Gay and bisexual children are more likely to be bullied as they are growing up, and a new study suggests that victimization may occur at an early age, before some of those targeted are aware of their sexual orientation.
In the first large U.S. study to look at the problem, public school students in three cities were asked about bullying in the 5th, 7th and 10th grades. When they reached high school, they were asked if they identified themselves as gay, lesbian or bisexual. The researchers then looked back at what those kids had said through the years about their experiences being hit, threatened, called names, or excluded.
Overall, many of the nearly 4,300 students surveyed said they were bullied, especially at younger ages, according to the study, which was published Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine. But the 630 gay and bisexual children suffered it more.
The researchers found 13 percent of them were bullied on a weekly basis in 5th grade, compared to 8 percent of other kids. In both groups, the rates went down as the students got older — but the disparity persisted.
“In fifth grade, they already were bullied more than other kids” even though, at that young age, many gay and bisexual kids haven’t discovered their own sexual orientation yet, said the lead author of the study, Dr. Mark Schuster of Boston Children’s Hospital.
The data doesn’t say why each kid was targeted. But most were likely picked on for being “different,” he said.
“Some kids may be considered by the bullies to be a more girlish boy, or a more boyish girl,” said Schuster.
The pattern reflects what was reported in an earlier study of teens in England. The current research drew from an ongoing study of health behaviors and health risks in Houston, Los Angeles, and Birmingham, Alabama.
The differences in bullying and victimization occurring as early as fifth grade is one of the study’s most interesting findings, said Michelle Birkett, a research scientist at the IMPACT LGBT Health and Development Program of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.
“Some kids do come out that young or know very early, but some don’t,” said Birkett, who was not involved in the new research.
She said for bullied or victimized kids, finding supportive people is important. Those can include peers, trusted adults such as family members, or people at school.
“No matter what the reason you’re getting bullied, it’s important that it’s taken seriously,” Birkett said.
Other research has found gay and bisexual high school students are more likely than their heterosexual classmates to attempt suicide or do risky things like smoke and drink alcohol.
In an earlier study, Schuster and his colleagues found that the longer a child is bullied, the more severe and lasting the effect on the kid’s health. Bullying is linked to depression and feelings of lower self-worth, Schuster said.
“At one time, bullying was brushed off as ‘kids will be kids and that’s just part of going through childhood,’” he said. But he said it’s more than a little teasing — the consequences can be “persistent and serious.”
Schuster said parents can look for bruises or scratches that don’t have an obvious cause, or see if their children are anxious, depressed or avoiding school or the school bus.
Parents should also set good examples at home, he said. For example, parents shouldn’t mock or make fun of lesbian, gay or bisexual individuals, because they may unknowingly make their children feel rejected.
“For the kids who aren’t sexual minorities, it’s also sending a message that it’s OK to mock people who are gay,” Schuster said.
Bullying is aggressive behavior that is intentional and that involves an imbalance of power. Most often, it is repeated over time. Bullying can take many forms: physical bullying (hitting or punching), verbal bullying (name-calling, teasing), social or emotional bullying (exclusion, hurtful gestures), or cyber-bullying (negative messages via e-mail or text messaging).
Verbal bullying is the most frequent form of bullying experienced by both boys and girls. Often, even among young students, this form of bullying can involve negative language that is sexual in nature.
Sometimes, this sexual language refers to another person’s actual or perceived sexual orientation (for example, targeting an individual as being “gay”).
Bullying Based on Perceptions about Sexual Orientation
As many as 93 percent of teenagers hear derogatory words about sexual orientation at least once in a while, with more than half of teens surveyed hearing such words every day at school and in the community.
Negative name-calling and harassment about sexual orientation can be harmful to all students. Three out of four students who are bullied with such remarks are not identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (GLBTQ). These derogatory comments are often used broadly to inflict harm in a school setting.
Seventy-eight percent of gay (or believed to be gay) teens are teased or bullied in their schools and communities, a percentage significantly higher than for heterosexual youth.
According to findings from the Indicators of School Crime and Safety report, in 2003, 12 percent of students ages twelve to eighteen reported that someone at school had used hate-related words against them, and 36 percent of students saw hate-related graffiti at school during the previous six months. One percent reported that the hate-related words concerned their sexual orientation.
A national survey of 760 students, ages twelve to seventeen, indicates that the most likely group to be bullied are “kids who are gay or thought to be gay.” Most teens (78 percent) said that they disapproved of anti-gay teasing or bullying.
In a nationally representative sample of nearly 3,500 students ages thirteen to eighteen, one-third reported that students in their school are frequently harassed because of their perceived or actual sexual orientation.
Negative Impact of Bullying
Bullying and harassment can have negative effects on the development and mental health of GLBTQ students, such as extreme anxiety and depression, relationship problems, low self-esteem, substance abuse, and thoughts of suicide. These students are also at much greater risk of physical assault than other children and youth.
Students who had experienced anti-gay harassment are four times more likely than non-harassed youth to be threatened with or injured by a weapon.
Twenty-two percent of GLBTQ students had skipped school in the last month for safety concerns and are three times more likely to drop out of school.
GLBTQ students are also at risk for not getting the support they need when they are being bullied due to their perceptions that adults at school may have intolerant attitudes or may not provide confidential help in which to deal with their situation. Four out of five GLBTQ students say they know of no supportive adult at school.
GLBTQ students are two to three times as likely to commit suicide as heterosexual students and may account for a startling 30 percent of all completed youth suicides. These students are also more likely to experience suicidal thoughts, plans, and attempts than other students.
About Sexual Orientation
It is estimated that approximately 5 to 9 percent of youth are gay or lesbian, bisexual, or uncertain about their sexual orientation.
The American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association changed their stance on homosexuality in the 1970s, stating that it is not a disorder and that sexual orientation is not a person’s individual choice, nor can mental health professionals “change” the sexual orientation of their clients.
Adult Responses Are Important!
These are things adults can do:
No child or adolescent deserves to be bullied. Do not tolerate any anti-homosexual slurs.
Work with student government and other school clubs to hold programs on respect, school safety, and anti-bullying.
Be alert to signs of youth who may be in distress.
Encourage any young person who is bullied to tell a teacher, counselor, or parent.
Provide confidential help-consult with a school counselor or other mental health professional if you feel uncertain about how best to support a student.
Support training and education for staff about these issues
School bullying can be horrible, especially for LGBT youth
School days can be horrible for victims of bullying, and especially for people who are thought of as “different”, like LGBT students.
Many gay, bisexual, lesbian and transgender kids suffer greatly at the hands of school bullies, but this heartbreaking story shows that it’s never too late to say sorry.
ChadMichael Morrisette didn’t just have one bully – he had a whole football team
As a boy, ChadMichael Morrisette wasn’t just bullied by one or two people, but the entire football team of his West Alaska school, just for being who he is.
“I was bullied for being gay,” he said.
“I was bullied for being little.
“I was bullied for every reason someone is bullied. It was awful.”
He forgot about those awful days – but then he got a Facebook message he never expected
He moved away to West Hollywood when he was 15 and pushed the bullying out of his mind.
But it all came flooding back when one of his bullies got in touch out of the blue when he was 34.
One of his school bullies, named Louis Amundson, tracked him down using Facebook and sent him an unexpected message.
And, despite the years of torment, ChadMichael forgave his former bully with a graciousness and generosity that acts as an inspiration to absolutely everyone.