Seven years ago, a rash of suicides triggered widespread public discussion about the extremely high rate of bullying queer and transgender students face. But a new study claims the prevalence of anti-LGBTQ harassment and violence has actually increased since then.
North Carolina-based research firm RTI International tracked 20 years of data on school bullying and conducted a meta-analysis of those findings.
The 2017 report, shared exclusively with The Daily Beast, is unprecedented in its scope. Despite assumptions that today’s youth are more welcoming and accepting of LGBTQ identities, RTI’s analysis concludes the widespread targeting such youth face has “not improved since the 1990s.”
“Some forms of victimization, particularly those affecting youth, appear to be worsening,” RTI states in the report, called Violence and LGBTQ Communities: What Do We Know, and What Do We Need to Know? “This has serious, lifelong impacts on the physical and behavioral health of LGBTQ youth and adults.”
Across the studies reviewed, co-author Tasseli McKay told The Daily Beast that their team looked at a combined sample of 73,000 LGBTQ youth, finding that rates of school bullying have reached “unprecedented highs.”
Statistics from 1992 to the present, she explained, indicate that “LGBTQ students are two to three times more likely than their peers to be physically assaulted or threatened at school.”
This victimization doubles and in many cases quadruples the likelihood that a young person will attempt to take their own life, and those rates have remained steady.
If RTI claims that LGBTQ people “experience violence and victimization in disproportionate numbers throughout childhood, adolescence, and adulthood,” the numerous studies that researchers reviewed attest to this fact.
The Teens, Health, and Technology Survey, conducted in 2014, found that 81 percent of trans youth are sexually harassed in school, as well as 72 percent of lesbian students. Sixty-six percent of gay and bisexual teens report facing sexual harassment from their peers.
This treatment often begins when students are very young, according to a 2016 study from the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN).
By the end of middle school, 22 percent of trans students report being harassed due to their gender identity, and 19 percent because of their sexual orientation.
McKay, who works as a social science researcher at RTI’s Center for Justice, Safety, and Resilience, called their findings “heartbreaking.”
“The evidence is pretty clear and pretty unsettling,” McKay said. “We want to think that things are getting better. In regards to the victimization that young people are experiencing, the trend is toward victimization worsening, not getting better.”
The victims of backlash
In 2010, the deaths of 15-year-old Lawrence King and 18-year-old Tyler Clementi sparked national outcry and widespread public discussion about how to offer support to LGBTQ youth at risk for bullying, including Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” project.
Clementi, a gay freshman at Rutgers, took his own life after he was outed by his roommate. King, a middle schooler in California, was shot to death by a classmate.
Those tragedies sparked numerous anti-bullying campaigns, including the Tyler Clementi Foundation, which combats the discrimination faced by LGBTQ youth. In addition, a new generation of young people with a radically different perspective on gender and sexuality have given advocates hope.
A 2015 poll conducted by Fusion found that 50 percent of millennials believe that gender is on a spectrum, and a YouGov survey from the same year showed that a third of young people define their sexuality somewhere between gay and straight.
Viral stories of trans people certainly send the impression things are improving: Last year, a transgender student in Santa Barbara, Calif., was voted prom queen at Santa Barbara High School, along with trans students crowned in states like North Carolina, Florida, and New York.
However, Diego Sanchez, the director of advocacy, policy, and partnerships for PFLAG National, explained that these cases don’t reflect the reality for many LGBTQ students.
“We often read that one story out of a million,” Sanchez told the Daily Beast. “What we don’t always see is all the students who weren’t able to become homecoming king. We amplify the success stories, but some places are too dangerous for people to speak to the discriminatory experiences they face.”
The truth is that despite recent advances in the public understanding of LGBTQ identities, queer and transgender youth are struggling.
The evidence on the subject is overwhelming. GLSEN found in its 2015 National School Climate Survey that 55 percent of LGBTQ youth had felt “unsafe” in schools in the past year because of concerns about their sexual orientation, and a more recent GLSEN study reported that 75 percent of trans students felt anxious or afraid to go to class.
Emily Greytak, the director of research at GLSEN, said that that trans students particularly face overwhelming rates of victimization, and those numbers have only increased in recent years.
Greytak credits Laverne Cox and the success of shows like Transparent and Sense8 and as creating positive representation for the trans community, who have a larger platform than ever before to tell their stories.
But even as transgender people have made greater strides in media attention, the unprecedented visibility of trans lives has led to extreme blowback on the right, particularly from a Republican right that has targeted the community with a wave of discriminatory legislation.
“As visibility increases, so does the backlash, and trans youth are used as targets,” Greytak said.
