Family Matters

Bullying: For Gay and Lesbian Teens, Does Life Get Better After School?

How long does bullying over sexual orientation continue?

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Two years ago, columnist and Seattle gay-rights advocate Dan Savage launched the “It Gets Better” project on YouTube. In reassuring video clips, adults promised homosexual kids — who are bullied and attempt suicide more than their straight peers — that life would get easier once they finished high school.

But does it really? Joseph Robinson, an assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, decided to apply a researcher’s eye to the question. In a new study, he concludes that yes, it does get better — for the most part. “The sentiment of the It Gets Better campaign is that things will get better because chances are you are not going to be bullied later in life,” says Robinson. “This is the first time we have strong empirical evidence to suggest it does get better.”

Most existing research focused only on whether lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) kids were bullied in high school. No good data had followed students annually as they progressed through their teen years. So Robinson turned to information collected in 2004 from the U.K.’s Department for Education on the experiences of 4,135 children who were ages 13 and 14; he also looked at data from 2010 when the same kids were ages 19 and 20.

“I was particularly interested in these data because we don’t have anything like this,” says Robinson. “I thought, This is the perfect opportunity to see if it does get better.”

The survey, which asked the students about their experiences with bullying, provided the perfect opportunity for comparing how rates of bullying changed over their lifetimes. According to Robinson’s research, which was published in the journal Pediatrics absolute rates of bullying declined over time for all students, regardless of sexual orientation. In the study, over half of LGB students reported being bullied at ages 13 or 14; less than 10% reported bullying at ages 19 or 20.

(MORE: New Insight into the (Epi)Genetic Roots of Homosexuality)

LGB youth are bullied almost twice as often as heterosexual youth in high school. But the trends diverged after high school depending on gender. After high school, bullying rates became comparable for lesbian and bisexual females compared to heterosexual females. At ages 13 to 14, 57% of lesbian and bisexual girls reported being bullied compared to 40% of straight girls; at ages 19 to 20, 6% of young women reported being bullied, regardless of sexual orientation.

For gay and bisexual males, however, the relative rates of bullying actually increased following high school; they were bullied four times as often as heterosexual males. “We think that might be because people hold more negative attitudes toward gay and bisexual males and are less accepting toward them than toward lesbian and bisexual females,” says Robinson.

At ages 13 and 14, 52% of gay and bisexual boys report being bullied versus 38% of straight boys. At ages 19 to 20, 9% of gay boys report being bullied compared to a little more than 2% of straight boys. “It definitely gets better on average for all gay kids,” he says. “Rates for gay men are getting better but when compared to straight boys, it’s still much higher. We would be remiss to ignore that in relative terms, it gets worse for gay men.”

The current study can’t explain why, but Robinson hopes that additional research can reveal why bullying continues to occur after high school and why gay and bisexual men in particular tend to be singled out, says Robinson.

(MOREHow the Gay-Marriage Victories Are (Slowly) Transforming the Notion of Family)

In a second part of the study that focused on emotional stress, Robinson found that straight youth have low levels while LGB youth have more moderate levels. At ages 14 to 15 and again at ages 16 to 17, the kids were asked questions about their happiness and feelings of depression and worthlessness. Not surprisingly, the higher rates of bullying experienced by LGB children appear to be partially responsible for their greater levels of emotional dissatisfaction. But half the disparities are unexplained.

Prior research tends to suggest that the anxiety and distress LGB kids feel can be alleviated by being in schools with gay-straight alliances and those with anti-bullying policies, and by teachers whom they consider allies.

But perhaps the strongest allies these students have in learning to cope with their sexuality are their parents, says Adelle Cadieux, a pediatric psychologist at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Mich. “Parents should be open enough for their kids to even come out in the first place,” says Cadieux, who was not involved in the Pediatrics study. “A lot of youth aren’t comfortable telling their parents about their sexual orientation so they can’t even use their parents as a support system.”

Parents who are their children’s advocates can help by lobbying for anti-bullying laws in their states and policies at their children’s schools so that schools can become part of the solution. “Our kids do better emotionally and psychologically when they have good connectedness to their families,” says Cadieux. And even if that type of support can’t stop bullying, it can help students to confront it throughout their adult lives as well.

MOREGay-Friendly Communities Are Good for Straight Teens Too

18 comments
BillCourson
BillCourson

It certainly gets better.  In fact, it got better.

Saint Peter's Grammar School (1967 graduate) = No one knew what 'gay' was, hence, no bullying or bullying for reasons peripheral to or unrelated to homosexuality or sexual orientation

Saint Rose High School (1971 graduate) = Quite a lot of bullying, quietly egged on by homophobic teachers, but considerably attenuated by my adoption of a personal "Bash Back" policy

Monmouth University (1975 graduate) = Very little if any bullying.

Tentative conclusion = Yes, it certainly does get better and the potential victim of bullying can do many things to help it along.

