Study: It gets better for gay teens, but by how much?

A new 7-year study shows things do get better as gay teens enter adulthood, but we still have a very long way to go

Topics: Gay, LGBT, Gay Rights, gay teens, LGBTQ, Bullying, teen bullying, Dan Savage, It Gets Better, Suicide, ,

There is no shortage of headlines to remind us how gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teens face far higher rates of bullying in school than their peers, and how that abuse can lead to depression, self-harm and suicide. But a new study that collected long-term data on gay and lesbian teens suggests that, per Dan Savage, things really do get better.

But how much better? That’s a little more complicated.

Researchers analyzed data collected from 4,135 teens and young adults in England over seven years and found that more than half of those who self-identified as gay reported being bullied at the beginning of the study, with 57 percent of girls and 52 percent of boys reporting being harassed. But that number dropped to 9 percent for gay and bisexual boys and 6 percent for lesbian and bisexual girls by the study’s end in 2010.

These numbers are a clear indicator that peer harassment lessens over time — and that’s really good news — but the study also reveals that things are far from perfect after high school, particularly for gay males. Researchers found that gay men were still bullied four times as often as heterosexual males well into adulthood.

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“It gets better for lesbian and bisexual females, relatively, but for gay and bisexual males, relative to their straight male peers, it gets worse after high school,” says study author Joseph Robinson, assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. “Rates for gay men are getting better but when compared to straight boys, it’s still much higher. We would be remiss to ignore that in relative terms, it gets worse for gay men,” he told Time magazine.

And while the data was collected from teenagers in England, “We don’t think the results would be very different if done on U.S. populations,” Robinson says.

The study did not track rates of violence faced by transgendered teens, but in the United States, rates of violence against trans youth remain astonishingly high. Research on transgender and gender non-conforming youth shows that 82 percent of these teens report regular bullying and harassment, with more than half experiencing physical violence from their peers.

Robinson’s study also found that gay teenagers had much higher incidences of emotional distress, like depression and low self-esteem, than straight kids, suggesting that “broader issues of school and societal messages” need to be addressed in addition to anti-bullying efforts in school — even if they are helping. As Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote,” It does get better, and a whole lot of things in this country have gotten better, but as long as kids are dying because hateful creeps are pushing them around, we have miles and miles to go.”

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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