LGBTQ Youth Today: Things aren’t as good as they seem

Stephen Russell speaks to a group of students in the Konover auditorium about issues surrounding the LGBTQ community. Russell focused on issues regarding harassment in youth and why these issues are not "getting better" as many people believe. (Julie Spillane/The Daily Campus)

Stephen Russell speaks to a group of students in the Konover auditorium about issues surrounding the LGBTQ community. Russell focused on issues regarding harassment in youth and why these issues are not "getting better" as many people believe. (Julie Spillane/The Daily Campus)

With same-sex marriage now protected by law in the United States and LGBTQ+ characters represented in film and television, many people believe that the socio-political climate toward LGBTQ+ people has gotten much better. Stephen T. Russell was brought to UConn Thursday by the Rainbow Center and InCHIP to explain to students that this isn’t entirely the case. 

 Russell is Priscilla Pond Flawn Regents Professor in Child Development Chair at the University of Texas in Austin’s Department of Human Development and Family Sciences. His research helped to pass a mandate in California to make textbooks more inclusive, so that LGBTQ+ adolescents can feel safer in school, go to school and do better in school. Over the past two decades of research on LGBTQ+ people, he has noticed a collision between the growing ethos in society toward the LGBTQ+ population and the real experiences LGBTQ+ people face. 

“It was interesting to hear a speaker respected in his field of human development discuss how he questions whether things have actually gotten better since marriage equality happened,” Mark Capel, an eighth-semester actuarial science major, said. “His reasons were very logical but something I never would have thought of before his talk. I enjoyed this speaker and appreciated what he was discussing.” 

Russell put a timeline on the projector which listed the main moments of progression within the LGBTQ+ liberation movement and moments of homophobia and intolerance over the past few decades. He showed how for every step forward there has been a step back. In 1990, the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network was founded to help create inclusive and safe K-12 schools. But then, three years later, “Don’t ask, don’t tell” prevented openly LGB people from enlisting into the military. In 1996, the “Defense of Marriage Act” defined marriage as the union between one man and one woman, but then Ellen DeGeneres came out on national television a year later. Even today, despite the 2015 enforcement of marriage equality, the “Federal Safe Schools Act,” which would give schools funds to adopt specific codes of conduct prohibiting bullying and harassment, continues to fail to pass. This complexity in the timeline points to a structural stigma. 

The same results were found in Russell’s research. The percent of those who oppose allowing homosexuals to be teachers dropped from 47 percent in the 1970s to 12 percent today. During this same period, the average age when people come out has dropped from early 20s to early early teens and preteens. But at the same time, he once talked to a Lesbian teenager from Southern California who recalled waking up one morning to “Prop 8” signs in all of her neighbors yard. “Prop 8” was a California ballot proposition in 2008 which would have eliminated the rights of same-sex couples to marry. To this teenager, it felt like all her neighbors, the people she had grown up with, were telling her she wasn’t welcomed. 

Russell suspects that this could be partially because of a developmental collision. There is an interpersonal element revolving around puberty including adrenarche, how at age 10 a sexual awareness, development and understanding is developed, and metacognition, how kids of this age began thinking of themselves in connection with others. Age 10+ is also the age when children begin to conform and start pressuring others to conform too. At this same time in children’s lives, there is a contextual and institutional element. LGBTQ+ children who come out young have to come out to their parents when they are still dependent on them. Schools also are transitioning at this time from one teacher/class and thus one social circle to multiple teachers/classes and fractured social circles. All of these difficulties cause bullying to peak in seventh grade, where it will then, statistically, grow focused on targeting queer students. 

This was shown by a rising trend in homophobic bullying from nine percent in 2001 to 12 percent in 2008, where it then gradually began to lower again. But at the same time, there was an identical trend of the creation of Gay Straight Alliances (GSA) in schools. 

Russell said that the best way to answer the question of “Are things changing for the better?” is to determine if homophobic bullying is declining and if disparities are narrowing. The answer he determined for both of those factors was “it’s complicated… but no.” While homophobic name-calling and violence has declined over the past couple decades, there is no decline in sexual orientation disparities. Sexual orientation and school bullying is actually increasing. And a greater number of LGBTQ+ adolescents consume alcohol and cigarettes and are prone to suicide. 

While policy may have changed in support of the LGBTQ+ population, most of these policies don’t protect adolescents (i.e. marriage equality). And while a greater degree of social acceptance has occurred in recent years, homophobia and transphobia remains pervasive.  

Of course, Russell’s research had certain limitations. Most of it was conducted in progressive areas — California, Massachusetts and British Columbia — so no data is included from less progressive areas like Texas. There could also be some third variable that could explain the disparities that Russell doesn’t know about yet. 

Russell hopes to use his research to make changes in Texas schools to make them more inclusive and safe for their LGBTQ+ students. 

“I found it really interesting because I didn’t know much about the issues facing the LGBT community prior to this,” Amanda Mae, a sixth-semester finance major, said. “I definitely learned a lot about the importance of having a GSA in schools, because my high school had one and I thought it was really impactful.” 


Rebecca Maher is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at rebecca.l.maher@uconn.edu.