Several months back I began collecting information and resources for an article on bullying in the schools. Discrimination and harassment experienced by youth, and the related social justice issues, are something we have not talked about very much yet in TJP. This was before what is now being termed an "epidemic" of teen and young adult suicides that can be directly linked to harassment, bullying and violence experienced by LGBT youth. I'm sure many of you have seen the terrible stories, too many to recount, in recent weeks about teen suicides. Most recently there was the young Rutgers student who killed himself after peers posted video on the internet of him being intimate with a male partner. There was the 13 year old in California who hung himself after being taunted by classmates for being gay, and the 15 year old in Indiana who hung himself under similar circumstances. Then there were the five suicides, including three by gay teens, in a single Minnesota school district.
Results of the 2005 Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) Climate Survey showed that while 22% of the general student population feels unsafe in school, 74.2% of LGBT students reported feeling unsafe. Further, based on data from the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, the CDC, and estimates that approximately 30% of youth suicides are related to sexual orientation, the National GLBTQ Youth Foundation recently concluded that over 1,400 GLBTQ youth between the ages of 10 to 24 complete suicides, and an additional 15,000 contemplate committing suicide, each year. Even these whopping numbers are likely to be under-estimates since the sexual orientation of youth suicide victims is not always known.
It's not just LGBTQ youth who experience bullying. A 2002 study of Seattle area youth (cited in this comprehensive study) found that 13.4% of students reporting bullying said they were harassed because of gender, 12.4% because of race, and 23.2 percent because someone perceived them to be gay or lesbian. Children and adolescents with physical, emotional or learning disabilities are also at increased risk for being targeted. Bullying in turn contributes to decreased school performance, depression and anxiety, and increased risk for suicidality; in fact, it has been estimated that 30% of all youth suicides are related to bullying (report here).
In my practice I can think of countless examples of individuals impacted negatively by bullying, and I'm sure you can, too. There was the teen who was bullied for gender atypical behavior, the Latina girl who was picked on for being too dark-skinned, the Black girl who was harassed by female peers for acting "too white". And though I work only with adults, these experiences from childhood and adolescence continue to impact their self-worth, confidence, ability to trust others and form close relationships, and internalized oppression for years afterward.
I think it's interesting (and wrong) that the media is calling the current onslaught of teen bullying associated with homophobia an "epidemic". When looking up the definition, we see that an epidemic is when new cases of a certain disease, in a given population and during a given time period, substantially exceed what is expected based on recent experience. Yet how can we expect anything different than these rates of bullying and suicide, when all of the systems that the kids who do the bullying are raised in--including their families, churches, schools, and the media--support it? Here are just a few examples of that:
- Earlier this year in Arizona, the Department of Education told its teachers that those with "heavy" or "ungrammatical" accents would no longer be allowed to teach English to children and youth just learning the language (story here) .
- In Michigan, an adult, high ranking public official who has been harassing the President of the University of Michigan student body because he is gay was supported by another, even higher ranking public official for his public bullying of the student (story here).
- Students in schools like this one in New Jersey (story here) are exposed to vehement transphobic messages by their parents, teachers and school administrators when teachers who undergo gender reassignment surgery want to keep their jobs.
Another, slightly more hopeful interpretation of the recent "epidemic" is that the silence is being broken around youth bullying and suicide, particularly when it is triggered by homophobia. Just like when stories of childhood sexual abuse and domestic violence seemed to hit the media in huge waves, it may be that parents are more willing to speak out about their kids being gay or transgender. In a way, this would certainly be a step forward--the fact that these kids are no longer dying in the silence of oppression can increase awareness and intervention, just as it did with childhood sexual abuse and intimate partner violence.
What can we do? It's not enough to simply treat the sequelae of the bullying and harassment in therapy. So many of us sit with the pain and despair of these clients; maybe we do EMDR or cognitive processing therapy to work through the traumatic experiences, or we work on self-esteem and self-worth, or we try to expunge the effects of years of internalized self-hate. We also have to do better than just providing services when a youth has already reached the point of becoming suicidal (for example, The Trevor Project)
We need to work at every level--intrapersonal, interpersonal, family, school, community, and legislative--to eradicate violence against youth that is based on gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnicity, class, disability, religion and nationality.
There are some great resources and projects around the country that are providing increased support and protection to LGBTQ youth. For example, the Family Acceptance Project is designed to study parents’, families' and caregivers’ reactions and adjustment to an adolescent's coming out, develop training and assessment materials for health, mental health, and school-based providers who work with LGBT youth and families, develop resources to strengthen family support LGBT children and adolescents, and ultimately to improve health and mental health outcomes for LGBT adolescents. "It Gets Better" is a beautiful internet based video project, begun by Seattle columnist Dan Savage, in which adults who are LGBTQ talk about their own experiences and give hope to youth who may be feeling rejected, targeted, and despairing. The newly released Safe Space Kit by GLSEN helps educators create a safe space for LGBT kids in schools, and includes the Guide to Being an Ally to LGBT students which provides concrete strategies for supporting and educating students and advocating for change. And the Southern Poverty Law Center just released a video designed to help educators and administrators create safer schools for all students, not just those targeted for being lesbian or gay.
Change is also taking place at the legislative level. In New York, the Safe Schools against Violence in Education (SAVE) provides clear guidelines for disciplinary actions to be taken against students who bully. At the federal level is the Safe Schools Improvement Act, an anti-bullying bill that includes protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression, and will require comprehensive anti-bullying policies in our nation's public schools. However, without the education of students and parents, these measures are only preventive in the sense that they provide a deterrent against bullying; they do nothing to address the underlying etiology.
I hope that TJP will engage with these issues, and will challenge ourselves to think about how we, as educators and activists, can bring more social justice to children and youth. Just as Staci Haines' Generation 5 looks at eradicating childhood sexual abuse as well as treating its consequences, we need to find more effective ways to address both the underlying causes and the heartbreaking negative outcomes of bullying.