It gets better. Those three words have become a slogan for a widely popular online campaign aimed at encouraging lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth to be strong in the face of bullies—especially during childhood and adolescence. The campaign began in late 2010, after a rash of news stories about the link between bullying—based on real or perceived sexual orientation and gender expression—and suicides in students.
Despite increased social acceptability of various sexual orientations, LGBTQ youth (the Q refers to queer and questioning) still fight an uphill battle against bullying in the classroom and online. In fact, up to 86 percent of LGBTQ students report having been bullied based on their sexual orientation, and up to 67 percent of LGBTQ students state they’ve been bullied based on their gender expression. Bullying based on sexual orientation or gender expression can take many forms—most often verbal name calling and threatening, but also physical violence (1). Transgender students, LGBTQ students who are racial or ethnic minorities, and LGBTQ students who are in middle school may be bullied most often (2, 3, 1).
How Victims are Affected
LGBTQ bullying has a negative impact on both school performance and the mental health of the victims. Students who are bullied in general are usually less engaged, or connected, to their school communities. This disengagement, combined with a fear for their safety, makes bullying targets more likely to skip school than their peers. Skipping class usually means lower academic achievement and weaker grades—problems that are particularly true for LGBTQ students who have been bullied (1, 2).
Additionally, kids who have been bullied about their sexual orientation are more likely to abuse alcohol and other drugs—even when the children targeted for “being gay” actually identify with a different sexual orientation (5).
Bullying negatively affects the mental health of all students, and this is especially true for victims of bullying who are LGBTQ. Symptoms of traumatic stress have been found in LGBTQ students who have been bullied (4). These symptoms can include having nightmares, feeling irritable or angry, being startled easily, and avoiding situations that are reminders of the traumatic events.
In addition, symptoms of depression including changes in appetite and sleeping patterns, refusing to participate in social events, and feelings of extreme sadness and hopelessness, have been found in many LGBTQ students who have been bullied (5).
Depression can lead to suicidal thoughts, so it follows that considering self-harm is found to be more common among LGBTQ youth (6). However, exact rates of attempted suicide among these children and adolescents continue to be debated by experts (7).
Coming out—sharing sexual identity or gender expression with others—seems to be a particularly risky time for many LGBTQ students. Bully victimization, mental health problems, and suicidal thinking increase for many youth following coming out (2, 8).
Ending LGBTQ Bullying
Educators are bound by law to protect students in school—and parents can make a positive impact by encouraging school staff to take a stand against bullies (9). Both parties can step up and take actions that have been useful in reducing bullying and improving the well-being of students in general—and LGBTQ youth in particular. Help improve the social climate for your child by advocating for these changes at school:
- Use bully prevention procedures, policies, and rules in schools that are grounded in research. Many myths about bullying prevention and intervention still abound, so it’s critical to find out what really works to curb bullying behavior.
- Is bullying based on sexual orientation and gender expression unacceptable based on the school conduct code? If not, petition the principal to add these particular kinds of bullying to the conduct code, with examples, so students understand what kinds of behaviors are inappropriate.
- Make sure students know school personnel who are looking out for their safety, are supportive, and will help them report bullying following school procedures.
- Establishing a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) can improve the school climate for LGBTQ students and allies. You can start a GSA using the same guidelines as you would any other school organization. Check out the Student Handbook for instruction, find an enthusiastic faculty adviser, inform the principal, school psychologists, guidance counselors, and social workers of your plans and advertise to students and staff. More guidance on handling challenges when developing a GSA can be found online through the Safe Schools Coalition and other websites.
- Since LGBTQ students often feel invisible in curricula that does not feature people like them, you should use educational materials that include LGBTQ people and topics, such as books, posters that promote acceptance of diversity, or lesson plans from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) online. All students can benefit from educational materials that feature different viewpoints.
- Call meetings to inform educators and parents about gender and sexual development, LGBTQ youth, and the importance of supportive adults. Encourage them to intervene with bullying, and recognize signs of suicidal thinking and intervene effectively. Additionally, garnering the support and expertise of a school or community psychologist or social worker would be helpful to the development and facilitation of these meetings.
- Teach students to take a stand if they see someone being bullied for their gender expression or sexual orientation. Talk with them about how to intervene by telling those bullying to stop—if it is safe to do so—or suggesting they do something else to shift their attention, by helping the victim to walk away, or by reporting the bullying to an adult. Remind them that one act of kindness can make a big difference.
- Students can also help with recognizing signs of suicidal thinking in themselves and their classmates. School psychologists, social workers, and guidance counselors can lead bully prevention and intervention and suicide recognition programs.
- Seek help from community agencies that serve LGBTQ youth and their families like Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays and The Trevor Project.
All youth, no matter the gender they identify with or who they would like to ask to prom, deserve to have the chance to learn in a safe, happy environment. You taking a stand and providing encouragement can give students who identify as LGBTQ this opportunity.
This article is based on the following book chapter:
Scherr, T. G. (2011). Addressing the needs of marginalized youth at school. In S. R. Jimerson, A. B. Nickerson, M. J. Mayer, & M. J. Furlong (Eds). The Handbook of School Violence and Safety: International Research and Practice. New York: Routledge.
Kosciw, J. G., Diaz, E. M., & Greytak, E. A. (2008). 2007 national school climate survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth in our nation’s schools. Retrieved from Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network website.
Greytak, E. A., Kosciw, J. G., & Diaz, E. M. (2009). Harsh realities: The experiences of transgender youth in our nation’s schools. Retrieved from Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network website.
Diaz, E. M., & Kosciw, J. G. (2009). Shared differences: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students of color in our nation’s schools. Retrieved from Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network website.
D’Augelli, A. R., Grossman, A. H., & Starks, M. T. (2006). Childhood gender atypicality, victimization, and PTSD among lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 21, 1462–1482. doi:10.1177/0886260506293482
Espelage, D. L., Aragon, S. R., Birkett, M., & Koenig, B. W. (2008). Homophobic teasing, psychological outcomes, and sexual orientation among high school students: What influence do parents and schools have? School Psychology Review, 37, 202–216.
Grossman, A. H., & D’Augelli, A. R. (2007). Transgender youth and life-threatening behaviors. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 37, 527–537. doi:10.1521/suli.2007.37.5.527
Savin-Williams, R. C. (2001). Suicide attempts among sexual-minority youths: Population and measurement issues. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 69, 983–991. doi:10.1037//0022-006X.69.6.983
D’Augelli, A. R., Hershberger, S. L., & Pilkington, N. W. (2001). Suicidality patterns and sexual orientation-related factors among lesbian, gay, and bisexual youths. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 31, 250–264. doi:10.1521/suli.184.108.40.20646
McFarland, W. P. (2001). The legal duty to protect gay and lesbian students from violence in school. Professional School Counseling, 4, 171–179. Retrieved from http://www.schoolcounselor.org/content.asp?contentid=235