be treated by a doctor or nurse [10].

A study from 2020 found that 40% of psychiatrically hospitalized youth identified as a sexual or gender minority and had higher rates for readmittance than their heterosexual counterparts [11]. Of the clinical population surveyed, sexual minority youth experienced depression at a higher rate than their heterosexual peers, at 79.8% vs. 62.2%, as well as generalized anxiety disorder (57.7% vs. 34.5%), PTSD (31.5% vs. 19%), and social phobia (30% vs. 17.3%) [11].

Multiple sources link these discrepancies to unsafe and hostile environments at school. Rates of mental health discrepancies are even higher for trans students, showing that close 35% of trans students report having attempted suicide in the last 12 months [8,9]. Bullying can also cause stress on a child’s physical body and negatively affect their overall health. These physical manifestations of abuse include stomach aches, headaches, and other general discomfort [7].

Additionally, rainbow youth who are harassed at school do not receive the full benefit of their education. This is in part due to missing school because they are concerned for their safety [1,12]. Bullying has also been shown to cause lower grades and test scores [2]. Some of the most common mental health problems among trans youth are anxiety and attention-deficit-disorders [5]. Youth with gender dysphoria have reported an overrepresentation of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), making them particularly vulnerable to bullying and mistreatment [13].

Symptoms of ASD, anxiety, and ADD/ADHD are all worsened by bullying, putting these youth at even higher health risk and lower levels of preparedness for academics. Lastly, for queer young people who are still actively questioning the intersection between their gender and sexuality, homophobic slurs and ridicule can cause them to view complete transition to the opposite gender as the only solution to their victimization. One study found that young people often internalize homophobic ridicule and start to see themselves, for example, as hyperfeminine due to a bully’s stereotypical assumption that gay boys want to be like girls [14].

Rainbow students face discrimination and harassment for a variety of reasons. Often it is related to deviation from gender norms in clothing style, mannerism, vocal patterns, recreation preferences, the typical gender of their friends, and more. Some argue that this ‘gender policing’ is how young people, particularly boys, attempt to highlight their own masculinity [15]. This is also why people who are bullied for atypical gender expression are accused of “bringing it upon themselves.” For example, when a gay middle school boy named Jacob Lasher was called a “bitch” and a “pussy” because of the sound of his voice, one teacher told him, “Speak normally…You don’t have to put on a show” [16].

Similarly, in a study of 15 Canadian heterosexual teenage boys concerning their views on homosexuality and masculinity, one interviewee stated,

“People that are like, “I’m gay, I want the whole entire world to know,” they bug me [laughs]. Like, okay, we get, you don’t have to like—I guess it’s just one of those, that’s when it’s overdone. I mean, if you wear like, a flaming pink shirt, and like, it’s just overdone, like, you can go do that at your gay pride parade, which we shouldn’t even have. I don’t know, like, the whole gay community should be like, away, like, it should be like an underground thing, like how it was. Like, if you were gay, do your thing, just don’t let the world know [17].”

 

Often, school staff even actively normalize ostracizing boys who don’t fit the hegemonic definition of maleness, such as one elementary school PE teacher, who made students play a variant of dodgeball called “smear the queer,” wherein the students are instructed to throw balls at the student labelled “the queer” [18].

Another sort of bullying that gender and sexual minorities face is sexual harassment. Sexual harassment includes making sexual comments/jokes/gestures about another person, spreading sexual rumors, unwanted touching and unwanted sexual advances [19]. Studies on verbal sexual harassment in New York City middle schools reveal that boys are the most frequent perpetrators of verbal sexual harassment, though it affects both genders about equally, with 53.4% of boys and 49% of girls reporting having experienced verbal sexual harassment [20].       

Rainbow youth are particularly at risk, and according to the GLSEN’s “2013 National School Climate Survey,” about three out of five LGBTQ students experienced unwanted touching and sexual comments directed at them [21]. Common gestures to humiliate and marginalize sexual minority students include “grabbing themselves,” making kissing noises, and mimicking homosexual acts [22].

