Given the amount of abuse, fear and harm one could potentially be exposed to in high schools and society in general, one would be in a large group wondering why anyone would want to subject themselves to being a gay teen. However, for those who do realize they are gay early in life, it is as automatic a situation as needing to drink water. It is who they are. And only other gay teens truly understand the catharsis one goes through in such a realization in their teen years and how much it shapes who they are as adults.
Being a teenager is already naturally a period of change, frustration, new concepts, growing, pain, new strength, and the unknown. This phase of wonder and confusion only becomes twice as challenging when a teen also realizes he or she may be gay, lesbian or bisexual. In many cases, teens don’t solidify a true understanding for years, which can leave them even more exposed as they wander around trying to find out who they really are. Stonewall, an organization dedicated to gay equality and advocacy, estimates that up to 55 percent of alternative sexual orientation teens are subsequently targets of bullying, and almost all (96 percent) have seen, heard or experience discriminatory language being used in the classroom about gays, lesbians and bisexuals. This doesn’t bode well for a teen who is trying to adjust to a life direction or start gay teen dating only to be surrounded to perspective, attitudes, and opinions that refer to it as something less than dirt.
How is Homophobic Bullying Different?
Clearly, the target of homophobic bullying is to make a person who is either alternative in sexual orientation or supportive of such feel harm, fear or intimidation by threat. In many cases, a teen may not even be actually gay, lesbian or bisexual, but is perceived to be due to physical traits and therefore becomes a target as well. The distinction is that the bullying is done specifically because the person is seen as, perceived to be, or is known to be gay, lesbian or bisexual. Whereas general bullying is done because the target teen in general is unliked or seems like a good target to pick on, homophobic bullying takes things a step further and involves attacks due to specific traits.
In other conditions homophobic bullying could be described as racism for bullying someone due to skin color or background, or religious hate because of how someone worships. However, because the basis of targeting involves sexual orientation, many do not treat homophobic bullying as serious as the aforementioned categories; the assumption is that gay and lesbian people choose to be that way, so they put themselves in trouble and could avoid the bullying by their own control. As a result, gay and lesbian teens often feel abandoned by the very school and community systems that are supposed to protect them, augmenting the bullying effect.
Dealing With Attacks on Gay Teens
Homophobic bullying for teens comes in all types of attacks, just like regular bullying. There are the mental impacts from names, insults, verbal put-downs, embarrassment, public shaming and rumor-spreading in chat rooms or instant messaging. There are also the physical attacks like general assault and battery, “accidental” pushing or tripping, things thrown at a person, property damage, and vandalism. Gay teen boys are not unique to physical attacks; physical attack victims include girls as well. In every case of attack, even slight, the best thing a teen victim can do, aside from protecting him or herself and getting out of danger or risk quickly, is to keep documentation or a diary of every instance and every detail of that instance. The details can be significantly powerful, especially once police identify a culprit and seek to establish a pattern of attacks versus just one instance to secure a stronger legal charge. In many jurisdictions now, homophobic bullying is considered a hate crime, but police still need a good amount of evidence to overcome the general attitude of “joking around” versus actually committing a hate crime against someone. A pattern of intentional, mean and avoidable actions sets the stage that the culprit was not engaged in a one-time minor instance but instead a long-term brutal campaign of harming a specific person.
The details don’t have to be just the targeted teen either. They can include supporters, family, friends and partners who have experienced attacks or bullying as a result of being connected or associated with a targeted teen.
Frequency of Homophobic Bullying for Gay Teens
As noted earlier, exposure to or experience of homophobic bullying can be significant, especially among teens and high schools. A teen’s weight and size that is perceived as being out of shape or undesirable is the singular highest reason for bullying, but homophobic bullying comes in as a second place reason for such actions. To make matters worse, based on Stonewall’s research, 90 percent of primary and secondary school staff have no actual training on how to deal with homophobic bullying either. When considering the impact of victims, Stonewall’s data determined that more than 9 out of 10 victims were subject to verbal bullying and insults, 41 percent were physically attacked or roughed up, and 17 percent had been threatened in some manner with serious harm or death.
Additionally, 1 out of 12 gay victims had been sexually assaulted in some manner for having an alternative sexual orientation. This is particularly common among male teens who generally see teen gay boys as being a threat and a weakness, thereby forcing humiliation on a victim with physical attacks to drive the “threat” away from the environment as well as “humiliate” the person. Many victims leave the school where they were attacked, which is what the bullies then score as a victory.
However, as noted earlier, homophobic bullying is not limited to just those who are gay, lesbian or bisexual. It can include those of traditional sexual orientation as well who are simply perceived to be “weak” in a manner associated with gay, lesbian or bisexual stereotypes. As a result, homophobic bully can essentially make anyone a target.
How Schools Should Respond to Bullying of Gay Teens
Schools of all types are expected to be safe environments for all students, regardless of background or traits. As a result, there is a higher burden and criteria already present on all schools to prevent bullying as well as homophobic bullying. Yet while a 2003 study found that more than 80 percent of instructors had seen or witnessed regular gay name-calling or verbal abuse in classrooms and hallways and a quarter were aware of physical assaults, far less had actual training on the matter in terms of how to prevent it or stop the behavior when it occurred.
Some institutions are trying to ingrain tolerance of alternative lifestyles in civic education, teaching students tolerance the same way protections for other groups are taught in school as well. Unfortunately, sexual orientation is not a matter of how someone worships, their physical gender, or the color of their skin. It’s a behavioral trait associated with their person orientation, which could affect any type of person when it comes to groups. As a result, teachers find themselves in awkward situations having to explain sex or sexual differences to teens when trying to teach tolerance. Some instructors find this matter to uncomfortable to discuss or receive criticism from parents, so they avoid it altogether, hoping some other program will take up the cause later on down the road. So schools cannot be counted to be a perfect default of proactive protection and education.
The Role of Parents in dealing with Gay Teens
Parents are the key and most critical source of support and protection for their teens. If teens feel their own parents won’t support them unconditionally, they then assume protection is not possible anywhere until they create themselves away from their current environments. That can lead to all sorts of problems in youth and ignorance of the bigger world.
Parents should focus on being care-givers, advocates and protectors of their teens. That doesn’t mean not providing guidance to a teen when they are doing something dangerous, risky or illegal. Parents should still be parents, but they should also be the foundation for their teens to always be able to go to for help, support and care, even if gay, lesbian or bisexual.
The number one way to ensure the above is through constant and regular communication between parents and their teens. Not connecting allows distance to occur, and then that can breed shock, surprises and unexpected differences at the worst possible times when support is needed the most.
The second key step is for parents to understand and be involved with the school their teen is enrolled in. Just dumping off the kids six hours of the day and expecting them to be automatically educated is not enough. Parents need to ask questions, get informed, and understand what policies schools follow when dealing with tough issues like bullying.
Finally, teens are human and are in an incredibly challenging period of learning and growing. As adults we forget those years or romanticize them with distance and time. But for teens, the emotions are extremely strong, and the challenges can seem overwhelming to the individual. Parents can do amazing things by simply being supportive to a teen feeling alone and hated by the world. And those moments of care can be incredibly powerful for the rest of a teen’s life, especially when both parents are involved.
Gay, lesbian and bisexual teens in the U.K. face incredible challenges and risks simply due to their orientation. Schools are expected to provide safe environments but due to a lack of training among teachers and administrators, as well as how vicious teens can be in bullying, schools may very well be doing the opposite of their missions. Parents, as a result, are the most important element of care and protection for gay teens. Without a parental resource, a gay or lesbian teen is truly out in the cold versus a harsh world.