Anti-LGBT bullying took the national stage last fall after the highly publicized suicides of several teens bullied for being gay or perceived to be. The relentless bullying, many believe, may have been one of the contributing factors in their decisions to attempt suicide, and their deaths led to an surge of anti-bullying awareness campaigns and media coverage.
But will LGBT students entering school this fall be any safer after a year of heightened awareness about the issue? Two LGBT leaders are doubtful, although they acknowledge some positive changes.
Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), said, “Last fall, the nation as a whole woke up to the potential consequences of this problem.” This year, “more schools are aware of what they need to do, and there are more resources out there.”
But while “we’ve made progress” in people’s understanding of anti-LGBT bullying and “ideas and policies are getting traction,” Byard said, there is still “a lot of work to be done.”
David McFarland, interim executive director/CEO of The Trevor Project, the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBT (and questioning) youth, said, “We’re not there yet because we’re continuing to see anti-LGBT rhetoric and movement across this country that has a negative effect on young people. . . . There is greater awareness around this issue, but LGBT students still experience bullying and harassment at an alarming rate.”
Research has shown the negative effects of bullying. GLSEN’s 2009 National School Climate Survey found that nearly 9 out of 10 LGBT students experienced verbal or physical harassment at school in the previous year, which was related to increased depression and anxiety and decreased self-esteem.
And a study in the May 2011 Journal of School Health found that anti-LGBT bullying at school “is strongly linked” to negative mental health for its victims, including an increased frequency of suicide attempts and increased risk for engaging in behaviors that can lead to infection with STDs and HIV. The increased risks exist not only while the victim is in adolescence, but also in young adulthood.
Federal actions taken over the last year to address anti-LGBT bullying include, most prominently, an anti-bullying conference hosted by the While House in March 2011, at which President Obama told attendees that bullying is “more likely to affect kids that are seen as different,” including those who are different because of sexual orientation.
The U.S. Department of Education has also issued a number of letters to educators, reminding them:
- that federal laws require schools to take action against bullying—including gender-based and sexual harassment of LGBT students.
- that schools receiving federal funds must provide equal access to school resources for all student groups, including gay-straight alliances (GSAs), and that GSAs “can help make schools safe and affirming environments for everyone.”
- that effective state anti-bullying laws include ones that specify “actual or perceived characteristics of students who have historically been targets of bullying,” such as sexual orientation and gender identity.
On the state level, since last fall, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, and Rhode Island enacted anti-bullying legislation that explicitly prohibits bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity, as recommended by the Department of Education, making a total of 14 states that do so. The others include California, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington. An additional two, Massachusetts and Wisconsin, specify sexual orientation, but not gender identity.
North Dakota and Texas enacted anti-bullying laws in the last year, but those laws do not enumerate sexual orientation and gender identity.
And Byard said there has been “tremendous activity at district and local levels” across the country to address bullying.
McFarland, too, stressed the importance of local action.
“Schools and communities need to take concrete steps, creating safe spaces where youth can receive support from caring adults,” he said.
Both the Trevor Project and GLSEN are among the organizations that provide training to help them do so.
Byard said, however, that, “The biggest problem we have right now is that schools are in crisis because of the economy. We’ve got to make sure schools that want to do the right thing are not prevented because of a lack of resources.”
It may be tough going. The federal Fiscal Year 2011 budget drained more than $100 million from the two primary federal grant programs that address bullying. And state education budgets continue to face cuts.
McFarland noted that, in some districts, the problem may be attitudinal as well as budgetary, especially in states and school districts with “no promo homo” laws or policies preventing school-based instruction that could be interpreted to be positive about homosexuality.
Eight states—Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah—have such laws statewide, according to GLSEN.
But individual school districts in other states may have similar policies, as does the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota, part of which is in the congressional district of presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.). The National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Southern Poverty Law Center recently filed a lawsuit against the district, claiming the policies “exacerbated” anti-gay harassment. This caused some students “serious emotional harm, including anxiety, anger, and depression, which led some of them to consider or attempt suicide.” In the nine months between November 2009 and July 2010, at least four LGBT students within the District died by suicide.
Federal anti-bullying legislation “would make an enormous difference,” said Byard.
Three pairs of bills in the U.S. House and Senate would address anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in schools and universities but seem unlikely to pass the current Republican-controlled House, despite having a handful of Republican co-sponsors.
Still, Byard and McFarland feel the efforts over the past year have had some positive effect.
“After last year, more doors are open,” Byard said. “People know this needs to be done.”
McFarland added, “For the first time, the challenges of LGBT youth are no longer invisible on a local, state, or national level.”