Today the Family Acceptance Project announced new research linking high levels of anti-LGBT bullying in middle and high school with negative health and mental health outcomes in young adulthood, including depression, suicide attempts that require medical care, STDs and risk for HIV. This is the first study linking experiences of bullying during adolescence with a range of negative health outcomes later in life.
In a survey of LGBT young adults, those who reported high levels of LGBT school victimization during adolescence were 5.6 times more likely to report having attempted suicide, 5.6 times more likely to report a suicide attempt that required medical care, 2.6 times more likely to report clinical levels of depression, and more than twice as likely to have been diagnosed with an STD and to report risk for HIV infection, compared with peers who reported low levels of school victimization.
It’s important not to draw a simplistic, causal relationship between bullying and suicide, as happens to often in media reporting on this topic. There are a complex range of reasons people attempt suicide – it’s not simply “caused” by bullying, and plenty of folks who aren’t prone to suicidality experience bullying too. However, this data shows bullying does have a real impact on folks’ mental health and potentially risky behaviors. Again, I’m sure the reasons are complex – in an environment where pervasive bullying is permitted I’d imagine a young person has less access to safer sex information, too – the authority figures who are cool with anti-gay and anti-trans hate usually aren’t so cool with sex education. Bullying is part of a big, complex problem that needs to be addressed with broad cultural change.
The survey also found that gay and bisexual young men and transgender young folks experienced higher rates of bullying than lesbian and bisexual young women. I’m not surprised by this. Anti-gay and anti-trans attitudes exist in a patriarchal culture that hates femininity. Young men who break the rules of compulsory heterosexuality are often seen as posing a greater threat to the strict rules of gender in a male dominated culture. If you’re trans or gender non-conforming living your own gender honestly is seen as a huge and hyper-visible threat. This doesn’t mean the bullying experienced by cisgender young women is any less horrible, but it does speak to the ways patriarchy harms young men who break the rules of traditional masculinity and the ways trans and gender non-conforming folks are particularly visible targets.
I also think it’s important to note that, while this survey focused on LGBT young adults, it’s not just folks who come out as queer, trans, or gender non-conforming who experience anti-LGBT bullying and its negative impact. Literally anyone can experience anti-LGBT hate regardless of their actual sexuality or gender identity. Bullying’s about the bullies perception, and really more about their own problems, a way to throw the hate inside of them at someone else. Queer, trans, and gender non-conforming young people are sadly an easy target.
The Family Acceptance Project is using this new research to promote interventions that could prevent negative health impacts for LGBT young folks. Their work focuses largely on turning parents and caregivers into supporters and advocates for young people.
You can learn more about the Family Acceptance Project on their website or check this great documentary they produced, Always My Son.