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Bullying of Gay/Lesbian Teens: Expert Q&A

Questions Raised by Cyberbullying That May Have Led to Suicide of Rutgers Student

By Daniel J. DeNoon
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Laura J. Martin, MD

Oct. 1, 2010 -- Rutgers student Tyler Clementi is the fourth teen in three weeks to commit suicide after being bullied for being, or seeming, gay.

Suicide rates and suicidal thoughts are more common among gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered teens. Much of this may be due to bullying, as gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens are about twice as likely to report being bullied as heterosexual teens.

The tragic deaths raise a number of questions, which WebMD took to two experts:

  • Monica Michell, MD, former chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at New York's Lenox Hill Hospital, now in private practice.
  • David Fassler, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist affiliated with Otter Creek Associates in Burlington, Vt. He is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont and director of advocacy and public policy for the Vermont Center for Children, Youth and Families.

What makes harassment and bullying of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) teens different from other sexual harassment/bullying?

Michell:

I am not sure it is different from heterosexual teenagers being harassed about sexual matters. To harass anyone -- particularly a teenager -- about intimate encounters is humiliating. And it is the issue of being humiliated that is so devastating.

What is different about gay and lesbian harassment is that these kids don't always come from an environment where they can be open about their sexuality. For lesbian and gay kids who have not yet come to terms with who they are, and who have not yet come out to their friends and families, to be outed this way is horrific.

Why are LGBT youths more likely than other youths to be harassed or bullied?

Michell:

I think gay boys are most likely to be harassed because heterosexual boys feel more threatened by the fact that all people have bisexual fantasies and tendencies. Heterosexual boys can feel very scared of those impulses within themselves and become very anti-gay. The psychological basis of homophobia is fear of having those feelings oneself.

I suspect the kids who are sort of the opposite of the stereotype of masculinity and femininity experience more harassment and bullying.

Why do people single out LGBT youth for harassment/bullying?

Michell:

I am not sure how much it is about being someone who is gay or lesbian as it is about being someone who is vulnerable. This student from Rutgers seemed shy and reclusive. And such kids are easier to pick on and become more easily targeted. A kid with a thousand friends is not going to be bullied as easily as a kid socially disconnected with his peers.

If an LGBT youth is harassed or bullied, what should he/she do?

Michell:

What happened to the student in New Jersey is an invasion of privacy, and that is illegal. Certainly teenagers should report illegal acts to the authorities.

There's a problem, though, with this easy answer, to just talk to the adults about it. Obviously these kids don't feel comfortable about who they are, so chances are they are not going to feel comfortable telling an adult about it. But they should nevertheless talk to their school counselor about it, and schools have to be active in taking a strong stance against bullying.

If the bullying constitutes harassment, it should be reported. But if it is no more than being called stupid or something -- and this part is hard for kids to hear -- the more kids ignore it, the faster it will pass.

What should parents do if their child is being harassed/bullied for being -- or being called -- gay or lesbian?

Michell:

That is complicated. You have to realize it is common among schoolboys to call each other gay without a kid being gay.

But if parents feel their child may be struggling with his or her sexual orientation, they should be willing to listen and convey to their child that whatever he or she is, is OK with them. Because that ultimately is what matters the most. If a child feels he or she is gay and the parents are comfortable with it -- that counts more to the child than anything.

But if the parents already know their child is gay, with the teen's knowledge and consent they should have a talk with the school.

Fassler:

There are lots of ways parents can help a child who is being bullied. These include:

  • Create an open, honest, and supportive environment. Encourage your child to talk about what's happening. Don't blame them for the harassment. Let them know that you'll help them figure out what to do.
  • Encourage your child to be assertive rather than aggressive when confronted by a bully. Suggest walking away to avoid the bully or seeking help from a teacher, coach, or other adult.
  • Help your child practice what to say to a bully so he or she will be prepared.
  • If the bullying is occurring at school, talk to your child's teacher, guidance counselor, or principal sooner, rather than later. Schools now realize that bullying is a serious issue. Most have implemented specific policies and procedures to intervene as early as possible.
  • Encourage your child to travel with friends when going to and from school, during shopping trips, or on other outings. Bullies are less likely to pick on a child in a group.

If your child shows signs of stress, anxiety, or depression, get an evaluation by a trained and qualified mental health professional. Such signs may include trouble eating or sleeping, irritability, reduced energy, or reluctance to go to school. Some children may also react to stress with increased physical complaints including headaches or stomachaches.

What is cyberbullying?

Michell:

Cyberbullying is making derogatory and humiliating statements about another individual online with an expectation of a wide audience. If you post something on your wall in Facebook and you are friends with 300 people and say so-and-so is a stupid jerk, that could constitute cyberbullying. But that is a fine line.

Is cyberbullying different from the type of harassment young people have always done to one another?

Michell:

It is obviously new. What is online can be spread to the entire world. It bears repeating a million times that anything kids put online, whether an email or a picture, can be forwarded to the entire world. It has a different order of magnitude, and it lives on forever.

Why do teens bully other teens?

Michell:

The most important thing to bear in mind -- and this is what I talk with kids about -- is 99.9% of the time the people who engage in bullying are somewhat insecure themselves. You see this with the middle-school girls. One girl gets bullied and six months later she is tormenting another kid.

And when the victim is gay or lesbian, it is still being done from insecurity, because these bullies are afraid of their own sexual impulses. Bullying represents a maladaptive behavior on the part of the bully. The bully is not the epitome of mental health or happiness.

Fassler:

If you believe your child is bullying others, try and talk to them about what's going on. Are they angry or upset? Is there a problem at school or with friends? Rather than punishing them, let them know that you're concerned and that you want to help. Consider talking to the child's teacher, guidance counselor, or family physician. If the behavior persists, ask for a referral to an appropriate mental health professional.

SOURCES: Monica Michell, MD, attending psychiatrist, former chief of child and adolescent psychiatry, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York.

David Fassler, MD, Otter Creek Associates, Burlington, Vt.; clinical professor of psychiatry, University of Vermont, email correspondence.

Berlan, E.D. Journal of Adolescent Health, April 2010; vol 46: pp 366-371.

Silenzio, V.M.B. American Journal of Public Health, November 2007; vol 97: pp 2017-2019.

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