Many people assume that being open about one’s sexual identity is an invitation to ignore personal boundaries. One lesbian student recalls, “People would grab my breast area…They’d come up and grab my waist, put their arm around me” [23]. Another teenager reported that her female classmates would exploit her lesbianism to arouse and attract the attention of their male peers [24]. This is how one gay teenager describes his experience:

 

A student knew I was gay, and would heavily pressure me for, uh, sexual favors. It was actually really hard to try to get rid of him because he was one of the popular kids at school, so he was able to do whatever he wanted. But he would always try to get me to do more with him at school. He would pressure me to try come over to his house and do stuff. And I would always decline, because he was very freaky all the time about it. I did not feel safe near him. For about a year and a half he would harass me with this [6].

 

Homosexuality is often thought to be hypersexuality [25], and gay people go unprotected from much sexual harassment due to the common assumption that they have no personal dignity that can be violated in the first place. For example, after a homosexual boy named Jamie was attacked and mock-raped by two students in front of his classmates while the teacher was out of the room, his principal told him that he was going to need to expect these things to happen if he was going to be openly gay. None of his attackers were punished [16].

            Although gay students are frequently violated by their peers with impunity, they are simultaneously treated as perverts and predators because of their sexual orientation. For example, a girl named Ember remembers being called a “slut” and rejected by her former friends after coming out as bisexual [26]. Another lesbian teenager describes witnessing a group of students tell her, “We can’t talk to you…we’re scared you might rape us” [6]. The intentional depreciation of rainbow adolescents as pariahs is perhaps the most common form of discrimination that they experience, with 95% of students reporting feeling deliberately excluded by their peers, and 29.6% describing this exclusion as occurring frequently [21].

As the social lives of teenagers are increasingly relegated to the internet, that has become the place where bullying is especially likely to occur as well [4]. The internet, particularly through social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, is designed to allow for maximum diffusion of thoughts and opinions with minimal effort, and numerous opportunities for anonymity make it easy to avoid repercussions [3].

Some of the different types of cyberbullying include posting negative statements about victims for others to read, spreading lies and rumors, and sometimes even disseminating personal information about that person without their consent [5,1]. Although cyberbullying usually carries no threat of physical violence, nor is there the increased intimidation that comes from the close spatial proximity with an aggressor, cyberbullying and in-person bullying are mutually reinforcing [5].

Furthermore, much of cyberbullying can be done without the victim’s knowledge and can reach a far greater audience, including many people the victim has never met. This means they can never be sure who has or hasn’t participated in their denigration and makes the bullying more difficult to escape [3,5]. To demonstrate how ubiquitous cyberbullying can be, one bisexual girl observed,

“I know personally online I’ve been harassed over simple little things. My friends tag me in posts supporting gay rights, and I get messages saying all this crap about how I’m going to burn in hell” [6].

Find the laws against cyberbullying in your state using this link: https://www.stopbullying.gov/resources/laws.

Bullies use victimizing behavior as a strategy to elevate their own social status at the expense of others. They believe that deviations from the social norm are incorrect, infectious, and undeserving of respect [7]. These deviations include, but are not limited to non-heterosexual relationships or behavior and non-binary gender presentations or behavior [7]. These differences can be associated with clothing, mannerisms, vocal patterns, popular media preferences, makeup, and much more.

 Most bullying is not an individual attack on your child, although it might sound or feel as if it is. A majority of these attacks are a product of misinformation, discrimination, and societal prejudice. Children learn this behavior at home, in the media, and even at school. Once again, it is important to remind yourself and your children that we live in a heteronormative society and deviations from these norms are often criticized. Bullying and other predatory behaviors often emerge as ways for the bully to solidify his or her status as a member of the in-group; it is important for your child to know that this behavior may actually be a sign of the bully’s own insecurity with regard to sex and gender.

Homophobic or transphobic bullying comes from many different sources and impacts students in many different ways. Some may try to make rainbow kids feel diseased and dangerous because of their desires. Others may believe that they can change their sexual/gender identity and try to shame them into doing so. Some may enjoy humiliating them with vulgar words and gestures, and others may want to cause them bodily harm. Much of this is conducted in a heteronormative environment which often turns a blind eye to these abuses or puts the blame on those who don’t conform to “proper” ways of expressing gender or sexuality.

The good news is that as many ways as there are for your son or daughter to experience bullying, there are just as many ways to resist and overcome it. Many of these involve united fronts of defense, others can be done on an individual level. Individually, you should encourage your teen to set personal boundaries for themselves. This involves them figuring out which words, acts, gestures, statements, etc. make them uncomfortable, and kindly but firmly informing others that they will not tolerate those lines being crossed.

