GLSEN Study: Gay Middle Schoolers Face Most Harassment

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday September 28, 2009

A study by the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) shows that while anti-gay bullying is a problem at all grade levels, middle schoolers are hardest hit when it comes to harassment for being--or being perceived as--gay.

A Sept. 23 article in the New York Times Magazine delved into the issue at length, interviewing gay middle schoolers and their parents and citing the GLSEN study.

Part of the problem, the article said, was a perception that kids that young cannot possibly know whether they are gay or not, leading adults to look the other way when anti-gay slurs are tossed around.

But part of the problem, too, is that emotions run high at that age, and stigma can cut deep.

The article noted that most of the time when teens come out as gay, they re in high school. But the trend is for more and more gay youths to assert their identities earlier--and that can lead to problems, even violence. The article recalled the shooting death of Lawrence King a gay student at a California school, and the suicides of two middle schoolers who braved taunts from schoolmates who took them as gay--until they could bear the harassment no longer, with tragic results.

The results of the GLSEN study, which were made public on Sept. 24, showed that anti-gay bullying was more intense at the middle school level, but that middle schools were less prepared to deal with it than high schools.

Read a GLSEN release, "The research brief, the first national research report to look specifically at the experiences of LGBT students in middle school, is based on data from 626 LGBT middle school students who participated in GLSEN's 2007 National School Climate Survey of 6,209 secondary school students."

Eliza Byard, the director of GLSEN, was quoted in the release as saying, "The findings should be a wake-up call to school officials and policymakers across the country that we can no longer ignore one of the biggest school climate issues facing middle school students, regardless of sexual orientation.

Continued Byard, "GLSEN has worked for many years to provide educators/schools with evidence-based solutions that they can implement to address anti-LGBT bullying and harassment.

"For the sake of all of our students, schools must take action to address these issues in the critical middle grades."

The study showed that 91% of GLBT middle schoolers reported that that had faced harassment based on their sexuality. For more than a third of all GLBT middle schoolers--39%--anti-gay harassment was not only directed at them, but took the form of physical assault, the release said.

The rate of physical assault against GBT middle schoolers is "nearly twice as many as in high school (20%)," the release noted.

The release documented a negative effect on students due to bullying. "Half of LGBT middle school students (50%) had skipped at least one day of school in the past month because they felt unsafe," the release said.

"Further, their grade point average was half a grade point lower than students who had not missed school due to safety concerns."

Although anti-bullyng initiatves have met with resistance due to religious beliefs, Christians too are waking up to the dangers of ant-gay bullying in middle schools. The New York Times Magazine article quoted Finn Laursen, the executive director of Christian Educators Association International, as saying, "I certainly don't believe school districts should force a sexual agenda on the community, but we can't just put our heads in the sand and ignore the kind of harassment that's going on."

Parents are taking note, too: the article quoted one mother of a gay student as saying that her child's middle school was a "war zone" for GLBT students like her child.

"We always knew middle school was a time when kids struggle with their identity," the article quoted an unnamed Maine school staffer as admitting, "but it was easy to let anti-gay language slide because it's so imbedded in middle-school culture and because we didn't have students who were out to us or their classmates.

"Now we do, so we're playing catch up to try to keep them safe."

Though there has been some controversy around GSAs (Gay-Straight Alliances) in middle schools, at least 120 have been initiated around the country, the article noted.

While some may not like the need for GSAs in middle schools (the article cited a case in which a lawyer accused such groups as promoting "premature sexualization" of youth), they may be needed as a matter of practical necessity--even, for some young people, survival. The article noted that, "a 2008 study at an all-male school by researchers at the University of Nebraska and Harvard Medical School found to be the most psychologically harmful type of bullying."

"I certainly don't believe school districts should force a sexual agenda on the community," says Finn Laursen, the executive director of the Christian Educators Association International, "but we can't just put our heads in the sand and ignore the kind of harassment that's going on."

While schoolyard bullying has an impact on gay youth, however, there are other arenas in which many young gay kids suffer: at home and in church, where messages that they are "sinners" may be inflicted on them.

However, the article noted, there is yet another place that can have a huge impact on gay youth: the Internet. Research online allows gay youths access to supportive services and information, as well as opportunities to share their stories, to realize they are not alone--and to hear more positive narratives about themselves.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.