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Bullying and Victimization of Sexual Minority Youth in Schools

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    Bullying and victimization of LGBTQ youth in schools is a serious problem for society, especially students, parents, teachers, and other school officials such as administrators and superintendents. This paper reviews evidence of the problem and approaches, interventions, programs, and agencies that are working to address this concern. The social-ecological framework founded by Urie Bronfenbrenner in 1977, provides a method of organizing the efforts to reduce homophobic bullying and victimization including individual, micro, mezzo, and macro level systems. Furthermore, Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) have been associated with lower levels of victimization of LGBTQ youth in schools (Marx and Kettrey 2016).

    Literature Review

    Studies have shown that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth or adolescents who are perceived to be LGBTQ are at a disproportionate risk for negative health outcomes and negative behaviors (Demissie et al. 2018; Meyer and Bayer 2013; S. L. Craig et al. 2013; Henning-Stout et al. 2000; Baams et al. 2017). Some of these behaviors and negative outcomes include depression (Demissie et al. 2018; Hong and Garbarino 2012; Marx and Kettrey 2016; Martson 2015; S. L. Craig et al. 2013), suicidal ideation (Crisp and McCave 2007; Demissie et al. 2018; Marx and Kettrey 2016; S. L. Craig et al. 2013; Hong and Garbarino 2012; Martson 2015), and substance use (Meyer and Bayer 2013; Demissie et al. 2018; Marx and Kettrey 2016; Hong and Garbarino 2012; S. L. Craig et al. 2013). Merriam-Webster (2018) defines bullying as the abuse and mistreatment of someone vulnerable by someone stronger, more powerful. It is characterized as an aggressive act that causes physical injury or mental anguish to another person either physically or verbally (Hong and Garbarino 2012). Research has consistently reported that the prevalence of bullying and victimization is significantly higher among LQBTQ youth than that of heterosexual youth or adolescents who are perceived as heterosexual (Marx and Kettrey 2016; Demissie et al. 2018; Hong and Garbarino 2012; Hatzenbuehler et al. 2015).

    This victimization of LGBTQ youth is also associated with the prevalence of the beforementioned negative outcomes. Overall, there is little evidence that suggests that school-based programs are effective in protecting LGBTQ students because most programs focus on addressing school-based victimization in general as opposed to focusing on homophobic and LGBTQ victimization. Also, school-based programs tend to focus on the individual’s behavior and not the school culture or climate that may contribute to the violence (ex. Heterosexism or homophobia). On the other hand, some studies show that school-based programs have been proven to reduce the prevalence of some negative outcomes for LGBTQ youth. Because of such programs, we are moving in a more positive direction as it relates to the reduction of such incidents of victimization for sexual minority students.

    Ecological Systems Theory

    The ecological systems theory provides a useful framework for examining the risk and protective factors for homophobic bullying in school (Hong and Garbarino 2012). It provides a method of organizing the efforts to reduce homophobic bullying and victimization including individual, micro, exo, and macro level systems. Individual level Individual-level systems, as it relates to homophobic bullying would include an individual’s sex and their sexual orientation. Sex has proved to be a major risk and protective factor for homophobic bullying. Researchers have documented that, with regards to perpetration, adolescent boys, particularly high school students are more likely to be involved in homophobic bullying (Hong and Garbarino 2012). Adolescent girls, on the other hand, are less likely to be perpetrators and actually are more likely to express compassion for both bullying victims in general and victimized sexual minority youth (Hong and Garbarino 2012).

    With regards to sexual orientation, research suggests that homophobic bullying is not limited to LGBTQ identified adolescents but can affect all youth. Furthermore, adolescents identified as ‘questioning’ reported more homophobic bullying at school than did heterosexual and LGBT adolescents (Espelage et al. 2008). Espelage et al. (2008) also reported that ‘questioning’ students reported more homophobic teasing and more feelings of suicide and depression. Birkett et al. (2009) theorized that students with ‘confirmed sexual identity’ are more likely than ‘questioning’ students to receive social support in school when victimized. I believe that this is in part due to the fact that ‘questioning’ students may not report their victimization to be a result of homophobic bullying. Future studies need to further investigate and explain why the prevalence of homophobic bullying is higher amongst ‘questioning’ students than among heterosexual or LGBT students. Microsystems Level Microsystems, as I understand them, are the systems that directly affect the immediate environment of an individual. These systems can include home, school, church, etc. In regards to youth, microsystems are composed of a social network of interpersonal relationships that involve interactions with people whom he or she has a relationship, who are influential in his or her life, and who, in turn, are influenced by the youth (Hong and Garbarino 2012).