This may include hurtful statements about their identity, assertions that their sexual desires and behaviors are immoral, inappropriate sexual comments, jokes, gestures, and assumptions, intentional misgendering or “deadnaming” (calling them by their birth name which they no longer use), and attempts to “cure” them, or otherwise characterize their identity as a perversion or flaw [7,27]. Let them know that everybody has the right to set boundaries for themselves, and encourage them to respect the boundaries of others as well.

See this video for an introduction to these topics: https://www.kcsarc.org/educators

As for the bullying that queer teens may experience from their peers outside of school grounds, the internet has its own set of challenges when it comes to homophobic harassment. If your child is being bullied online, it may be tempting to remove digital technology from their lives altogether. However, keep in mind that social media often provides integral forms of connection, community, and support, especially for rainbow kids. A better approach would be to talk to your child about the safest ways to negotiate these platforms by understanding privacy, the permanency of content on the internet, and thoroughly understanding how to block certain users.

Additionally, you can introduce your child to support networks including the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), the LGBT National Help Center, the Human Rights Campaign, the National Center for Transgender Equality, Parents and Friends of Lesbian and Gays (PFLAG), the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), and The Trevor Project. Most rainbow communities are incredibly welcoming, inviting, and safe. If your child can find like-minded friends, rainbow peers at school, or student allies, they will have the opportunity to flourish.

To learn about local organizations to refer your child to, see this website: https://www.lambdalegal.org/sites/default/files/publications/downloads/fs_resources-for-lgbtq-youth-by-state_1.pdf.

In the meantime, you should encourage your child to find self-esteem in their individual identity, though before they can achieve self-esteem, they need to first seek self-knowledge and develop a personalized conception of their gender and sexuality. This is not always simple for many teens, particularly those with no sexual experience, and those who are uncertain or questioning (see section below). The journey to sexual confidence and personal acceptance for a rainbow adolescent can be long, and it is a path they must walk themselves. 

However, that does not mean they need to be alone. You can be there for them, and, if they are ready and feel safe enough to publicly embrace their identity, dozens of their peers and teachers can be there for them as well. Multiple studies show that high levels of social connectedness and adult support among gay or trans adolescents is closely correlated with better mental health outcomes, even in the face of orientation-based victimization [28-32].

One of the most effective and proven methods of building community and systems of support in schools are organizations known as “Gay-Straight Alliances” (GSAs). Numerous studies have shown that GSAs cultivate healthier environments for minority students [7,12,33], and according to data from the GLSEN, students in schools with a GSA or similar program were less likely to hear remarks such as “fag” or “dyke” compared to schools without (57.4% vs. 71.6%), less likely to feel unsafe because of their sexual orientation (46.0% vs. 64.4%), and reported less victimization based on their sexual orientation and gender expression (19.0% vs. 36.2%) [21]. GSAs can serve as rallying points for students who aren’t sure where to go to find community and protection. As one student relates:

“…because of who I am, I was confident. I had a great group of friends. But hearing stories in the news…I realized, not everyone is going to be as lucky as me, not everyone is going to have as great friends…They’re going to be bullied. I wanted to create a space [a GSA] for them who weren’t as lucky as me to have that good support system [34].”

Here, students who have been out for a longer time can help new arrivals feel safe and welcome.

In fact, Gay-Straight Alliances have benefits not only for gay students, but many straight ones as well. According to one study, heterosexual boys (though not girls) in schools with a GSA that has been established for at least 3 years had lower levels of suicidal ideation and suicidal attempts than those at schools without a GSA [35]. This may possibly be a result of giving straight students images of well-adjusted and confident people who exist outside of the heteronormative-masculine ethos, offering them alternative ways of experiencing sex and gender [15]. Not only that, but students in schools with a GSA experience lower rates of bullying, not only based on sexual/gender identity, but other traits including body weight, religion, and disability [36]. However, this may in part be a function of better-funded and supervised schools in more tolerant communities being more likely to have GSAs.

According to data from the Family Acceptance Project, students who are open about their sexual orientation and gender identity report higher self-esteem and life satisfaction as young adults than students who remain closeted. They also experience less depression [37]. A positive feeling of self-worth, plus strong social connectedness, does wonders for disarming bullies and taking away their power over others. As one student puts it, “…instead of being able to put me down when they call me queer or gay – they are just validating a major part of who I am” [24].