FadingAd
FadingAd

I think what does "GET BETTER" into adulthood is your ability to cope and handle anti-gay bullying as well as your ability to not give a flying who-ha what people think of you. I am almost 53 years old and living with HIV now since I'm 24 - I don't live in a gay bubble but I have lots of support from ALL of my friends gay straight trans bi you name it. I also feel growing up in NYC made a big difference and coming out in the 70s before AIDS made me very confident. I think building confidence as a teen is the most important thing next to creating a supportive network. There was no gay/straight alliance in 1974 when I was in HS. I was the gay club every period I had to walk through the hallways. In college, I ran the Gay Club and went to Philadelphia to plan the first march on Washington in 1979. My mom was a PFLAG mom and she is from the Netherlands. I was a 40 minute ride from the Village where the city was my schooling. Not everyone has this experience and I'm sure a gay teen in Wasilla, Alaska or Provo UT may have an entirely different experience. My advice is again, choose your friends wisely and get out of town alive.

anzablazer
anzablazer

These Gays just want to get there kids and teachers into these places to teach how Great it is to be Gay.All they really want to do is make easy targets for their sexual advances.The young kids are where they want to advance their Gay cause.And are the most easily to influence.

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

Life might improve as they graduate from school...but just wait until they go before God...

...things might get a little hotter from there.

NaveedXVO
NaveedXVO

Anyone who was bullied for anything in school will realize it gets better when you become an adult. The public school system is like Lord of the Flies where kids rule the society and create their own tribal culture. You can avoid that craziness when you become an adult. Also, being a teenager really messes with your head.

GloriaBecks
GloriaBecks

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mtngoatjoe
mtngoatjoe

@mrbomb13 Who do you think God loves more, gay people, or people who say that God doesn't like gay people.

idknonsense
idknonsense

@mrbomb13 Yeah, I dont think so seeing as how God made them that way.  We are all created equal, no exceptions

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

@mtngoatjoe @mrbomb13 

Well, since the act of homosexuality is a sin, I would think that God would like the people who speak God's Truth more (i.e. the people who speak Christian doctrine).

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

@idknonsense @mrbomb13 

I'm sorry, but TIME Magazine deleted my prior substantive reply.

To re-iterate it, God did not make anyone "gay" or "straight."  There is no religious, philosophical, or scientific support/consensus for that notion.  After all, can you identify a 'gay gene?'

People decide whether to live a gay or straight lifestyle as they progress through life.  After all, how could you know if you're attracted to the same/different gender immediately after coming out of the womb?

Therefore, a person's sexual preference is a choice, and is not pre-ordained by any outside force.

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

@mtngoatjoe @mrbomb13 

Regarding evidence, I would direct you to Leviticus 18:22, in which God directly labels homosexuality as "detestable" (in other versions of the Bible, "an abomination").  

Also, it is not in our power to label whether something is "sinful."  That is up to God and the Church.  Therefore, it is not up to us whether homosexuality is a sin.  The matter has already been decided.

Furthermore, God does not make someone homosexual.  Since homosexuality is a sin, God would not doom His Children to a life of sin by making them born with it.  That would be fundamentally unfair and unjust.  It would be like making you or me born as murderers, thieves, rapists, etc..  

However, what we are born with is Free Will.  Through our interactions and experiences, we can choose to be homosexual, murdering, thieving (etc.) as time progresses.  That makes our development fully our own, and independent of a dictatorial God.

mtngoatjoe
mtngoatjoe

@mrbomb13: I see no evidence that homosexuality is a sin. The bible condones many acts and behaviors that most of us consider sinful (think slavery). The prohibition against homosexuality was written in a different time and for a people whose understanding of the world was severely less than ours. But regardless, God makes homosexuals; He does it every day. And to think it is a choice, or that it is immoral, is to spit in the face of God.

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

@idknonsense @mrbomb13 

Until you can prove otherwise with scientific evidence (and not personal opinion), than yes, I believe that sexual orientation is a choice.  Your position sounds driven by the faith that such a gene does exist. If I were to espouse that same faith (in, say, religion), you would ridicule me to no end.  

I am aware of such "therapy" to "become straight."  Typically, it's called, "praying or going to Church [since homosexuality is a sin]."  In other instances, it involves sitting down with a practitioner, and a period of counselling.  Why do you insult such individuals?  They are trying to live a different kind of life, and need outside assistance.

Also, if someone makes the choice to be gay (and if it makes them happy), the ridicule/discrimination of others should not matter at all.  After all, they are living their lives in a free manner in a free country.

Furthermore, my eyes are open to the real world.  If your eyes were as open as mine, you would see that many of the religious still hold (and not "cling" like it will be blown away) to the tenets of the faith.  Holding that faith will make the transition between this world and the next easier.  

I strongly doubt that the Almighty will be as receptive to your "progressive" views, given that they directly contradict His Teaching.  Best of luck with that.

idknonsense
idknonsense

@mrbomb13 @idknonsense You cannot honestly believe that sexual orientation is a choice.  Just because we have not found a "gay gene" does not mean that it doesn't exist.  Just because the world seems flat from your minute perspective doesn't mean that it is, indeed, flat.

People have gone to therapy in attempts to "become straight".  Out of fear, people hide their true sexual orientation behind a heterosexual relationship and family.  I find it difficult to fathom that anyone would choose to subject themselves to the ridicule and discrimination by people, such as yourself, for any reason.

You should open your eyes to the real world; you'll see that it is a much bigger place than you realize.  Once this mode of thought, to which you cling, is gone, this world will become a better, more equal place.  Let us be progressive in our thought, and love our neighbor regardless of their differences.