Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

CDC: LGB students face greater violence, bullying


LYRIC's Jodi Schwartz. Photo: Brian Bromberger
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A devastating report by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that LGB students face physical violence and bullying at much greater levels than their heterosexual counterparts.

According to the CDC report, which was released August 11, LGB students are more than three times as likely to be physically forced to have sex, two and a half times as likely to experience sexual dating violence, over two times more likely to experience physical dating violence, and almost twice as likely to be bullied at school or online.

The Youth Risk Behavior Study is the first nationally representative study of the health risks of U.S. lesbian, gay, and bisexual high school students (ages 14-17).

Even more alarmingly, more than 40 percent of LGB students have seriously considered suicide, with 29 percent reporting having attempted suicide during the past year. Sixty percent of LGB students reported having been so sad or hopeless they stopped doing one of their usual activities. They are also up to five times more likely than their heterosexual peers to have used illegal drugs, the study said. And more than 10 percent of LGB students reported missing school during the past month due to safety concerns.

About 15,600 students in grades 9-12 took the biennial 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Study, considered the best source on adolescent health. The CDC also analyzed data from 25 state surveys and 19 large urban school district surveys, though a number of states eliminated sexual orientation questions from their surveys, so the story is not complete.

With 2 percent of students identifying as gay or lesbian and 6 percent as bisexual, these figures would put the number of LGB high school students in the U.S. at 1.3 million. YRBS for the first time added two new questions: one asking how students identified themselves sexually and secondly the sex of their partners, allowing for the normal fluidity of adolescent sexuality. Some students identified themselves as heterosexual even though they had sexual contact with only persons of the same sex, whereas some students who identify themselves as gay, lesbian or bisexual had not had sexual contact or have had sexual contact with only persons of the opposite sex.

There was no option on the questionnaire for teenagers to identify themselves as transgender, though the CDC does plan to add gender identity questions to future surveys.

LGBT organizations reacted strongly to the report.

"Anti-LGBTQ bullying and harassment have serious and heartbreaking consequences for young people and these numbers make that more clear than ever," Mary Beth Maxwell, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation's senior vice president for programs, research, and trainings, said in a statement. "From the messages youth receive at their kitchen table, in their classroom, and on primetime TV, we all must do more to put an end to anti-LGBTQ stigma.

"Policymakers, for one, can start with the passage and implementation of local, state, and federal anti-bullying policies and nondiscrimination protections," Maxwell added.

Abbe Land, executive director and CEO of the Trevor Project, which focuses on suicide prevention among LGBT and questioning youth, primarily through their Trevor lifeline toll-free number, noticed a significant deficiency among the numbers reported.

"Although it is progress that some sexualities have been included in this study, we recognize that the wide spectrum of sexualities and gender identities have yet to be studied," Land said in a statement. "More data needs to be collected on transgender youth, as nearly half of young transgender people have seriously thought about taking their lives, and one quarter report having made a suicide attempt."

In its conclusion, the CDC recognized the importance of school, community, and family support for LGB youth.

"Because many health-related behaviors initiated during adolescence often extend into adulthood, they can potentially have a lifelong negative effect on health outcomes, educational attainment, employment, housing, and overall quality of life. Many LGB students, therefore, need coordinated action to meet their needs and improve their health and well-being," the report stated.

The CDC did not report on the causes of these negative outcomes.

Valerie Gruber, a clinical professor of psychiatry at UCSF School of Medicine who also works at the HIV Clinic at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, when apprised of the CDC study results, immediately reacted by saying that such negative outcomes could lead students to an increased risk for HIV.

"Having experienced violence and bullying or not felt much support from their families can be traumatic, meaning they don't feel worthy to protect themselves or pay attention to warning risk signs," Gruber said. "They might also open themselves to abusive relationships or perhaps sexual predators, feeling it is safer to be in a dysfunctional relationship than not to be in any relationship even if that means being exploited."

Jodi Schwartz, executive director of the Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center in San Francisco, said the report shined a light on existing problems.

"This is not new news, as in dialogue with our peer organizations throughout the country these numbers reflect what's going on in the rest of the country as well as here, despite a more supportive environment for LGBT students in San Francisco," Schwartz said. "We are focused on middle school, where bullying and violence is most acute."

Schwartz said that LYRIC aims to empower students "to be able to grow into their own leadership and have schools that look like their families, with LGBT content represented in the curriculum, whether it be history to mark key events, in math use samples that highlight LGBT concerns, or just on Valentine's Day to celebrate love in all its forms."

She added that school culture needs to change.

"For example, students report that teachers or staff they knew to be gay didn't feel supported, which makes them apprehensive," Schwartz said.

Maxwell, while noting the importance of professional development training for teachers, child welfare workers, and counselors to promote queer youth well-being, said, "While current federal law provides some support to promote school safety, it does not comprehensively and expressly focus on bullying or harassment and in no way addresses the unique challenges faced by LGBTQ youth."

Maxwell said that Congress needs to pass the Safe Schools Improvement Act. The legislation "would require school districts to adopt anti-bullying and harassment policies that specifically include bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity, along with race, color, national origin, sex, disability, and religion," she explained.

The CDC urges taking action by funding, implementing, and evaluating programs that address many of the health risks mentioned in its report, especially violence prevention and promoting healthy school environments for all students.



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