Additionally, there are numerous things you can do to secure your child against the psychological consequences of bullying. Simply being a reassuring presence in their lives is enough to help them acquire a more positive outlook on themselves and others [1]. The inverse holds true as well. Negative reactions and attitudes from parents lead to negative mental health outcomes, including substance abuse and sexual risk behavior. 15-36% of homeless youth in the U.S. are LGBTQ [1]. Similar to missing school due to safety concerns, rainbow youth will avoid their home if it is not a safe, supportive, and welcoming environment.

Also, remember to ask them about bullying if you see signs that they are unhappy or uncommunicative. Talking about bullying can be uncomfortable, as many teens may internalize the shame they are receiving [7]. For assistance, here are some helpful articles on talking to your kids about sensitive subjects:

https://www.moms.com/talk-teenagers-about-sensitive-topics/

https://www.commonsensemedia.org/articles/how-to-talk-to-kids-about-difficult-subjects

https://raisingchildren.net.au/teens/communicating-relationships/tough-topics/difficult-conversations-with-teens

While heterosexual youth experience both in-person and cyberbullying at a significantly lower rate than their rainbow peers, they are 19% more likely to report this abuse to their parents [4]. Reasons for this discrepancy include sexual minority youth not being out to their parents, fear that parents will restrict their use of technologies, belief that their parents will not and cannot do anything due to their lack of understanding, fear that they will get in trouble, and fear that they will suffer further retaliation from their bully and increased ridicule from others who side with the bully [8]. 

Of course, if they tell you that they are getting along well with their peers, don’t assume that they must be experiencing bullying due to their identity. Likewise, don’t assume there is no homophobic or transphobic victimization occurring in their lives just because they don’t mention it. Keep an eye out for signs such as sullenness, changes in eating and sleeping patterns, withdrawal from friends, decline in academic performance, and bouts of anxiety and irritability [50]. Let them know that they can always talk to you if they need to.

Finally, check out your child’s school and learn about its culture and commitment to keeping rainbow students feeling safe and welcome. For example, curriculum that includes LGBTQ-related sources and history is essential for fostering more inclusive environments [9]. Also, pay attention to the nature of anti-bullying efforts at your child’s school. It has been proven that schools with anti-bullying initiatives that do not specifically outline creating a pro-LGBTQ community are not effective in protecting sexual minority students [7]. If your child’s high school does not have a Gay-Straight Alliance, make an appointment with the principal and encourage them to establish one.

Where your child’s school is located and its demographic makeup may predict its ability/willingness to combat homophobic bullying. Youth in schools with larger rainbow populations report fewer instances of LGBTQ specific-bullying, while students in rural and Southern schools report more hostile environments [7,9]. Meanwhile, predominantly non-white schools receive less financial support than white districts serving the same number of students, which means that they have fewer resources to train their teachers, hire consultants to build more inclusive curricula and environments, and create anti-bullying systems and Gay-Straight Alliances [51].

What else can you learn about your child’s school? For example, does it adhere to “bathroom bills” denying trans students the ability to use the bathroom that aligns with their chosen gender? It is possible that this contributes to the 27% of trans students that do not feel safe going to school [8]. If there are things that you believe can be improved, see our article on sex education for additional resources on making structural changes to your schools and communities.  Sex Education in Schools

Finally, how do you help a teen who is still having doubts about their sexual orientation and gender identity? Even kids whose sexual interests are stable and fixed towards particular object choices over a long period of time may still feel confused and unable to fully recognize what that means about them. For instance, a boy may feel sexual and romantic attractions to other boys in his class, and even understand the homosexual nature of these feelings, yet still not be able to picture himself as someone who is “gay.” These feelings are called “ego-dystonic” – feelings that don’t align with one’s perception of self [39].

