Vulnerability to Violence Among Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Youth
by Patricia Boland, NCSP
During a recent interview with a self-identified gay teenager, I asked
if he had ever been the victim of verbal or physical harassment. He
seemed surprised that I asked this question."Of course. It just
goes with the territory." I found it sad that this bright and outgoing
young man considered daily taunts, name calling and frequent physical
attacks "the norm" for his life. At age 17, he had already
realized and accepted that he was gay. He had already learned that he
would be a social outcast among many of his peers, both in and out of
Many gay, lesbian and bisexual youth begin to have an undefined feeling
of being "different" during the fifth and sixth grades. Children
whose behavior does not conform to traditional societal norms for their
gender are made painfully aware of their differences as young as kindergarten,
if not before. Boys are teased for being sissies and girls for being
tomboys if they are too gentle or too rough in their play or if they
choose to play with "opposite gender" toys. While children
are taught that the use of racial or religious slurs is unacceptable,
respect for others who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or gender nonconforming
is generally not emphasized. Children use the terms "fag"
or "queer" before they can even attach sexual meaning to another's
behavior. A more recently used phrase for a behavior that children view
as different is, "That is so gay."
By the time youth enter middle school and puberty, most GLB youth begin
to realize they have emotional, physical and sexual attractions to their
own gender. Peer socialization, approval and acceptance are beginning
to become the focus of their lives.As GLB youth become more aware of
their sexual orientation, they face not only the stress of adolescence,
but the dilemma of staying invisible and passing as heterosexuals or
becoming "out" and visible. As GLB youth spend almost half
of their lives hiding an important part of themselves, disclosing their
sexual orientation becomes a critical stress factor.
With awareness of their sexual orientation also comes awareness that
GLB people are the targets of violence in our society. Before youth
identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual, they have general impressions
of how GLB people are treated in society, communities and schools. As
they read or hear about attacks and mistreatment of GLB people in different
settings, youth identifying as GLB begin to worry and fear about being
attacked themselves. Observations of violence directed at GLB adults
and youth make a very important impact on their own behavior, particularly
in the earliest stages of identity development. These youth may become
withdrawn or more hypervigilant of their actions. Some, in an effort
to hide their own sexual orientation, may even join in the verbal and
physical harassment of other"out" or suspected GLB youth.
At the most personalized level of violence, GLB youth become direct
victims of attacks or abuse. The overall pattern that emerges with disclosure
of a youth's gay, lesbian or bisexual identity is that the more open
or "out" a youth is, the more direct and personal is the violence
they will experience.
Victimization of GLB Youth
Studies of GLB youth in school settings reveal that they experience
a significantly higher frequency of verbal harassment and physical assault
than their heterosexual peers. Nearly half of the GLB youth in these
studies have experienced property damage by other youth. Approximately
one third of GLB youth were involved in physical fights with classmates
or threatened or injured with a weapon on school grounds. Fourteen percent
of the GLB youth involved in fights required medical treatment. Other
reports of physical violence included GLB youth being spit on, urinated
on, having their clothes pulled up or down or off, and gangrapes. Interviews
with students who are abusers reveal their motivations to include statements
of "defending" themselves from queers, thrill-seeking, peer
dynamics of meeting friends' expectations and proving that they themselves
are not gay.
Physical acts of violence against GLB youth in school are almost always
part of an ongoing pattern of abuse. The more violent acts generally
include multiple perpetrators. These offenders will often target the
same youth for years. GLB youth report that among their verbal abusers,
the vast majority are other students; however, teachers are also reported
to make derogatory comments or hateful statements. Approximately one
fourth of the GLB youth in one study shared that they were very afraid
of being physically abused on their way to and from school, in hallways
and in locker rooms. In response to the threats and attacks they experienced,
some GLB youth reported carrying a weapon to school for defense.
