December 7, 2010

Sexual Minority Youth Continue To Face Violence And Discrimination

Several recent studies have examined the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and other sexual minority youth.

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In the national media, we are witnessing the continuing shift toward acceptance and equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and other sexual minority people.  Individual states continue to debate whether to allow same-sex couples to be granted the same rights and benefits as different-sex couples, and, of course, debates are still underway about repealing the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell ban which prohibits LGBT service people from making public their sexual identity.  And, beginning yesterday, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals began court proceedings in the case challenging California’s ban on legal same-sex marriage.

A Renewed Focus On The Experiences of Sexual Minority Youth

Unfortunately, a series of tragic deaths of sexual minority youths who took their own lives in the face of violence and bullying has served as a reminder that the battle against legal discrimination is, as they say, only “half of the battle.”  These loses drew a great deal of media attention and an outpouring of support for LGBT communities, including the It Gets Better Project, an anti-gay bullying storyline on the show Glee, and a “What Would You Do?” special on homophobic parents.  Social science researchers have also intensified their efforts to study the experiences of sexual minority youth.

Sexual Minority Youth Continue To Face Violence and Discrimination

A few months ago, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) released a report on the prevalence of experiences with bullying, harassment, and violence among sexual minority youth in the US.  In their sample of over 7,200 LGBT students, ages 13 to 21, 85% reported being verbally harassed and 40% physically harassed because of their sexual orientation; over 60% reported being verbally harassed and 27% physically harassed because of their gender expression.

As a result, many report feeling unsafe at school, as well as increased depression and anxiety; a new study has found that one in three LGBT youth report that they have attempted suicide at least once in their lifetime.  While students in the GLSEN survey at schools with anti-bullying policies report less harassment, another recently released study found that sexual minority youth – especially girls – are punished more harshly in schools and the criminal justice system compared to heterosexual youth.

A Bit Of Hope

Now that GLSEN has surveyed LGBT students’ experiences with harassment and bullying since 1999, it was able to assess changes, if any, over the last ten years.  There are now more LGBT-related resources available in schools (e.g., Gay-Straight Alliances), and fewer reports of hearing homophobic comments.  However, LGBT students’ reports of harassment and violence have remained constant.  (Although, as I noted above, students attending schools with LGBT resources, anti-bullying policies, and supportive staff and faculty report less harassment and feel safer.)

As another new study suggests, families, too, can be pivotal in creating positive rather than negative experiences for LGBT youth.  The Family Acceptance Project studied families with LGBT children, finding a direct link between the level of parents’ acceptance of the LGBT child and the child’s mental health and well-being.  Indeed, it found that positive, supportive behaviors of parents (e.g., standing up for their LGBT child when mistreated) serve as a buffer against depression, drug use, and suicidality among LGBT youth.  And, those LGBT children of accepting families have higher levels of self-esteem and social support.

What is clear from these and other studies is that it is necessary to challenge anti-LGBT discrimination, violence, and prejudice — and that this includes changing institutions (e.g., school, criminal justice, the family) to become more inclusive and supportive of LGBT people.