    Peer groups can provide both risk and protective factors for homophobic bullying. While engaging with peer groups, many LGBTQ youth report frequently experiencing victimization by their peers which can range from verbal harassment to physical aggression (Hong and Garbarino 2012). Popular sayings like ‘That’s gay’ contribute to the perpetuation of negative outcomes for LGBTQ youth. Schools can also provide both risk and protective factors against LGBTQ bullying in schools. Students with lower levels of school connectedness due to negative school environments are more prone to bullying and peer victimization (Hong and Garbarino 2012). In schools where teachers and school personnel are not trained or uninvolved in bullying situations, homophobic bullying is pervasive. Conversely, sexual minority youth in schools where teachers and school personnel are trained and involved reported lower rates of victimization than those in other schools (McGuire et al. 2010). Also, the presence of social support groups for LGBTQ students in schools has been found to reduce the incidence of homophobic bullying (Hong and Garbarino 2012).


    Exosystems are described as consisting of inter-relations between two or more systems, where one system does not directly involve the individual. In this level, the occurrence of the event indirectly influences processes within the direct setting where the developing person is situated (Hong and Garbarino 2012). The community environment includes peers and schools. Because both peers and schools are included in the community, certain characteristics of the community may affect LGBTQ experiences within the school. Some research has shown that LGBTQ students residing in communities with high levels of poverty experience homophobic bullying more frequently than did their counterparts in more affluent communities (Hong and Garbarino 2012). With regards to media, the inclusion of LGBTQ characters in television and other forms of media has been identified as a protective factor which can decrease homophobic bullying in schools. On the flip, media that exposes youth to violence and aggression towards LGBTQ individuals subsequently increased the prevalence of homophobic bullying in schools (Hong and Garbarino 2012).


    Macrosystems are the cultural environments in which an individual resides. They are the most distal influence of homophobic bullying is the society in which all of the other systems are embedded (Hong and Garbarin 2012). This includes policies on a national or societal level. The current federal law provides federal support to promote overall school safety but none of this support specifically focuses on bullying and harassment. Additionally, in schools that lack laws and policies for adequate LGBTQ protections, homophobic bullying and victimization is pervasive. Likewise, policies that effectively address the problems of homophobic bullying in school continues to be obscure and indirect (Hong and Garbarino 2013).

    Interventions Gay-Straight

    Alliances Gay-straight alliances (GSAs) are school-based initiatives and organizations for LGBTQ students and their allies that often try to improve the overall school environment for sexual minority youth. They tend to be student-directed clubs and organizations that offer a safe space for the collaboration of ideas and initiatives between LGBTQ and heterosexual youth. GSAs are established by students with the requisite sponsorship of a faculty advisor or teacher in the school. Because of this, GSAs have been conceptualized as a form or youth activism that can be empowering to LGBTQ youth (Marx and Kettrey 2016; Demissie et al. 2018). Unlike other school-based initiatives, GSAs require no formal curriculum and, therefore, provides a cost-effective approach to minimizing the victimization of LGBTQ Youth. They provide one avenue through which professionals may offer and support a positive school environment for LGBT young people. Research shows that schools should support these school-based clubs given that they offer the potential for positive development and greater educational attainment (Toomey et al. 2011). ASSET Affirmative supportive safe and empowering talk, or ASSET, is an LGBTQ affirmative school-based group counseling program piloted with sexual minority youth (S. L. Craig et al. 2013). S. L. Craig et al. (2013) stated that the ASSET program aimed to (a) provide a safe place for youth-focused discussion of SMY issues, and (b) enhance youth coping across multiple domains of functioning (e.g., family, school, health, mental health).

    Group counseling with sexual minority you has proven to be effective because of the theme of universality or realizing that others are having similar experiences (S.L. Craig 2013). After administering the group counseling, results suggest that ASSET is effective in enhancing short-term proactive coping amongst all youth and that there were significant positive results associated with self-esteem. Although it is difficult to see the full results of the effectiveness of ASSET due to the inability to isolate the program effects from other contributing factors, such as safe spaces in schools, ASSET proves to be a promising, school-based intervention to meet the needs of sexual minority students. Future studies should explore the long-term effects of programs such as ASSET compare to other school-based group counseling initiatives. Gay Affirmative Practice Gay affirmative practice ‘affirms a lesbian, gay, or bisexual identity as an equally positive human experience and expression to heterosexual identity’ (Davies, 1996, p. 25). It provides guidelines for treating all people but especially LGBTQ individuals in a culturally competent manner (Crisp and McCave 2007; Crisp 2006). This approach can be used in schools with LGBTQ individuals, as well as in everyday social work practice. At the root of the Gay Affirmative Practice model is an emphasis on one of the basic tenets of social work: the unconditional positive regard and acceptance of a client that affirms the client’s sense of dignity and worth. Agencies There are few agencies within the state of Georgia which address the problem of homophobic bullying in schools and supports LGBTQ youth in multiple ways.