GLB youth often skip school due to their fears of safety. Some drop
out of school all together, unable to face the continuing verbal and
physical attacks and social rejection of their peers.With few or no
marketable skills, these GLB youth become socially and economically
marginalized and increasingly at risk to become victims of violence
in their communities. GLB youth who have disclosed their sexual orientation
to their parents or have otherwise been "found out" are often
thrown out of their homes onto the streets or are physically or sexually
attacked by family members. GLB youth on the streets often turn to prostitution
in return for food, shelter or drugs, and therefore expose themselves
to a higher level of victimization.
Course of Action for Schools
NASP, along with the National Education Association, the American Federation
of Teachers, the National Association of Social Workers,the American
Counseling Association and the National School Boards Association, agrees
that schools need to respect and appreciate diversity in their student
population, including the presence of gay, lesbian and bisexual students.
Safe and healthy school environments free from verbal and physical harassment
and violence must be provided to all students, including GLB youth.
Strong support systems must be in place and easily accessible to youth
in trouble before, not after, an incident occurs.
In order to improve conditions in their schools for gays, lesbians and
bisexuals, the following steps are recommended by the Gay, Lesbian and
Straight Education Network (GLSEN):
School systems should establish written policies that specifically
protect students and staff from discrimination and harassment based
on real or perceived sexual orientation.
School systems should provide inservice training opportunities
on issues affecting GLB youth.
School systems should support a curriculum that includes accurate
information about GLB people across different subject areas.
School systems should also allow and support the formation of
Gay/Straight Alliances or other student activities with the goal of
addressing homophobia and heterosexism in the school setting.
A recent report by GLSEN looked at 42 of the largest public school districts
in the country. The report found that only 8 of the districts received
a grade of A' on the abovementioned recommendations. Almost half
of the studied districts received a failing grade. While some school
systems have written policies, the GLB youth in these schools may view
the policies as inadequate because they are not enforced. This is especially
true in schools where authorities want to ignore or deny issues surrounding
sexual orientation. When policies are not enforced, the implicit message
is that GLB students are not important or worth protecting.
What School Psychologists Can Do
School psychologists are in a distinctive position to effect changes
in their schools to improve the physical, emotional, social and psychological
well being of gay, lesbian and bisexual youth. A successful program
of change should be based on education for the entire school community
and readily accessible support and counseling services for all youth.
School psychologists can offer inservice training to teachers and administrative
staff as well as educational programs for all students on issues that
GLB youth face. Educational programs can also be offered to school boards
and parent groups as part of overall advocacy for sexual orientation
to be included in existing written policies on discrimination and harassment
as well as the inclusion of accurate information on GLB people within
Within our counseling roles, school psychologists should be sensitive
to the fact that not every student is heterosexual. We should educate
ourselves on the developmental issues GLB youth face regarding their
sexual identity and the associated risk factors of hiding or revealing
their identities. We should be conscious of avoiding stereotyping and
be aware that gender nonconforming youth are often perceived as gay,
lesbian or bisexual and therefore face many of the same risk factors
that GLB youth encounter. Finally, school psychologists should serve
as role models who affirm the dignity and rights of everyone in their
schools and community.
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Fricke, A. (1981). Reflections on a rock lobster: A story about growing
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Harbeck, K. (Ed). (1992). Coming out of the classroom closet: Gay and
lesbian students, teachers and curricula. New York:Harrington Press.
Herek, G. & Berrill, K. (Eds). (1992). Hate crimes: Confronting
violence against lesbians and gay men. Newbury Park: Sage.
Ryan, C. & Futterman, D. (1998). Lesbian and gay youth: Care and
counseling. New York: Columbia University Press.
Unks, G. (Ed.). (1995). The gay teen: Educational practice and theory
for lesbian, gay, and bisexual adolescents. New York: Routledge.
Patricia Boland, Ed.S., NCSP, is Chair of the NASP Gay, Lesbian and
Bisexual Issues Committee. She is a practicing school psychologist in
Chesterfield County Public Schools in Virginia. She is also on the board
of directors and a volunteer with the Richmond Organization for Sexual