The Impact of LGBT-Related Bullying on Students
Jamie Nabozny, a young gay man growing up in Wisconsin with his brother and parents, won a federal court judgment in 1996 for little under $1 million to be paid by the School District of Ashland (WI) for failing to protect him from bullying at school. According to the New York Times, this was “the first federal trial of a school district for failure to protect a gay student.”
Though million-dollar court settlements are uncommon in situations like this, LGBT students (or those perceived to be LGBT) frequently face bullying and/or teasing. In reality, research from a variety of cultures throughout the world has indicated that around one in every five students in the general population is bullied in school (including cyberbullying), with those who identify as LGBT nearly tripling that incidence. It is worth noting, and perhaps helpful to parents, that cyberbullying rarely occurs in isolation; that is, if cyberbullying is a worry for most children or teenagers, so does conventional bullying. Many experts blame the bullying problem on a lack of tolerance for gender nonconformity among both straight and sexual minority students, as well as a failure on the part of adults to model tolerance for diversity.
Bullying and teasing are linked to a variety of negative health outcomes. Before going into some of them, it’s important for parents to understand why such health problems are linked to bullying, and why it endures as such an insidious problem, as covered in earlier articles on this site.
A student is bullied or victimized when he or she is regularly and over time exposed to negative actions by one or more other students where there is an imbalance of power or strength. The key points here are (1) repetition and (2) a perception by the victim, and perhaps the bully, of the victim’s social isolation. This implies that bullying not only socially isolates people, but it also creates a self-fulfilling prophesy in which others are afraid of befriending a victim of bullying because they worry they will be targeted.
Much of the research suggests that those students labeled as “bystanders” (those who are neither bullies nor victims) acquire this label by observing but not through (a) intervening, (b) reporting the problem to an adult, or (c) befriending rather than further isolating the victim. Bystander inactivity creates the victim’s belief that he or she is alone and unable to escape this cycle of violence. Indeed, because they must attend school, children and adolescents in K-12 schools are typically unable to escape their mistreatment. In certain circumstances, the reach of social media has extended this zone of harassment beyond the school, bus, and neighborhood and into the home. What was formerly deemed “safe” for victims is now a place within reach of school bullies. Young individuals coping with this issue, for this and other reasons, feel trapped—and rightly so.
Bullying is connected with greater incidence of all of the following, which persist into emerging adulthood:
- substance abuse
- sexual risk-taking
- psychological distress
- poor academic performance
- missed school days
Bullying may persist (or begin) in college, as seen by recent media coverage. The extent to which a young adult in college feels isolated from his or her peers may have an impact on these issues.
Parents who are concerned about these problems may feel powerless to act and may be frustrated by their own child’s refusal to report the frequency or degree of bullying. This happens for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being the stigma associated with sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation, which applies to heterosexual youth who are bullied and teased because they are perceived to be LGBT. Remember that the flavor of much bullying is a backdrop to the victim’s perceived (actual or imagined) sexual minority status. Children and teenagers, whether LGBT or not, dislike sharing these concerns with their parents. As awareness of the problem grows, so do the tools available to parents to safeguard their children.
Health professionals and educators are looking at ways to intervene on behalf of those who are bullied, and help is available. We hope you will visit some of the websites listed below for further information: