As students across the country zip up their backpacks and get on the bus for their first weeks of school, many will have more to focus on than memorizing their new schedules or making it to homeroom on time.
For some, the chief concern will be avoiding the bullying and harassment that follow from class to class, through the hallways, or into locker rooms.
Even though all students are at risk, bullying does not target or affect all students equally: Some students are not only more likely to be bullied, but are also more likely to be negatively impacted by it. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer students are approximately 91 percent more likely to be bullied than their heterosexual peers.
Tragically, being bullied is associated with higher rates of anxiety disorders, depression, and poor academic performance as well as suicide, suicidal attempts, and suicidal thoughts. Students who are bullied for their actual or perceived sexuality or gender expression (that is, victims of homophobic bullying) are more likely than students who are bullied for other reasons to experience depression and suicidal thoughts.
In some ways, this may explain why LGBTQ students report rates of attempted suicide two to seven times that of their heterosexual peers.
So, what can be done about this?
One promising solution is the establishment of gay-straight alliances in schools.
What are gay-straight alliances?
Gay-straight alliances are student-run organizations that provide a space for LGBTQ students and their straight allies to come together. Gay-straight alliances often aim to promote a supportive school climate for students of all sexual orientations and gender expressions, to decrease bullying, and to provide students with a space to be themselves.
The earliest gay-straight alliances emerged in Massachusetts in the late 1980s when students and teachers at three different private schools began to hold meetings between LGBTQ and straight students.
Today, there are over 4,000 local chapters of gay-straight alliances, officially registered with the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network, illustrating their popularity in addressing homophobic bullying in the United States.
Students meet to socialize, watch movies, discuss social issues, and plan dances and events for their school. They also organize advocacy initiatives such as the Day of Silence and No Name Calling Week, that bring attention to anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in schools.
The promise of gay-straight alliances
Considering the high risk that LGBTQ students face for being bullied, harassed, or victimized at school, we sought to determine whether gay-straight alliances were associated with lower rates of homophobic bullying.
We believed our partnership was perfect to explore this question: One of us (Robert) is a former high school teacher and gay-straight alliance advisor, and the other (Heather) is a sociologist who studies gender and sexuality. Together, we wanted to explore the existing research on gay-straight alliances to determine if there were any uniform findings that could be important for policymakers and school leaders.
We combined and analyzed data from approximately 63,000 adolescents who participated in 15 independent studies about their experiences with gay-straight alliances and bullying.
We found that, although individual studies offered mixed results (as some said gay-straight alliances were associated with lower reports of student victimization, while others said there was no association), data indicated students at schools with gay-straight alliances reported less bullying.
LGBTQ students at schools with gay-straight alliances were 52 percent less likely to hear homophobic remarks like “that’s so gay” at school. Additionally, these students were 36 percent less likely to be fearful for their own safety and 30 percent less likely to experience “homophobic victimization,” such as being harassed or physically assaulted because of their sexual orientation or gender expression.
Can gay-straight alliances change the school environment?
Interestingly, in our analysis, we did not distinguish between gay-straight alliance members and nonmembers. That means LGBTQ students may derive the potential benefits of having a gay-straight alliances at their school regardless of whether they participate in these clubs themselves.
Perhaps having a gay-straight alliance promotes an accepting school climate by sending the message that a school is welcoming and committed to the success of all its students and, therefore, homophobic acts will not be tolerated. Perhaps gay-straight alliances raise awareness of LGBTQ issues among all students and, thus, create a supportive environment for all LGBTQ students, not just those who are gay-straight alliance members.
Regardless, it is heartening to know that all LGBTQ students could benefit from gay-straight alliances.
Importantly, our research is consistent with the existing body of literature around bullying. Our findings indicating that gay-straight alliances are associated with lower rates of bullying are right in line with previous evaluations of general anti-bullying programs that do not specifically target homophobic bullying.
That means that gay-straight alliances, which are student-initiated, student-run organizations that require little funding beyond an advisor’s stipend, may promote benefits similar to those derived from outside programs that can require considerable funds and resources to implement.
There are hurdles
Despite the promise of gay-straight alliances as a potential solution to homophobic bullying, there are obstacles to the establishment of these clubs. In some cases, students’ attempts to establish gay-straight alliances in their schools have been thwarted by opposition from parents or school administrators who believe these clubs are inappropriate for adolescents—or even that they impose a gay agenda on students.
Under the Equal Access Act, American students have a right to establish gay-straight alliances. However, some students have found themselves embroiled in legal battles to ensure this right. To date, there have been 17 federal lawsuits in which students and parents have successfully sued school boards for denying charters or banning gay-straight alliances.
In spite of these challenges, we find it powerful to know that one of the most effective weapons in the fight to stop LGBTQ bullying is simple: youth coming together to talk, laugh, and share their lives.