Words Matter: The Effects of Bullying on Queer Youth

There are very few people who have not heard the age old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. However, as the problem of bullying comes into the mainstream a very different picture is being painted. Words do hurt, in fact, they can cause severe harm to people. Words are some of our most important weapons against others. Bullying is a severe problem in today’s society, especially against queer youth. Queer in this paper is used as an umbrella term to mean non-heterosexual and non-cisgender youth (Mogul, Ritchie & Whitlock, 2011). Cisgender is used to define people whose gender and assigned at birth sex/gender match. This is the opposite of transgender which means that one’s gender identity and assigned gender/sex do not match. They is also used as a gender-neutral pronoun due to transgender identities that exist outside of the male/female binary (Stevenson, n.d.).

Projects such as the It Gets Better Campaign by Dan Savage attempt to address these issues and give hope, yet ignore addressing the problem at its core. Projects like the It Gets Better campaign focus on telling youth to hold on instead of trying to eliminate a climate of intolerance and hate that many youth face in their lives. For queer youth to feel accepted, we need to work on the root of the problem instead of just focusing on getting them through the more traumatic experiences of grade school. This includes getting parents, teachers, and other school staff involved and educated on the adversity their students face for being queer or being perceived as queer. For many, the bullying starts in elementary school and continues all throughout their lives (Cahill & Cianciotto, 2012). This means that programs that focus on education and prevention need to be started at younger ages and needs to be continued throughout the educational career, for both students and staff.

While queer youth experience more than just verbal harassment in numbers much higher than their non-queer peers, this paper will focus on verbal harassment and the lasting effects it has (Cahill & Cianciotto, 2012). Verbal harassment is much more frequent than any other form of harassment since words are much easier to use and have fewer repercussions than the use of physical or sexual assault. Words are not harmless and can leave lasting problems when continually used as weapons against queer youth. Bullying, especially verbal harassment, is a serious issue inside of schools for queer youth that can leave lasting negative impressions and is a problem that needs to be addressed at the core and actively worked against and prevented.

Prevalence of Bully and Verbal Harassment in Schools

Queer students are estimated to make up about 3 to 6% percent of the student population (Cahill & Cianciotto, 2012). While they are rather small in number, the top reasons children are bullied are either their actual or perceived sexual orientation or their gender non-conformity. This is even more than students are bullied on for their race or physical/mental disabilities (Biegel, 2010). Queer students are still seen as scapegoats in school and outside of school. While it is widely unacceptable for people to be openly mocked for their race, religion, ethnicity or physical/mental disabilities, people can still get away for condemning people due to their orientation or gender identity (Biegel, 2010; Charon & Vivilant, 2012). This means the amount of verbal bullying experienced by queer students is disproportionate to their representation in the actual population. Non-queer kids are also the basis of anti-queer bullying due to the homophobic and transphobic nature of such interactions (Cahill & Cianciotto, 2012). Anyone who is perceived as queer is subjected to anti-queer based bullying.

Many people seem to think that bullying is specifically linked to high school aged students. Many of the displays in the media are linked to incidents that happen at high schools. Very little is the discussion started at the most basic level. Bullying and harassment based on actual/perceived sexual orientation and gender issues starts at the most basic level, elementary school. Hearing gay used in a negative way, often or all the time, was reported by 45% of students and 49% of elementary school teachers in a study done by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). While derogatory words such as faggot and lesbo were only reported being heard frequently by 26% of students and staff, this is the same amount that reported hearing racist and ethnic slurs and bullying (GLSEN & Harris Interactive, 2012). This means that homophobic bullying and word use is a little under double of that of racist and ethnic bullying and slur use. Sexist comments, such as what boys and girls should and shouldn’t do, were reported by four out of ten students with almost half of the teachers (48%) reporting hearing the same type of sexist remarks (GLSEN & Harris Interactive, 2012). This is just elementary school.

The statistics for high school students aren’t much better. In fact, they are quite a bit worse. One study of Iowa high schools found out that on average a person hears 26 anti-gay remarks per day. Even with homophobic remarks being so prominent, teachers failed to respond 97% of the time to them (Cahill & Cianciotto, 2012). While only half of elementary school students reported hearing gay in a negative way, 84.9% of students ages 13-20 heard it used in a negative way. Almost all of the (91.4%) were distressed by the language (Kosciw, Greytak, Bartkiewicz, Boesen, & Palmer, 2012). This is almost double the number reported by elementary school students and staff. The derogatory words, such as faggot and dyke, almost tripled in the high school population, reaching 71.3% language (Kosciw et al., 2012). Sadly, students are not the only ones who are perpetuating this verbal harassment and bullying. Teachers and school staff are also a part of the problem, in both perpetuating it and failing to prevent it. Over half of the students (56.9%) reported hearing disparaging remarks from teachers and staff about either their sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. The majority of these went unreported because students felt the teachers and staff would do nothing. When these verbal and physical issues were reported, 36.7% of the cases went unresolved language (Kosciw et al., 2012).

Transgender students are even more likely to experience issues at school. Transgender and gender non-conforming students experience even higher rates of abuse than their fellow queer students. 80% of transgender students feel unsafe in their schools, with 58.7% of gender non-conforming people reporting instances of verbal harassment due to their gender identity or expression (Kosciw et al., 2012). A study done by the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) found that the harassment faced by K-12 transgender and non-conforming students was so bad that it caused one in six students to leave school. This same study found that 31% of transgender and gender non-conforming students experienced harassment at the hands of teachers and staff (Grant, Mottet, Tanis, Harrison, & Herman, 2011).

Lasting Effects of Words

These words do not come at no cost to the queer students. The verbal harassment and bullying experienced by queer students has lasting effects, which can continue even after high school. Queer Americans have to face legislative inequalities, laws that question whether basic rights should be afforded to them, issues with their families and friends, as well as problems from religious communities (Biegel, 2010; Charon & Vivilant, 2012). Despite the words of Dan Savage, it does not necessarily get better. Queer youth simply move from one form of verbal harassment and bullying to another. This only serves to continue to perpetuate the issues, especially the mental health issues, faced by queer people.

One of the most detrimental effects of verbal harassment and bullying can be seen in the realm of mental health. Students who have faced verbal harassment due to their sexual orientation or gender identity/expression are more likely to have self-esteem issues, problems with depression and anxiety, and may even experience stunted emotional growth (Biegel, 2010). These problems are reported in greater numbers than those who experienced victimization based on other factors, such as race or physical/mental disability (Kosciw et al., 2012). Students who experienced three or more instances in a year of harassment at school reported higher rates of putting their health at risk, such as unprotected sex, when compared to their heterosexual peers (Cahill & Cianciotto, 2012). These students are also three times more likely to have attempted or thought of suicide than their heterosexual peers, this number is substantially higher in transgender and gender non-conforming students. The amount of transgender and gender non-conforming students who report having attempted suicide due to issues as school is alarming. Over half (51%) report having attempted suicide, not just thought about suicide, attempted suicide due to the issues they face from their fellow students and staff  (Grant, et al., 2011).

Being queer is not a mental illness nor are mental illnesses and mental health issues caused by being queer. The higher rates of mental illness and problems are psychosocial stressors associated with being queer. Queer people, including students are at constant ends with society. They face issues at home, in school, and in the media and other institutions. They face victimization due to their sexual orientation and gender identity/expression that creates high amounts of stress as a person (Cahill & Cianciotto, 2012). Queer people are constantly faced with stereotypes, incorrect media perceptions, and lack of support structures in the home and school, as well as harassment on all levels Charon & Vivilant, 2012). For example, the tragic suicide of 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer, and openly queer child who took his life due to bullying. Even after his death, his tormenters cheered for his suicide and expressed glee that their victim was dead. The students were simply suspended and that was all. Police could not find enough evidence to prosecute his tormenters (Caulfield, 2011). This is one of the sad examples of the power of words and how they negatively affect the lives of others.

Another issue caused directly by anti-queer bullying is school attendance. This can cause issues in finding jobs, graduating, and outlooks on getting into post-secondary school (Biegel, 2010; Cahill & Cianciotto, 2012). In the 2011 National School Climate Survey, queer students reported skipping class and missing school due to harassment and feeling unsafe at school. For each category, about a third of students (29.8% and 31.8% respectively) reported having done so at least once in the past month (Kosciw et al., 2012). Transgender students who had to drop out of school due to the harassment they received had higher rates of testing positive for HIV, high rates of homelessness, as well as higher rates of drug, tobacco and alcohol use (Grant, et al., 2011). This partially ties into the mental health issues that are caused by perpetual harassment and bullying in the school environment as well as not having finished high school. Students also have lower GPAs in correlation with the amount of harassment they receive in school. Since queer youth are more likely to face harassment than their non-queer peers, queer students have lower GPAs directly correlated to the amount of harassment they faced. The average student GPA was reported to be 3.2. Students who suffered from high levels of harassment had an average GPA of 2.9 (Kosciw et al., 2012). Not only did the attendance and GPA of queer students suffer, but their sense of belonging. Queer students who felt they did not belong had lower extracurricular activities, lower GPAs, and were more likely to skip class. Once again, this was directly related to the severity of the harassment experienced at school (Kosciw et al., 2012). Hopes for higher education were also seen to be lower in queer students who faced bullying and harassment for their sexual orientation and gender identity. Queer students twice as likely as their non-queer counterparts to not plan for any post-secondary education (Cahill & Cianciotto, 2012).

Suggestions for Safer Environments

Schools are unsafe for queer students. They experience high levels of bullying and verbal abuse as well as physical and sometimes even sexual abuse. These problems cause mental health issues as well as poor academic performance. They face lower levels of self-esteem, and do not hold high hopes for the future. So how can schools change this problematic environment for their queer students? Many schools do not have adequate anti-bullying rules or anti-discrimination laws in place. Many states lack statewide coverage of protection for their queer citizens (Cahill & Cianciotto, 2012). There are several solutions that need to be examined to make schools safer for their students.

