Bullying is awful no matter what age you are, but in high school, experiencing it can be particularly devastating — and for LGBTQ youth, it can feel even more isolating and dire. That's why a recent study that found schools with Gay Straight Alliances experience less bullying is so, so important: It shows that when structural systems like schools send the message that everyone is equal and worthy of respect, people's attitudes and behaviors change for the better.
According to a meta-analysis conducted by researchers from Vanderbuilt University and published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, students that attend high schools with Gay Straight Alliances are less likely to be bullied because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. In fact, the study found that all students, including heterosexual and cisgender teenagers, experienced less bullying across the board in schools with GSAs. The researchers looked at results from 15 separate studies, resulting in a sample size of roughly 63,000 participants — that is, one that's sizeable enough to reasonably draw fairly wide-reaching conclusions from. According to lead researchers Robert Marx and Heather Hensman Kettrey, the meta-analysis revealed that in schools where there is a GSA presence, students are 52 percent less likely to hear homophobic remarks, 36 percent less likely to fear for their personal safety, and 30 percent less likely to actually experience homophobic victimization.
For LGBTQ youth, those percentages can make a huge difference in terms of day-to-day happiness and health. A study from Northwestern University, for example, shows that LGBTQ students who experience harassment and assault based on their gender identity or sexual orientation are likely to experience long-term mental health issues, including depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
According to the National School Climate Survey, conducted by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) in 2011, LGBTQ bullying is worse when school policies don't specifically protect LGBTQ students. For example, GLSEN found that 82 percent of LGBTQ students reported experiencing bullying in their previous year, based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. 32 percent of students admitted to missing school because they felt unsafe there because of bullying and harassment.
While horrifying, these studies all tell us the same thing: When young people are in places they feel unsafe or unprotected because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, they suffer. Their suffering may be physical, mental, or emotional, and it may have both short- and long-term effects. That's why creating safe spaces for LGBTQ youth is so important to help queer youth thrive and succeed. I think it's also a great way for non-queer youth to feel comfortable asking questions and learning about appropriate interactions with their LGBTQ peers — and as the Vanderbilt study shows, straight and cisgender students benefit from the environment cultivated by schools with active GSAs.
There is still a long way to go when it comes to LGBTQ rights, both for adults and for youth. But this study has the potential to make serious changes in many school's policies when it comes to creating LGBTQ safe spaces — and promoting acceptance and community in the process. And that's certainly worth fighting for.
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