Bullying Awareness Month: LGBTQ Students Vulnerable Online During Pandemic

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Learning at-home and online due to COVID-19 safety precautions hasn’t meant that school has become safer for LGBTQ students, including being bullied.

“What used to be ‘oh, that’s so gay’ expressed during gym class is now becoming something that’s happening in texts, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok—whatever form of communication they’re using,” said Valentina D’Alessandro, the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Out For Safe Schools Coordinator. “It can be a screenshot of something and posted to the entire school.”

October is National Bullying Awareness Month, and schools, communities, and organizations are being encouraged to work together to stop bullying and cyberbullying, which includes making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose.

According to its 2017 national survey, GLSEN, a national education organization focused on ensuring safe schools, reported that nearly 49 percent of LGBTQ students in the U.S. experienced cyberbullying; more than 71 percent were verbally harassed about their sexual orientation; and nearly 99 percent of them heard the word “gay” used derogatorily. Alarmingly, more than half of them heard homophobic remarks from a teacher (in California, that number drops to 13 percent).

Badges of Support

According to a Los Angeles Unified School District survey, 53 percent of elementary students, 39 percent of middle school students, and 18 percent of high school students agreed bullying is a problem at their schools.

As a result, the Center partnered with LAUSD in 2013 to introduce OUT For Safe Schools, which encourages school staff to publicly identify themselves as supportive LGBTQ allies by wearing a rainbow-designed badge. These badges encourage students and parents to approach the school staff about LGBTQ concerns.

The OFSS went national in 2015 and now includes 28 school districts, including New York Department of Education (the nation’s largest school district), DC Public Schools, Chicago Public Schools, and several in California.

Due to the pandemic, a digital OFSS badge has been created for teachers to display over their names in their virtual classrooms.

However, D’Alessandro points out that the pandemic still has been shaping up to be an especially vulnerable time for some students because they no longer have in-person access to student-run organizations that unite LGBTQ+ and allied youth known as GSA clubs. Nowadays, many GSAs are meeting virtually, but some students who were once quite active are barely showing up and not taking leadership roles. D’Alessandro fears some of these students might not feel completely free to be their true selves at home during the pandemic.

“Right now it is super important to support our LGBTQ students,” she says. “Unfortunately, a high percentage of our students are joining our virtual GSA meetings with their cameras off and with their headphones on—and they only reply back via chat. To us, that means they are in an environment where they are uncomfortable.”

Home Environment

At home some students might not be allowed to dress in a way that expresses their gender identity or to use the name they chose for themselves. They also may not be around people who respect their pronouns.

“This can be dangerous for the young person’s mental health and hinder their school success,” D’Alessandro says. “There’s no way a student can focus on schoolwork when they are in such concern about being their true selves.”

Her advice for students: “If your school has a GSA, and you feel comfortable joining, then reach out. If you don’t have the support at home, find other people whom you feel comfortable with. You need to build that safe place for yourself online if you, unfortunately, can’t walk into it right now.” (See below for a list of free mental health resources)

Supportive parents of LGBTQ students who suspect their children are being bullied need to maintain open communication and create a climate where their child feels safe to talk to them about certain things, D’Alessandro says.

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For students who are being bullied at school, online, or at home and need help, there are free mental health services available:

COLORS LGBTQ+ Youth Counseling Services: Provides free LGBTQ-affirmative counseling and healing psycho-therapeutic services to youth under 25 and their families in greater Los Angeles. Contact: 310-574-2813 Ext. 366

Los Angeles Gender Center: Provides therapy services, peer support groups, family services, letters of recommendation for gender-affirming healthcare with informed consent. Contact: [email protected]

TransLifeline: Hotline is a peer support service operated by trans people for trans and questioning callers in crisis or for those who need someone to talk to. Contact: 1-877-565-8860

The Trevor Project: 24/7 support from trained counselors for LGBTQ+ youth in crisis or in need of a safe non-judgmental place to talk. Contact: Call 1-866-488-7386. Test START to 678-678. Visit www.thetrevorproject.org for extra resources and education.

Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, seven days a week, across the U.S. Contact: English: 1-800-273-8255 (TALK), Spanish: 1-888-628-9454. Visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org

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