Bullying hurts LGBTQ+ youth, study finds

Map of states with laws protecting LGBT students from harassment. Tribune News Service 2015

Alexander McCarthy can still feel his palms sweat and his chest clench when he recalls the rumors about his relationship with another student at his all-girls Catholic high school.

McCarthy, a transgender man and former president of Rainbow Alliance, an LGBTQ+ student group at Pitt, did not experience blatant bullying but still met hardships when he came out in high school.

“I’m the best case scenario,” McCarthy, a senior urban studies major, said. “My family is really accepting, and I’m white and middle class. [But] being trans isn’t easy.”

According to a new School of Public Health study, McCarthy’s experience is part of a larger story of sexual discrimination.

The Pitt study said LGBTQ+ youth are at higher risk for bullying than their cisgender and heterosexual peers. The study, which American Journal of Public Health published online Jan. 21, also showed bullying negatively affects LGBTQ+ teens’ development, including competence, confidence and connection.

Pitt researchers Robert Coulter, A. L. Herrick,  Mackey R. Friedman and Ron Stall measured 1,870 adolescents’ development in 45 states in the United States.

The researchers used the “Five Cs” model of research, which measures the subjects’ competence, confidence, connection, character and compassion, according to national research organization Child Trends. Higher levels of the Five Cs indicate a child is thriving, while lower levels are linked to risky behaviors, such as smoking and drinking.

According to Child Trends, the five sections represent the “psychological, behavioral and social characteristics” associated with positive youth development.

Coulter and his colleagues found LGBTQ+ youth scored significantly lower than their cisgender and heterosexual peers on the competence, confidence and connection sections.

The researchers also found 24 percent of sexual minority youth reported experiencing bullying, whereas 12 percent of cisgender and heterosexual youth reported experiencing bullying.

“We wanted to see what [the bullying] explained,” Coulter said. “What we found is they were at a greater risk for being bullied, and they may be scoring lower because of that greater risk.”

The study’s findings didn’t shock Christine Bryan, director of marketing and development for the Delta Foundation, an organization that works to improve the quality of life of the LGBTQ+ community in Pittsburgh.

“It reinforces what we’ve been saying,” Bryan said. “Bullying in any way, shape or form is a bad thing, but especially when you factor in kids who may be perceived as different. I don’t think the findings should be surprising to people.”

A 2011 National School Climate survey found up to 80 percent of LGBTQ+ youth experience bullying on the basis of their sexual orientation or expression.

Victims of bullying are at an increased risk for academic problems, anxiety, depression, suicide and violent behavior, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

“This lasts throughout their lives,” Coulter said. “There’s a negative impact for their mental health and they’re at a higher risk for substance abuse and other things.”

Marcus Robinson, a junior majoring in neuroscience and anthropology and president of Rainbow Alliance, said some people think the fight against oppression is over because gay marriage is legal.

To the contrary, Robinson said there is a lot left to be done. He said this study is a step in the right direction.

“There’s a difference between being accepting and just not talking about it,” Robinson said.

Coulter and his colleagues’ study highlights the issue, but Coulter also hopes that this research will help developing effective interventions and help sexual minority youth.

“It has to be a multifaceted intervention,” he said. “We need a lot of stakeholders involved: youth, schools, communities, parents, government, teachers.”

Robinson and Rainbow Alliance are working toward interventions as well, developing a mentorship program with local high school students. The program, which is projected to begin fall 2016, collaborates with Thrive Southwest PA, an independent LGBTQ+ group that works to create inclusive school climates.

Robinson said he and Rainbow Alliance members, who will serve as mentors in the program, are still planning the project, but hope to gauge interest through outreach and promotions.

“We should give back to high schools in the area through the opportunities that we have and remind them that Pitt can be a safe campus, so if you do choose to go here, there are opportunities to meet new people, make new friends and just have a better environment,” Robinson said.

Rainbow Alliance is one of a few organizations and resources for LGBTQ+ students at Pitt. Pitt Lambda is a graduate student group that participates in advocacy, education and outreach for sexual minority students. Pitt OutLaw is an organization with similar goals for law students.

Pitt’s Student Affairs also has an LGBTQ+ online resource database of housing accommodations, campus safety, discrimination policies and student organizations for current and prospective students.

McCarthy said he appreciates Pitt’s LBGTQ+ resources, highlighting the opportunities Rainbow Alliance has offered him.

“In high school there wasn’t a queer group,” McCarthy said. “I saw on the orientation packet something about Rainbow Alliance, and I was really excited. I didn’t really make friends the first year and then I became an officer my sophomore year and that’s when I started making friends.”

Members of the LGBTQ+ community agree that these organizations and research, such as the Public Health study, shed light on problems youth in the community face. Bryan appreciates the efforts to stop LGBT bullying, but hopes that one day LGBTQ+ individuals will not face oppression.

“We’re seeing things change,” Bryan said. “It’s just a slow process.”

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