One 18 year old boy named Adam who now identifies as gay describes his reaction in middle school when his mom told him that is was okay for him to explore his feelings for other boys:

“I was like, why would you say that to me? I’m not gay! That’s gross blah- blah-blah. And I had a giant episode about it. And she was in the room and she locked me out of her room and I would sit there and scream and kick at her door. And I was like, “I can’t believe you’re calling me gay!” And I would sit there and cry at her door because she called me gay…And I was just so appalled. I was like, “How could you even think that of me?” [40]

Adam explained that he was an “effeminate” boy, and his mother wanted to make sure he knew there was nothing wrong with liking other boys just in case he was gay. Not all rainbow youths are this lucky. Many queer kids, especially those who do not conform to their biological gender, are quickly perceived to be gay and singled out for harassment before they have even come to terms with their sexual orientation themselves [41].

Thus, if your kid is experiencing attractions to the same sex, or experiencing the desire to identify with the other gender, give them the time and space for them to integrate these feelings into their personal identity. Perhaps you can take them out of school for one or two days and take them on a hike – somewhere away from social media – to give them a chance to reflect on their futures and their place in the world. If they want to talk to you about it, don’t assume you need to give them the “right answer.” It’s a process of self-discovery that you can support them in, but not do for them. As one trans woman explains

“Once I came out to myself, it was like an explosion…Everything started changing…it wasn’t easy, like a morning flower opening. I was like cracking open, and these moments of just devastation that would later lead to beauty” [52].

In other situations, the issue may not be related to a rainbow teen trying to admit these feelings to themselves. It may otherwise be related to a rainbow teen trying to determine what exactly these feelings are. Most adolescents, especially younger teens, experience a period of sexual and gender fluidity; many remain fluid for their entire life. They may show interest in taking on the appearances of the other gender, in having sexual experiences with people of their own sex, and know that they are outside the confines of heteronormativity. Yet they may not yet be able or willing to pick a label for themselves [38]. People in this state are called “questioning”.

Questioning teens are in a particularly precarious situation. It is difficult to defend oneself from personal attacks based on who one is while one is still wondering who one may be. As such, questioning youth reported higher rates of bullying, homophobic victimization, and depression than their LGB counterparts [42]. According to one study, homosexual and transgender identities already cause societal anxieties because of their disruption of binaries, i.e., male/female, masculine/feminine, male-attracted/female-attracted, etc. [43]. Teens who feel attraction to both sexes, if they are labelled as “gay” by straight peers, may be given the impression that they don’t have a legitimate right to date the opposite sex. People who exist in a state of doubt and in-betweenness may feel pressured to “pick a side” even by other LGBTQ students [44,45].

However, according to research by Ritch Savin-Williams (2005, 2017, 2021), today’s youths are increasingly becoming unconcerned with strict lines of identification. They are conceptualizing sexuality and gender as fluid, contextual, dynamic, and unstable, and are becoming acclimated to the idea that a person does not need to identify as homosexual, or even bisexual, to desire erotic intimacy with a person of the same sex, nor does one need to identify as transgender to explore gender non-conforming possibilities of dress and/or mannerisms [46,47,38].

A 16 year old boy named Travon described his decision to identify as “queer”:

“I was like, I was, I was in the time of my life where I, like, when I originally came out I was bi, I came out only as bi. And then I realized I like guys better so I said I was gay. And then I started having reoccurring feelings for women so I went back to being bi and I was like this is too much work, I identify as queer, it covers it all and it also doesn’t exclude people like trans people and stuff and, like, I felt that it was a lot cooler to include everybody cause I’m not trying to build walls, like if I like you then I’m going like you [40].”

Hence, there is power in saying that one is not certain, in changing one’s mind, and in allowing for future development. Help your child understand this as well as the excitement of being proudly and confidently unsure [48,49].

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[18] Lauren, C. (2009, April 16). ‘Smear the Queer’: Gay Students Tell Their Stories. ABC News. https://abcnews.go.com/Health/MindMoodNews/story?id=7352070&page=1

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  • Shira Solomons
    Posted June 20, 2023

    Do you have any data on the risks of children becoming homeless or being kicked out by their parents as a result of coming out as trans or parents discovering that a child has adopted a cross-sex identity at school? I know that homosexual kids do face this risk but I am trying to separate the two issues. Do you know of any data on this?

    This is particularly relevant due to the debate over whether schools have a duty of care to tell parents when a child adopts a cross-sex identity at school, or on the contrary have a duty of care to keep the child’s identity private.

    This is completely separate from whether sexual orientation should be kept private, as sexual orientation and gender identity are two different things.

    Thank you.

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