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Overcoming Anti-Gay Harassment

For far too many people, being gay or lesbian means having to deal with prejudice and harassment from childhood onward.

Gay and lesbian teens are often targets of bullying, harassment, and aggression. Anti-gay bullying can range from verbal abuse, such as name-calling, to life-threatening physical assault.

Even if young people escape physical violence, the effects of such bullying can be psychologically devastating. Young victims who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) may become promiscuous or start abusing drugs and alcohol. LGBT kids and teens may skip school or even run away from home. Many suffer from depression, and some are driven to commit suicide.

Some victims of this kind of harassment may not even be gay. Some can become targets simply because their peers perceive them to be gay.

Young man sitting against a wall in school hallway

Anti-gay harassment is widespread

By no means is anti-gay bullying a rare occurrence. About 90 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender students have been bullied. Two-thirds of LGBT students have experienced verbal abuse, 16 percent have suffered from physical harassment, and 8 percent have been physically assaulted. More than 90 percent of students, straight or gay, have heard someone use derogatory language about sexual orientation.

Anti-gay violence is not limited to children and teens. In 2010, 27 LGBT Americans were murdered in hate crimes. That year showed a 13 percent increase over 2009 in violent crimes affecting LGBT and people with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

More than a decade ago, the tragic death of Matthew Shepard galvanized a movement to end gay-bashing. One night, two men led the University of Wyoming student to a remote area in Laramie, tied him to a fence, beat him repeatedly, and left him for dead. Five days later, Shepard died and became an enduring symbol of the horrors of anti-gay hate crimes.

For students dealing with harassment

The most important step in dealing with anti-gay harassment is to believe in who you are. The bullying isn't your fault, nor should you have to change in order to please or even be accepted by other people. Understand that you are not to blame for others' prejudices or hatred.

If you are being bullied or harassed about your sexual orientation, take steps to put an end to the bullying immediately. Don't fight back or make threats; simply tell the bully to stop. Leave the situation and seek help if you are being physically attacked or fear that you could be.

If you're a young person being bullied:

  • Protect yourself until you can get away.

  • Stay with a buddy who can offer protection or get help when necessary.

  • Confide in a trusted adult about what is happening.

  • Go to a safe area like the library or a teacher's classroom if you are threatened.

How LGBT adults can stay safe:

  • When out in public, stay alert and trust your instincts.

  • When walking, plan the safest and most direct route.

  • Carry a whistle to attract attention in case you feel threatened.

  • Cross the street, change direction, or run into a crowd if you sense danger.

Don't deny that the problem exists

It can be easy to brush off harassment or bullying after the fact, once you're safe and the confrontation has ended. But you don't need—or deserve—to live in fear or to minimize the trauma. Address the issue by reporting the harassment either to administrators or teachers, if you are a student, or to the police.

It's normal to feel ashamed after a traumatic bullying experience, but it's also normal to feel angry, afraid, confused, or even numb. There is no right or wrong way to react to harassment. It will help to talk to a trusted friend, counselor, or therapist. Bullying or harassing someone over his or her sexual orientation is never acceptable, funny, or appropriate. If you witness it happening, speak out. And if it happens to you, seek help.