    Typically, within this population, there are more volunteer and nonprofit agencies that work to support LGBTQ youth than governmental organizations as is the case in Georgia. Some of these volunteer and nonprofit organizations include Fierce Youth Reclaiming and Empowering or FYRE, the Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender and Sexual Diversity or SOJOURN, and CHRIS180, formerly known as CHRIS KIDS. They all contribute to addressing the issue by providing safe space for youth to explore their sexual identities while also offering counseling, safe housing, community support, advocacy, education, internships, and by conducting community-based research. GLSEN The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network or GLSEN (pronounced ‘glisten’) is an organization that was founded in Massachusetts by a small, but dedicated group of teachers who came together to ‘improve an education system that too frequently allows its lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning (LGBTQ) students to be bullied, discriminated against, or fall through the cracks’ (GLSEN 2018). GLSEN’s Mission Statement is as follows: GLSEN strives to ensure that each member of every school community is valued and respected regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression.

    We believe that such an atmosphere engenders a positive sense of self, which is the basis of educational achievement and personal growth. Since homophobia and heterosexism undermine a healthy school climate, we work to educate teachers, students and the public at large about the damaging effects these forces have on youth and adults alike (GLSEN 2018) Programs and Services Provided GLSEN employs community organizing, advocacy, in-school programming, and rigorous research and evaluation to accomplish its mission (GLSEN 2018). It achieves this mission by hosting and initiating a number of programs including Day of Silence, Ally Week, and No Name-Calling Week, to name a few. Day of Silence is a student-led national event where folks take a vow of silence to highlight the silencing and erasure of LGBTQ people at school. Ally Week is another student-led program where LGBTQ K-12 students and LGBTQ educators lead the conversation on what they need from their allies in school. GLSEN’s No Name-Calling week is an educator-led initiative to end name-calling and bullying in schools (GLSEN 2018). GLSEN also supports effective anti-bullying policies that explicitly list sexual orientation and gender identity/expression as specific characteristics within the text of the policy.

    Currently, 17 states and Washington, D.C. have LGBTQ-inclusive anti-bullying policies that protect students on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity (GLSEN 2018). GLSEN also support GSAs and provides assistance for youth who have an active interest in starting a GSA at their school. They provide resources and guidance to ensure the successful launch of these GSAs.

    Organizational Structure

    Now located in New York, GLSEN has grown and developed over the years and is now a large, nation-wide organization with a sprawling organizational structure consisting of volunteers, staff, students, educators, and a board of directors. This is evidenced by the organizational chart pictured below: Funding Sources GLSEN is a tax-exempt organization under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code and has been held to be a publicly supported organization and not a private foundation under Section 509(a). GLSEN’s primary source of revenue comes from contributions (GLSEN 2018). It also receives revenue from special events. GLSEN conducts special events in which a portion of the gross proceeds paid by the participant represents payment for the direct cost of the benefits received by the participant at the event, such as meals and entertainment (GLSEN 2018). Clients GLSEN’s clients include students, educators, school administrators, policy-makers and community partners. GLSEN also has a chapter network that delivers programming to make schools safe, inclusive, and affirming learning environments for all students, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity and/or gender expression.

    The chapters provide direct training for educators and hold events that convene student GSAs and other constituencies to build their capacity to improve school climate. They also conduct initiatives to increase awareness of GLSEN’s mission and fundraise to support their local work. There are currently 39 GLSEN chapters in 26 states (GLSEN 2018).


    Homophobic bullying is a huge problem for LGBTQ youth in schools. It is associated with high levels of negative health outcomes and other negative behaviors. By using the ecological systems model, we can better understand how social systems work within the society and environments around us to perpetuate or prevent homophobic bullying. Interventions have been implemented to begin to explore the process of reducing and eliminating homophobic bullying in schools. GLSEN and other organizations have led the pack in the quest to reduce and eliminate the negative outcomes and behaviors of LGBTQ youth in Atlanta, and across the nation, with the implementation of GSAs and other safe space initiatives. Further research needs to be conducted to explain some uncertainties in our findings on the impacts of homophobic bullying in schools. I am hopeful that with organizations such as GLSEN, we will one day create safe spaces for LGBTQ youth to feel comfortable and to erase homophobic bullying from schools, once and for all.

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