Bullying of LGBT teens is a serious public health problem. To address it, we must start with legislation to overhaul school environments. Only fourteen states specifically protect LGBT students from bullying. And there is no federal law. But two bills could change this – if Congress acts.
Bullying poses serious mental and physical health risks – and the risks are greatest for LGBT teens. They suffer from an increased risk of depression, anxiety, and suicide attempts. School doesn’t only feel unsafe – though that’s the experience of 71% of rural and 62% of suburban kids. School is unsafe for nearly one of five, who have been physically assaulted. When school feels and is unsafe, it’s the last place these kids want to be – and, when there, some of the smartest can’t excel.
Our schools do not protect them. But this could change in the 113th Congress. Two bills are expected to be reintroduced. Both bills amend existing law. First, the Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA) would amend the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act. It would require federally-funded schools to prohibit bullying on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. It would also require states to report cases of bullying to the Department of Education. The second bill is the Student Non-Discrimination Act (SDNA). It is modeled on Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. Likewise, the SDNA would prohibit discrimination on the basis of perceived sexual orientation and gender identity. But both bills have failed before.
There’s reason to believe legislation could help fix the public health problem. Not only do most states not protect LGBT students, but some states have statutes or policies that staff must “remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation.” But these neutrality policies are often only neutral in name. Recently, Tennessee’s ‘neutrality’ policy resurfaced. Commonly known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, the proposed bill would ban any discussion of homosexuality – except, in its latest incarnation, for teachers who must report suspected homosexuality to a student’s parents. Even though the bill’s official title is the “Classroom Protection Act,” it’s obvious that the bill would subject LGBT teens to increased stigma, social isolation, and eliminate safe pathways to report harassment.
Even when students have pathways to report, some remain silent out of fear. But it is not always a fear of retaliation by another student. It may be the fear of teachers, administrators, and officials who help create an anti-LGBT environment. In a law review article on finding a legislative solution for ‘bullycide’, Jason A. Wallace explains the reason students failed to report harassment was because a staggering “two-thirds of students hear[d] teachers and school staff make homophobic comments.” We know bullying is often the product of social isolation. But bullying is also the product of social immersion, which makes physical and emotional violence into a routine, often guaranteed by those who are trusted to ensure safety.
Can legislation really help? We already have some evidence that a positive social environment – and anti-bullying policies – reduces the health risk of anti-LGBT bullying. Mark L. Hatzenbuehler’s 2011 study in Pediatrics shows that a supportive social environment reduces suicide attempts by LGB teens. Hatzenbuehler created a novel index of social environment that included five measures: “(1) proportion of same-sex couples living in the counties; (2) proportion of Democrats living in the counties; (3) proportion of schools with gay-straight alliances; (4) proportion of schools with antibullying policies specifically protecting LGB students; and (5) proportion of schools with antidiscrimination policies that included sexual orientation.” Having surveyed 31,852 eleventh-grade students, Hatzenbuehler found that:
Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth were significantly more likely to attempt suicide in the previous 12 months, compared with heterosexuals (21.5% vs 4.2%). Among lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth, the risk of attempting suicide was 20% greater in unsupportive environments compared to supportive environments. A more supportive social environment was significantly associated with fewer suicide attempts, controlling for sociodemographic variables and multiple risk factors for suicide attempts, including depressive symptoms, binge drinking, peer victimization, and physical abuse by an adult (odds ratio: 0.97 [95% confidence interval: 0.96–0.99]).
While this study doesn’t allow him to identify the precise mechanism, Hatzenbuehler emphasizes one connection. “One potential pathway is through increased exposure to status-based stressors,” Hatzenbuehler writes. Where are these stressors most highly reported? In states that deny LGB adults legal protections.
In response to the suicides of bullied teens, including Billy Lucas, Raymond Chase, Tyler Clementi, Ryan Halligan, Asher Brown, and Seth Walsh, Dan Savage and his husband Terry Miller launched the “It Gets Better” project in 2010. It is a breathtaking project – educational, inspirational, and an important public health intervention. But students shouldn’t have to bear the bad. Their lives should not be sacrificed in someone else’s rite of passage. And what others have heroically overcome does not need to become a part of growing up. The good news is that we can start to repair this public health problem by addressing the social environment of LGBT students. The bad news is that we must depend on Congress to act.