Teenage years are full of challenges as we all try to figure out how we ‘fit’ into the world around us. A lot of that experience is painful, especially when we find that we don’t ‘fit’ at all with some people and places.
For those who identify as LGBT, a difficult time is made far more challenging by being excluded, feared, and bullied. People who identify as LGBT are disproportionately targeted for this abuse. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) conducted an extensive study of teens who identify as LGBT (over 10,000 respondents ages 13-17) and a corollary study of straight teens.
- Over one-half of LGBT youth (54 percent) say they have been verbally harassed and called names involving anti-gay slurs;
- Nearly half of LGBT youth (47 percent) say they do not “fit in” in their community while only 16 percent of non-LGBT youth feel that way;
- 83 percent of LGBT youth believe they will be happy eventually, but only 49 percent believe they can be happy if they stay in the same city or town;
- 6 in 10 LGBT youth say their family is accepting of LGBT people, while a third say their family is not;
- 92 percent say they hear negative messages about being LGBT – 60 percent say those messages come from elected leaders.
These experiences contrast significantly with straight teens:
- 67 percent of straight youth describe themselves as happy but this number drops to 37 percent among LGBT young people;
- When asked to describe their most important problem, straight teens articulated the usual challenges of grades, college, and finances. LGBT teens’ worries were directly related to their identity as LGBT including non-accepting families and bullying.
LGBT teens struggling to build an identity, finish their education, and simply get through the day can take heart in several developments. Anti-bullying campaigns and other school policies that focus on creating a safe environment for LGBT kids are showing positive results. A study by Caitlin Ryan, PhD, and Stephen T. Russell, PhD, compared LGBT young adults who reported high levels and low levels of LGBT school victimization. According to Ryan and Russell, one the most effective means of reducing negative behavior toward LGBT students is an active gay-straight alliance or other student-sponsored diversity club. Positive results have also been seen from clear, enforced policies that promote inclusiveness and prohibit discrimination and harassment. The inclusion of LGBT issues in the curriculum helps as well.
One of the most interesting findings from Ryan and Russell was that teens who disclosed their orientation/identity while still in school (despite bullying) had higher self-esteem and less depression as adults than those who kept it secret. (Pedersen, 2015) This fact points to changing attitudes about sexual orientation and gender identity as we become more aware and educated as a society. It also highlights the importance on acknowledging who we are for our mental health now and in the future.
Perhaps the single most important fact for LGBT teens dealing with bullying is this: People who identify as LGBT report overwhelmingly that as they reach adulthood, their daily lives change for the better. Being an adult brings more freedom to choose who to interact with, where to attend school, where to work, and where to live. Adulthood brings the opportunity to move beyond ignorant people and the pain they inflict. In short, ‘It gets better.’ A look at itgetsbetter.org provides some real world perspective on bullying and exclusion, especially for those of us who are dealing with it every day.
Parents and peers who do not identify as LGBT can benefit from some perspective as well. Luca Maurer, coordinator at The Center for LGBT Education, Outreach, and Services at Ithaca College offers a number of tips, including:
- Educate yourself, particularly on the correct terminology, so you can communicate effectively on issues of sexual orientation and gender identity.
- Connect with community resources, both for yourself and for your child, such as PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), a Gay/Straight Alliance at school, or an LGBT community center.
- Remember, being LGBT is just one aspect of your child’s life. Continue to encourage your child to pursue all his/her interests such as school, activities, hobbies, friends, and part-time jobs. (Maurer, n.d.)
There’s no quick fix to abolish pain and anxiety that young adult ages bring. But what we can do as a society is focus on advocating awareness and acceptance of our peers that identify as LGBT people, and acknowledge that mistreatment of these people based on their orientation is wrong. Bullying leaves scars that pollute an already difficult age to navigate, and these scars can last a lifetime. Better awareness and more community support have already had a positive impact nationally and these efforts can continue to improve. October 15 marked the 5th annual Spirit Day against LGBT bullying, already celebrated by millions all over the world. Through respect, awareness, and support, teens identifying as LGBT can hear and feel the message that their unique identity makes them beautiful and valuable.
Human Rights Campaign (2012) HRC Releases Landmark Survey of LGBT Youth. HRC.org. Retrieved on October 13, 2015, from: https://www.hrc.org/press-releases/entry/hrc-releases-landmark-survey-of-lgbt-youth
Ryan, C. and Russell, S.T. (2011) The Real-Life Costs of Anti-LGBT Bullying. HuffingtonPost.com. Retrieved on October 13, 2015, from: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/caitlin-ryan/the-reallife-costs-of-ant_b_866253.html
Pedersen, T. (2015). LGBT Teens Who Come Out Early Have Less Depression as Young Adults.Psych Central. Retrieved on October 14, 2015, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2015/02/23/lgbt-teens-who-come-out-early-have-less-depression-as-young-adults/81554.html
Maurer, L. (n.d.) Ten Tips for Parents of a Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, or Transgender Child. Advocates for Youth. Retrieved on October 13, 2015, from https://www.advocatesforyouth.org/parents/173-parents