LGBTQ Bullying: How to Protect Our Kids
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).