Schools Aren't As Safe For LGBTQ Students As We Think

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We've come a long way in acceptance of LGBTQ people in the last decade, right? Marriage equality passed, and up until a couple of weeks ago transgender students were legally able to use the bathrooms appropriate for their gender in public schools.
As much as it may seem that things have gotten better for LGBTQ people, though, new research shared with Refinery29 shows that we still face as much discrimination and risk for violence as we did in the 1990s. Going out in public as a visibly queer person is still risky, and that's not okay.
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For LGBTQ students, though, things are actually getting worse.
"The going idea is that we need to keep young people safe and that that involves preventing runaways and homelessness and preventing school drop outs," Tasseli McKay, social science researcher at the Center for Justice, Safety & Resilience, RTI International and lead author on the research told Refinery29. "But the research is seeing that home and school are two of the most risky places for LGBTQ teens."
McKay and her team were inspired to do this research because of the rhetoric around the transgender bathroom debate. Much of the argument in North Carolina (McKay's home state), as well as other states that were considering laws that would require everyone use the bathroom based on the sex marked on their birth certificates, is that these laws protect women from using the bathroom with "biological males," who would put these women at risk.
To see whether straight women were really at risk from transgender women using the same bathroom, McKay and her team examined 20 years of research about violence and the LGBTQ community as well as talking to a series of focus groups of LGBTQ people in San Francisco, New York City, Durham, North Carolina, and in rural Wyoming.
In many ways, things have gotten better for LGBTQ people over the last several years. Part of that is the fact that there is greater, and better, representation of queer people in television and the media.
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Because they see healthy relationships between queer people on TV and at least a few representations of transgender or gender non-conforming people (such as Jazz Jennings), LGBTQ teenagers are more likely to come out earlier and to present as gender non-conforming. That's incredible, and we're happy to know that young people feel free to be open about who they are, but McKay says this could be one reason violence and discrimination has not waned.
"They're getting this tremendous backlash and mixed messages," McKay said. "In the media they learn that it’s okay to be out, but then are being taunted and bullied by their peers."
The victimization they face at school and at home (parents and other family members were also likely to bully LGBTQ youths), can have long-lasting affects on these students' health and wellbeing, McKay and her team found. Many of the studies they looked at saw that discrimination correlated with suicide risk, sexual risk-taking and HIV status, as well as "other long-term physical health issues, and decreased school involvement and achievement."
It's important to note that queer students who have intersections with other marginalized identities are at greatest risk of violence or discrimination. So while a well-off white gay man certainly faces some discrimination in his lifetime, a gender non-conforming person of color probably will face even more risk of violence.
In one of the Durham, North Carolina focus groups, a transgender participant said, “Once you’ve been read as being a trans person, you check out, they check out. For us it’s safety. For them, it’s discomfort. It’s a heightened stigmatization,” according to McKay.
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This may be why it's hard for so many of us in privileged positions to realize how prevalent discrimination of the LGBTQ community still is. We often don't see it. All we see is that television shows are showing more queer characters now than ever, and that newspapers and magazines and websites are telling queer stories. But greater visibility doesn't mean that discrimination has disappeared.
And it's up to us to make a difference, McKay said.
There's a lot of research about bystander intervention and sexual assault, she said, and that research carries some weight for the LGBTQ community, too.
"We’re all bystanders in creating a social climate about whether it's okay for our peers to discriminate against the LGBTQ community," she said. "We choose who gets to be safe and protected."
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