Homophobic harassment puts kids at high risk

Harassment impacts academic achievement and mental health outcomes for gay and lesbian middle and high school students.

Bullying, bias and harassment create a school climate that feels unwelcoming and unsafe for too many students – and the long-term impacts on students who are targeted are well-documented and severe.

According to researcher Elizabeth Meyer, students who are targets of sexual and homophobic harassment – as well as harassment for gender nonconformity – are at even higher risk for lower academic performance, substance abuse and suicidal behavior than other students. In her book, “Gender, bullying and harassment: Strategies to end sexism and homophobia in schools,” Meyer shares the results of several studies that can help educators, youth workers and families understand how sexual, gender and homophobic harassment interact and put kids at risk for poorer health outcomes related to self-esteem, mental and physical health and trauma symptoms. 

A 2009 report by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) helps to illustrate how widespread this form of harassment is among middle and high school students. A survey of more than 7,000 youth in this age group revealed that nearly 9 out 10 students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) experienced harassment in the previous year. Other findings from GLSEN report include:

  • Verbal, emotional and physical harassment based on sexual orientation: 84.6 percent of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, 40.1 percent reported being physically harassed and 18.8 percent reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation.
  • Verbal, emotional and physical harassment based on gender expression: 63.7 percent of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, 27.2 percent reported being physically harassed and 12.5 percent reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their gender expression.
  • Homophobic language: 72.4 percent heard homophobic remarks, such as "faggot" or "dyke," frequently or often at school.
  • Feeling unsafe: Nearly two-thirds (61.1 percent) of students reported that they felt unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation, and more than a third (39.9 percent) felt unsafe because of their gender expression.
  • Missing school: More than 29 percent of LGBT students missed a class at least once and 30 percent missed at least one day of school in the past month because of safety concerns, compared to only 8.0 percent and 6.7 percent, respectively, of a national sample of secondary school students.
  • Lower academic achievement: The reported grade point average of students who were more frequently harassed because of their sexual orientation or gender expression was almost half a grade lower than for students who were less often harassed (2.7 vs. 3.1).
  • Mental health issues: Increased levels of victimization were related to increased levels of depression and anxiety and decreased levels of self-esteem.

Interestingly, the GLSEN research also indicates that while students who are open or “out” about their sexual orientation experience higher levels of harassment and victimization, they also experience higher levels of psychological well-being when they have a supportive adults and peers in their lives.

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