Equity & Diversity

Heated Debate About Minority Rights Can Increase Bullying of LGBTQ Students, Study Finds

By Catherine Gewertz — May 14, 2019 1 min read
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LGBTQ students are bullied more at school when the society around them is immersed in heated political debate about the rights of marginalized groups, according to a new study.

The report, published this week in the journal Pediatrics, focuses on the run-up to the November 2008 referendum on California’s Proposition 8, which enacted a ban on gay marriage. The study found that homophobic bullying rose in the period before the election and declined afterward.

“We think that young people don’t hear what adults and lawmakers are talking about, but they do,” Stephen Russell, the senior author of the paper and the chair of the Human Development and Family Sciences Department at the University of Texas at Austin, said in a statement. “The data show quite distinctly that homophobic bullying peaked in California at the time of the Proposition 8 discussion.”

Researchers from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, the University of Texas at Austin, and Texas State University used survey data from 5 million California middle and high school students to chart the pattern of identity-based bullying they reported between 2001 and 2015.

In the 2001-02 school year, 7.6 percent of students reported that they experienced homophobic bullying, but by the 2008-09 school year, which included the Proposition 8 vote, that figure rose by nearly a third, to 10.8 percent, the study said. The increase occurred even as other types of bullying—based on gender, religion, race or ethnicity, for instance—declined, the researchers found.

Bullying based on perceived sexual orientation decreased steadily every year after the Proposition 8 referendum, the research team found. The law was overturned in 2010 by a federal court, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage in 2015.

One aspect of the study focused on whether bullying was less common at schools that had Gay Straight Alliances. The research team found that such clubs produced a “protective effect” in the heated 2008-09 election year: Campuses with GSAs had bullying rates under 10 percent, while those without them reported rates of nearly 13 percent.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.