“Young people are seeing all kinds of images of LGBTQ people in popular media, in mainstream television, and culture,” McKay added. “They send a message that it’s OK to be yourself, and yet young people are embedded in local communities where it really isn’t safe yet to be themselves. I think they’re living out the contrast between those two worlds.”
Emboldened by Trump
A particular concern of LGBTQ youth advocates is the impact that Donald Trump's administration will have on the already high incidence of victimization young people face in schools.
A 2016 survey from the Human Rights Campaign found that 70 percent of the 50,000 students they polled had personally witnessed instances of bullying or harassment in the 30 days following the election.
More than a quarter of LGBTQ students claimed that they had been personally victimized, with transgender youth most likely to be targeted by their classmates.
“The reality is that when Donald Trump attacks LGBTQ students—in particular trans youth—he is modeling dangerous behavior that other people will imitate,” said Johanna Eager, Director of HRC’s Welcoming Schools Initiative.
Earlier this year, the Departments of Justice and Education announced that they were abandoning guidance issued under the Obama administration identifying best practices for schools on how to treat their LGBTQ youth population.
Those 2016 guidelines (which were not legally binding) advised that transgender students be affirmed in their gender identity at school, including by granting them access to restrooms, locker rooms, and sports teams that corresponded with their gender identity.
By rolling back those recommendations, the Trump administration has left students vulnerable to school environments where educators lack basic information on inclusive policy, while also signaling that educators need not seek out resources to support their LGBTQ students.
Although Eager notes that the Welcoming Schools Initiative, which works to make elementary schools LGBTQ-inclusive, is “busier than ever,” youth advocates have a long road ahead.
Just twenty-eight states have laws on the books cementing nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people in public accommodations, including schools.
Half of teachers interviewed in 2015 told GLSEN that they had done nothing throughout their entire careers as educators to support their school’s LGBTQ population, and not even a third had received developmental training on topics related to sexual orientation or gender identity.
Students attending schools in Southern and rural areas, Sanchez added, are the least likely to have affirming or welcoming resources in place.
Even though Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972—which, as of 2014, enumerates equal protections for trans students in schools—remains in place, Eager claimed that schools are often scared of doing the right thing.
Enacting inclusive policy could open districts to backlash from right-wing groups that oppose LGBTQ rights, which has happened in states like Texas, Minnesota, and Illinois. Those affirming policies are often overturned in the face of conservative opposition.
“If there’s a strong anti-LGBTQ hate group in their community or their state, that group may start to harass the school district and threaten to sue,” Eager said. “It’s intimidating.”
In addition, states such North Carolina and Texas have pursued statewide legislation that undermining any existing protections for trans students at the local level by effectively negating them.
Last year, North Carolina passed its infamous House Bill 2, which blocked transgender people across the state from using restrooms appropriate to their gender identity. That legislation particularly harmed trans students who were now barred from using affirming locker rooms and restrooms, even in supportive schools.
That law was struck down earlier this year, but it was replaced with a bill that bans local municipalities from passing pro-LGBTQ policies until 2020. That’s a long time to wait if you’re only in high school for four years.
How you can help
There a number of things that educators can do to offer support to these vulnerable youth populations.
Greytak said that positive environments for LGBTQ students are those that “demonstrate visible signs of support,” including having anti-bullying policies that enumerate gender identity and sexual orientation, and offering safe spaces for students.
Supportive classrooms and offices are demarcated by a pink triangle sticker, which symbolizes that youth are free to express their full selves.
McKay advocates that educators who want to be supportive of LGBTQ youth should make sure their school has a Gay-Straight Alliance, as rates of victimization are found to be lower in schools with LGBTQ-friendly student groups.
Although GLSEN research shows that 50 percent of schools currently have GSAs in place for their student population, McKay said that getting those resources will remain a challenge for other districts.
RTI International, for instance, is based in North Carolina, a state which has been embroiled in divisive debate for the past year over discriminatory laws regarding where transgender people go to the bathroom.
“School principals and administrators have been actively preventing [LGBTQ-friendly] groups from forming,” McKay said.
The Associated Press reported last year that 17 lawsuits had been filed in federal courts against school districts that had prevented students from forming Gay-Straight Alliances (GSA).
Seven states, including Alabama and Texas, still have laws on the books that prevent educators from discussing sexual orientation and gender identity in school, which takes the mere idea of these student organizations completely off the table. It’s difficult to have a GSA if you can’t have a faculty advisor.
Sanchez argues that school administrators, federal legislators, and even the president must act to ensure that these students receive the support they deserve—because the cost is too high.
LGBTQ students who experience victimization report higher rates of substance abuse, depression, and suicidal ideation. They’re less likely to finish school or pursue higher education.
“All students deserve a fair and equal way to get the same access to education as every other student,” Sanchez said. “This is a time for hope and a time to dream big. This should not be a time for struggle.”