Debate over LGBTQ laws can fuel homophobic bullying, new study shows


AUSTIN (KXAN) — Scientists have found new evidence that “heated political discourse over proposed laws involving marginalized groups” can contribute to an increase in identity-related bullying for students in schools.

They say their findings show that such debates can lead young people who identify as part of those groups (for example, students who identify as LGBTQ) to be targeted by bullies. 

The study, carried out by scientists at the University of Texas at Austin, Columbia University, and Texas State University, was released Monday in the journal Pediatrics.

UT Austin says this is the largest study yet to look at this link between political issues and bullying.

The researchers hope their findings bring scientists closer to understanding the cultural and societal pressures that lead to bullying. 

The study found that in the run-up to a 2008 statewide voter referendum to ban gay marriage in California, young people reported significantly more homophobic bullying. They found that homophobic bullying peaked that school year and declined after the public debate about the initiative in question, Proposition 8, subsided.

Proposition 8 passed in November of 2008 but was challenged in subsequent court battles. After a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2013, same-sex couples have been allowed to marry in California ever since. 

“We think that young people don’t hear what adults and lawmakers are talking about, but they do,” said Stephen Russell, senior author of the paper and chair of the Human Development and Family Sciences Department at The University of Texas at Austin.

Russell and the other researchers working on this study used yearly survey data from nearly five million middle and high school students in more than 5,000 schools in California from 2001 to 2015, focusing on homophobic bullying. 

The findings

In the 2008-09 school year, when the vote on Proposition 8 took place, the rate of homophobic bullying rose 10.8 percent. The researchers say this happened as the rate of bullying related to race, ethnicity, religion or gender declined. 

Russell said that the rate of homophobic bullying from 2008 to 2009 was higher than even the estimated population of LGBTQ students. 

“The data are telling us that straight kids are getting bullied for this, too,” Russell said. “It’s all about what the bullies perceive.”

By comparison, the 2001-02 school year saw only a 7.6 percent rate of homophobic bullying. After the 2008-09 year, the rate of homophobic bullying decreased steadily every year. 

The researchers found there are some things schools can do to protect against the impacts of these politically-triggered bullying trends. They found that rates of homophobic bullying were lower on campuses with Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) clubs during the 2008- 2009 school year. Findings showed that homophobic bullying was below 10 percent on campuses with GSA organizations and nearly 13 percent on campuses without a GSA.

“Policies and campaigns related to Black Lives Matter, bathroom bills, immigration — these can be concerning in how they affect the health and well-being of youth,” Russell said. “The public health consequences of these very contentious and media-driven discussions are more important than we knew.”

The researchers said that public votes and voter referendums on the rights of minority groups happen in about half of US states. 

“Our findings suggest that the public discourse surrounding these votes may increase risk for bias-based bullying,” said Mark Hatzenbuehler, an associate professor of sociomedical sciences and sociology at Columbia University.

The research was funded by the Communities for Just Schools Fund Project at the New Venture Fund, the Priscilla Pond Flawn Endowment at The University of Texas at Austin and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Reaching the findings 

KXAN sat down with Russell to discuss how his team reached their findings, which have been more than three years in the making.

Russell has been studying the health of LGBTQ young people for two decades. He explained that in the past five years, researchers have been expecting to see mental health and behavioral challenges decrease for LGBTQ youth, but that hasn’t happened. He decided to study bullying to see if bullying was causing these mental health and behavioral issues to persist.

What they found instead was what Russell says is a totally different story.

They used data from the California Healthy Kids Survey, which is administered to students statewide and collects information which is then used by school districts and the California Department of Education. 

A question on the surveys asks kids if they have been bullied for any of the following reasons, listing off subcategories, including one for people to select if someone bullied you because you were gay, lesbian, bisexual, or someone thought you were. 

That trove of data is something the state of Texas does not have, though some individual school districts run similar surveys. 

“One of the biggest strengths of this research was the use of the large and diverse sample, which comprised nearly 5 million youths from over 5000 schools in California,” said Yishan Shen, who is now an Assistant Professor of Family and Child Development at Texas State University. “To our knowledge, there are no such statewide data available in Texas, and we hope that a similar large-scale research project can be launched here in the state of Texas in the near future to better monitor young people’s health and well-being.”

Russell recalls a particular day when one of his fellow researchers, Yishan Shen, came to a lab meeting, thinking something was wrong with the data. Shen observed that homophobic bullying had not increased over time, but there was a weird peak in the numbers in 2008. 

“We immediately said, ‘Are you sure it’s not there for bullying based on race?’ Are you sure it’s not for bullying based on religion?’ she said. ‘Those [categories] are flat lines, the real trend is for homophobic bullying>”

That’s when it clicked for the group of researchers: they were looking at California numbers and 2008 was when Prop 8 was up for a vote in California. 

Russell causes this spike in politically-triggered bullying “The Prop 8 Effect.” 

The researchers paired this California state data with a list of registered GSA clubs at California schools.

Russell said that existing research has already shown through qualitative and population studies that GSA clubs make a difference in creating a positive climate for schools. 

He explained it took a while to explain the reviewers of their paper that this peak in 2008 they saw didn’t come from other factors, like the economic or ethnic makeup of the schools. But with the millions of survey responses, the researchers were able to control for each variable and show that homophobic bullying is the only type of bullying with that pattern. 

Russell believes these findings can absolutely be applied to Texas. 

“There’s really solid evidence that there are strategies that make a difference for creating safe and supportive environments and schools for all kids, and there’s no reason to think that would be any different here in Texas, and in fact, there’s good evidence that that’s the case here in Texas,” he said. 

He believes more research will show whether the findings from this study will translate to other political debates impacting other marginalized groups. 

“The existential question, is “How do we have conversations that don’t marginalize people?” Russell said.

In his eyes, the solution to stopping this kind of bullying isn’t to stop having discussions or debate, but rather to be thoughtful about how our political debates related to marginalized groups might impact the people we’re talking about — especially children. 

“We should be figuring out strategies as a nation to support everyone,” he said. 

KXAN reached out to Austin’s PFLAG chapter for this story, Anna Nguyen, the VP of Operations for PFLAG Austin said the findings in this study are concerning. 

“Such behavior, adult legislators proposing anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, lowers or even removes standards of socially accepted behaviors in schools, fostering and legitimizing bullies,” Nguyen said, expressing worries about bills in the Texas legislature. 

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