First, schools must put in place anti-bullying and anti-discrimination rules and strictly enforce them. This means that students cannot be protected from being reprimanded for bullying behind the guise of religion either. Only 7.4% of students surveyed in the 2011 National School Climate Survey reported that their school had a comprehensive anti-discrimination policy. A comprehensive anti-discrimination policy includes both sexual orientation and gender identity/expression. Only 15.6% reported that their school had one or the other (Kosciw et al., 2012). Schools that had comprehensive anti-discrimination had staff that was more likely to intervene when hearing homophobic or sexist remarks. Students who reported staff intervening was 28.3% compared to 8.8% for homophobic remarks and 19% and 8.4% for sexist remarks in regards to gender identity (Kosciw et al., 2012). A teacher intervening isn’t the only thing a comprehensive anti-discrimination rules help change. Students reported hearing slurs and derogatory words such as faggot and dyke 13.8 less than those schools without anti-discrimination rules in place. While over half (59.5%) of students still report hearing these words, that is a major change from the almost three-fourths (73.8%) of schools without any rules protecting sexual orientation and gender identity/expression in place (Kosciw et al., 2012).

Schools in their entirety need to be safe spaces, but special safe spaces for queer students must also be created. Gay-Straight Alliances are an example of a safe space for queer students and their allies. Gay-Straight Alliances provide students with information, resources, and a safe space to discuss their needs and problems with being queer. They allow a place for students to be open about themselves as well as gain knowledge they may not acquire elsewhere due to student internet blocks (Biegel, 2010). These places allow students to have a support network inside the school, including faculty and staff. Safe spaces can be expanded to specific teachers and staff through the use of symbols on classroom doors. By acknowledging that said teacher is supportive, students feel more comfortable expressing their needs and themselves. They let students know that this is a person they can trust and helps cut down on the unreported incidents of harassment and bullying (Biegel, 2010).

As well as safe spaces, faculty and staff need to be educated on queer issues. Queer issues must be taught alongside non-queer issues, for example in sexual education. This helps bring the normalcy of queer students into the school and helps do away with the idea that heterosexuality is the normal and that queer is the deviance (Biegel, 2010). Education of the staff and teachers is also important. As stated previously, educated and supporting staff helps create a safe environment for students. Students who were able to name at least six supportive staff members reported feeling safer in school (only 53.1%) compared to those who could not name any supportive staff members (76.9%). These students also reported higher GPAs, higher educational aspirations, and skipped school less (Kosciw et al., 2012). Clearly having a supportive system creates a safer environment. Students are more likely to go to class and thus, more likely to do better. Students with supportive teachers are also more likely to report harassment and feel safer, which is extremely important to students. Teachers who are educated in the needs of their queer students are also more likely to be able to help them. Allowing students to know that their teachers are educated in their needs help perpetuate the safe spaces needed in educational environments. This is especially true for transgender and gender non-conforming students who face higher levels of ignorance and problems from their peers and their teachers (Biegel, 2010).


Verbal harassment and bullying is one of the biggest issues in schools that queer students deal with and must be addressed due to the lasting problems it can cause. Teachers often are involved in the harassment and bullying, especially of their transgender students. Many schools do not have the proper channels for reporting or adequate protections for their queer students. Schools are supposed to be a safe place for children to learn and socialize, not sources of extreme mental and sometimes physical anguish.

Schools much become safe spaces for all people, including their queer students who suffer the most at not just the hands of their peers, but their teachers and staff as well. Schools must focus on inclusive policies and creating safe spaces as well as addressing the problems within their own schools. By creating a more queer friendly environment, schools benefit their non-queer students as well who may be being bullied or harassed for being perceived as queer. Queer inclusive schools are schools that are safe and supportive for everyone, of every gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, and every other human difference.


Biegel, S. (2010). The right to be out: Sexual orientation and gender identity in America’s public schools. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Cahill, S., & Cianciotto, S. (2012). Lgbt youth in America’s schools. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Caulfield, P. (2011, December 05). Students suspended for bullying jamey rodemeyer, gay teen who committed suicide. NY Daily News. Retrieved from http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/students-suspended-bullying-jamey-rodemeyer-gay-teen-committed-suicide-article-1.987006

Charon, J. M., & Vivilant, L. G. (2012). Social problems. (4th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

GLSEN & Harris Interactive (2012). Playgrounds and prejudice: Elementary school climate in the United States, a survey of students and teachers. New York: GLSEN.

Grant, J. M., Mottet, L.A., Tanis, J., Harrison, J., & Herman, J.L. (2011). Injustice at every turn: A report of the national transgender discrimination survey. Washington: National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

Kosciw, J. G., Greytak, E. A., Bartkiewicz, M. J., Boesen, M. J., & Palmer, N. A. (2012). The 2011 national school climate survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in our nation’s schools. New York: GLSEN.

Mogul, J., Ritchie, A., & Whitlock, K. (2011). Queer (in)justice: The criminalization of lgbt people in the united states. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Stevenson, J. (n.d.). Using gender-neutral language in academic writing. Retrieved from http://www.warren-wilson.edu/~writingcenter/Gender-Neutral_Language.pdf


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