It’s said that sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. Tell that to the families of the young victims who recently took their own lives after being severely bullied for being gay or perceived as being gay. Words do not only hurt, they kill.
The recent youth suicides have shed light on the issue of bullying, which affects almost all youth. Yet, LGBT youth are bullied more often than their heterosexual peers and are more vulnerable to the effects of substance abuse and depression. Gay youth are more likely to be homeless and many times look to their schools to be the safe environments they lack.
When that “safe” environment breeds the emotional and physical effects of constant harassment, these youth will many times begin to make unwise decisions. The D.C. 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) reveals that LGB high school students report significantly higher cocaine and methamphetamine use versus their heterosexual peers, and 29 percent of LGB high school and middle school students have attempted suicide at least once. Of particular importance to D.C., the city in the United States with the highest prevalence of HIV, bullying can result in youth engaging in unhealthy behaviors that may put them at risk for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV/AIDS, as they try to find support outside of their community, home and schools.
According to a national report provided by the Gay and Lesbian Student Education Network (GLSEN), 85 percent of LGBT students reported being bullied in school in the last year because of their sexual orientation. Increased levels of victimization were related to increased levels of depression and anxiety and decreased levels of self-esteem.
The University of California at San Francisco reports that low self-esteem can lead to increased risk behavior such as sexual aggression, difficulty negotiating safer sex, and drug or alcohol abuse.
These statistics are unacceptable in a time when there are many resources to promote the health and wellbeing of young people. The D.C. Concerned Providers’ Coalition (DCCP) strives to reduce the transmission of STIs and particularly, HIV/AIDS, among youth who identify as LGBT in Washington. DCCP is comprised of 24 diverse stakeholders in the community including schools, health and non-profit organizations, and the government, aiming to strategize how we as a community can provide the resources and policies that will enable LGBT youth to lead healthy lives. The coalition represents organizations that combat the effects of bullying.
The most effective examples include the provision of safe, after-school environments that many LGBT youth in D.C. depend on everyday. Additionally, DCCP sponsors STIGMA (Spreading Truth Is Gaining Mass Appeal), a group of LGBT-identifying youth, who engage in HIV outreach and prevention among their own networks and communities in the D.C. metropolitan area.
It is up to the entire D.C. community to recognize and combat bullying, which is not just a gay issue. If you are a parent, you can teach your children about respecting and appreciating differences; as a business owner you can sustain organizations that provide safe spaces for youth with in-kind donations; or as a dedicated member of the community, you can volunteer at a youth center, after-school program, or HIV-related organization in D.C.
In the last month we have seen the tragic effects that bullying can have on youth. We must recognize that bullying also serves as a hidden, yet powerful root cause that fuels the HIV/AIDS pandemic that affects 1 in 100 youth and 1 in 20 people living in Washington. What will you do to help?