Name-calling and bullying directed at one’s actual or perceived sexual orientation is a common experience among school-aged youth, especially among young adolescent males (AAUW, 1993, 2001; Kimmel & Mahler, 2003; Stein, 1995) and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered) students.  In a comprehensive survey of sexual harassment among American schoolchildren conducted by the American Association of University Women (2001), approximately 19% of male students and 13% of female students (grades 8 – 11) reported being called “gay” often or occasionally by their peers, which was a significant increase over the 1993 survey rates (AAUW, 1993; 9% males, 5% females). 

What does this increase in homophobic bullying mean?

Homophobic Bullying

Results from a large online survey of US students aged 13-18 showed that many schools are intolerant to different sexual orientations other than heterosexual (Harris Interactive & GLSEN, 2005). 

  • 33% reported being verbally or physically harassed or assaulted during the past year as a result of their perceived or actual sexual orientation.
  • Over 1,500 students said they frequently heard students make homophobic remarks.
  • 51% of students frequently heard students make sexist remarks.
  • Common phrases (some 69% reporting) included “that’s so gay” or “you’re so gay.” 
  • Students who were or were perceived to be LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered) were three times as likely as non-LGBT students to not feel safe at school (22% vs. 7%).
  • 90% of the LGBT teens had been verbally or physically harassed or assaulted during the past year because of their sexual orientation. 

Experiences of these school-aged youth are confirmed by adults in the school system. Secondary school principals who recently completed an online survey also report homophobic bullying.

  • Over 90% agreed that students have been harassed because of how masculine or feminine they are or because of their real or perceived sexual orientation (GLSEN & Harris Interactive, 2008). 
  • Few of these principals believed this to be a frequent (very often/often) occurrence (12% and 9%, respectively).

Homophobic Bullying Has Many Terrible Consequences for Kids

A recent study of almost 15,000 U.S. high school students (Espelage, Aragon, Birkett, & Koenig, 2008) looked at the impact of homophobic bullying.

Students were categorized three groups: (1) youth who identified as heterosexual, (2) questioning youth, and (3) youth who identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual.

  • Students who were questioning their sexual orientation reported more teasing, greater drug use, and more feelings of depression and suicide than either heterosexual or LGBT students.
  • Sexually questioning students who experienced homophobic teasing were also more likely than LGBT students to use drugs and/or alcohol.
  • Questioning youth who experienced homophobic teasing were also more likely to rate their school climate as negative in comparison to both heterosexual and LGBT students. 
  • Positive school climate and parental support protected LGBT and questioning students; indicating that not all of those students who identify as LGBT or questioning will suffer high rates of depression and drug use when families and schools are supportive of their sexual orientation.

Peer Pressure Plays a Major Role in Homophobic Bullying

Peers assume perhaps the most instrumental role in promoting homophobic banter.    Poteat (2008) found that individuals who belonged to aggressive peer groups reported increases in their use of homophobic epithets over time.  Students with friends who held negative attitudes toward GBLT youth reported an increase in calling other students, “gay,” “faggot,” or “lesbo.”  

Positive Support from Parents and Teachers is Critical

It is clear from the research that much work still needs to be done in order to create more tolerant and safe schools for all children, especially those youth are starting to question their sexual orientation. 

  • These studies suggest that homophobic teasing is commonly experienced by all youth with administrators and teachers condoning it through denial and perhaps their own heterosexist attitudes. 
  • It has also been established that peers contribute to the exacerbation of homophobic teasing. 
  • However, the picture is not completely negative.
  • Questioning and LGBT students who have supportive schools and parents are protected from the negative effects of experiencing homophobic teasing.

References

American Association of University Women Educational Foundation. (1993). Hostile hallways:The AAUW survey on sexual harassment in America's schools (No. 923012). Washington, DC: Harris/Scholastic Research.

American Association of University Women Educational Foundation. (2001). Hostile hallways: Sexual harassment and bullying in schools. Washington, DC: Harris/Scholastic Research.

Bahr, M. W., Brish, B., & Croteau, J. M. (2000). Addressing sexual orientation and professional ethics in the training of school psychologists in school and university settings. The School Psychology Review, 29, 217-230.

Blackburn, M. V. (2005). Agency in borderland discourses: Examining language use in a community center with black queer youth. Teachers College Record, 107, 89-113.

Espelage, D.L., Aragon, S. R., Birkett, M., & Koenig, B.W. (2008).  Homophobic teasing,psychological outcomes, and sexual orientation among high school students: Whatinfluence do parents and schools have? In S.M. Swearer & D.L. Espelage (Eds.), Sexual orientation, homophobia, and bullying during adolescence [Special issue].  School Psychology Review, 37.  

GLSEN and Harris Interactive (2008). The Principal’s Perspective: School Safety, Bullying andHarassment, A Survey of Public School Principals. New York: GLSEN.

Harris Interactive and GLSEN (2005). From Teasing to Torment: School Climate in America, A Survey of Students and Teachers. New York: GLSEN.

Kimmel, M. S., & Mahler, M. (2003). Adolescent masculinity, homophobia, and violence. American Behavioral Scientist, 465, 1439-1458.

Poteat, V.P. (2008). Contextual and moderating effects of the peer group climate on use of homophobic epithets. In S.M. Swearer & D.L. Espelage (Eds.), Sexual orientation, homophobia, and bullying during adolescence [Special issue].  School Psychology Review, 37.  

Rivers, I., & Noret, N. (2008). Well-being among same-sex and opposite-sex attracted youth at school. In S.M. Swearer & D.L. Espelage (Eds.), Sexual orientation, homophobia, and bullying during adolescence [Special issue].  School Psychology Review, 37.  

Rivers, I. (2001). The bullying of sexual minorities at school: Its nature and long-term     correlates. Educational & Child Psychology, 18(1), 33-46.Thompson & Sharp, 1998.

Savin-Williams, R. C., & Ream, G. L. (2003). Suicide attempts among sexual-minority male youth. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 32, 509-522.

Savin-Williams, R. C. (2001). Mom, dad. I'm gay. How families negotiate coming out. Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.

Stein, N. (1995). Sexual harassment in K-12 schools: The public performance of gendered violence. Harvard Educational Review, Special Issue: Violence and Youth, 65(2), 145-162.

Swearer, S.M., Turner, R.K., Givens, J.E., & Pollack, W.S. (2008). “You’re so gay!:” Do different forms of bullying matter for adolescent males? In S.M. Swearer & D.L. Espelage (Eds.), Sexual orientation, homophobia, and bullying during adolescence [Special issue].  School Psychology Review, 37.  

Tozer, E., & Hayes, J. A. (2004). Why do individuals seek conversion therapy? The role of religiosity, internalized homonegativity, and identity development. The Counseling Psychologist, 32, 716-740.