May 15, 2019 at 2:57 pm PDT | by Karen Ocamb and Sean Shealy
Study: political negativity adversely impacts LGBTQ youth

(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

This may prove a conundrum for the Trumps. If the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act, re-introduced May 15, the Protecting LGBTQ Youth Act, also introduced May 15, and the Safe Schools Improvement Act, introduced May 9, pass Congress and reach President Donald Trump’s desk, will he side with the Religious Right and veto the anti-bullying bills, or will he sign them as a nod to First Lady Melania Trump’s anti-cyber bulling campaign? 

But, even if the laws are passed, will they be enforced? This is a question raised by Equality California’s Safe and Supportive Schools Report Card, released May 13. The 90-question survey sought to analyze LGBT policy, program and curriculum implementation in all 343 K-12 California unified school districts. In a conference call with reporters, Equality California Executive Director Rick Zbur said 130 school districts replied, saying they have anti-bullying policies in place—with 113 saying students are allowed to use bathrooms that match their gender identity. However, only 22 were designated as “top tier” in compliance; 213 districts failed to respond, which Zbur called “deeply disappointing.” Additionally, most of the districts do not have LGBT-inclusive history textbooks, as required by a 2011 California law.

“We have worked tirelessly over the last two decades to enact laws and policies that create safer, more supportive learning environments for our LGBTQ students,” Zbur said. “But our work cannot — and does not — stop in the Capitol. For these laws to be effective, they must be implemented. This Report Card is a critical step toward providing every California student — regardless of background, zip code, sexual orientation or gender identity — a safe and supportive school and a shot at success.”

The need for implementation was underscored by college freshman Anna Zeng who said she was bullied after coming out as “queer” in her freshman year at University High School in Orange County’s Irvine Unified School District. “School was rough for everyone but for me and my LGBTQ+-identifying friends, we were treated as the lesser, the other,” she said, adding that words such as “gay” were “weaponized” and used as harassing insulting slurs “every single day” as their few allies remained quiet. 

“I had a great support system but the people at school bullying me drove me to attempt suicide more than a few times,” Zeng said. “I implore you all to listen to youth and reach out. It matters. We matter.”

A new comprehensive study by the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences at the University of Texas suggests the need for urgency as the 2020 political election season heats up. The study, published in the American Academy of Pediatrics journal Pediatrics, finds new evidence that divisive political discourse about the rights of LGBTQ people can contribute to an increase in bullying linked to students’ sexual orientation or gender identity in schools.

“We think that young people don’t hear what adults and lawmakers are talking about, but they do,” the study’s senior author Stephen Russell told the Los Angeles Blade in a phone interview.

Russell, who self-described himself as a “data geek,” said he has been studying this data since 1999 when California first enacted The California Healthy Kids Survey. He found empirical evidence that public debates about policies and laws involving marginalized groups can lead bullies to target young people identified as being part of those groups. But, he added, the presence of a Gay-Straight Alliance in schools made a significant difference.

Russell noted a spike that occurred right after the public debates and passage of California’s Proposition 8, which eliminated the right of same-sex couples to marry in 2008. “It wasn’t only LGBTQ kids getting bullied. The rate of homophobic bullying that year was higher even than the estimated population of LGBTQ students. The data are telling us that straight kids are getting bullied for this, too,” he said. “It’s all about what the bullies perceive.”

“Public votes and voter referendums on the rights of minority groups occur in approximately half of U.S. states,” study co-author Mark Hatzenbuehler, Associate professor of Sociomedical Sciences and Sociology at New York’s Columbia University, told the Los Angeles Blade in an email. “Our findings suggest that the public discourse surrounding these votes may increase risk for bias-based bullying.”

High rates of LGBTQ youth suicide also persist.

“This study confirms what we at PFLAG know about bias-based bullying. The best ways to mitigate that kind of harassment is family acceptance and support, positive portrayals in the media and elsewhere, creating safe school environments, and other guidelines and legislation that protect LGBTQ+ people from harassment and discrimination, like the Equality Act. PFLAG families across the country are working fiercely on all of these fronts.” Said, Diego Miguel Sanchez, PFLAG National’s trans Director of Advocacy, Policy & Partnerships.

The negative impacts of bullying on mental health are well documented, but what is not well known is what factors in the culture and society contribute to bullying. Russell noted that his study shows public discourse can play a significant role, with implications for other marginalized or minority groups.

“Policies and campaigns related to Black Lives Matter, bathroom bills, immigration — these can be concerning in how they affect the health and well-being of youth,” Russell said. “The public health consequences of these very contentious and media-driven discussions are more important than we knew.”

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