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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 school.

Developmental Patterns
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 curriculums.

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 up gay. Boston: Alyson.

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 Minority Youth.