Evidence of increases in homophobic bullying linked to anti-gay political measures

Zinnia JonesReferenda against marriage equality, and the accompanying public debates which inevitably surround them for months or years, have been among the ugliest episodes in American politics. In the heyday of these measures, campaigners against marriage equality routinely promoted some of the most brazenly scaremongering political ads, events, and materials, crafted to stir up significant public hostility against any recognition of the legal equality of same-sex couples. These campaigns attempted to convince voters that if marriage equality were not stopped at the ballot box, all manner of terrible fates would befall not only them but their children as well, evoking the perennial libel of gay people as an inherent threat to kids.

The protracted battles surrounding these measures were not only unhealthy for the body politic, but for queer people themselves, who were subjected to an inescapable barrage of media and talking points depicting them as agents of social discord, corruption of youth, and even the apocalypse itself. Now, researchers have found evidence that California’s notorious Proposition 8 measure to ban marriage equality was associated with a notable spike in homophobic bullying among students in the state.

Hatzenbuehler et al. (2019) examined data from the California Healthy Kids Survey spanning 2001-2014, which includes student reports of experiences of bias-motivated bullying. In the trends they identified in these responses, “the 2008–2009 academic year (when Proposition 8 was passed) was an inflection point in rates of homophobic bullying.” Additionally, at the school level, the presence of a gay-straight alliance group was associated with a lesser prevalence of reported homophobic bullying:

Notably, no similar trend or pattern was found among rates of bullying on the basis of race/ethnicity, gender, or religion. While this study was only quasi-experimental – unfortunately, it isn’t possible to look at rates of homophobic bullying in an alternate universe where Proposition 8 never existed – these trends show that experiences of anti-gay hostility in schools accompany episodes of pronounced anti-gay hostility in wider society.

This shouldn’t be particularly surprising: supporters of Proposition 8 repeatedly claimed that marriage equality would lead to the supposed calamity of “teaching gay marriage in schools” – what message does that send to students about the gay classmates who are in their schools right now? These are not merely abstract debates about competing ideals, and they are often anything but civil; such rhetoric can cause real harms, including to the most vulnerable members of society. The lessons of Proposition 8 should be remembered as anti-trans rhetoric now proliferates in media and in politics: Perpetually casting trans people as sexual threats, as mentally unwell, as even being a “contagion” to those around them, may be good for clicks and votes – and almost certainly terrible for the real human beings who are targeted.

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About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender sociology, public health, psychiatry, history of medicine, cognitive science, the social processes of science, transgender feminism, and human rights, taking an analytic approach that intersects these many perspectives and is guided by the lived experiences of transgender people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
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