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What We Know About Trans Youth and Bullying

A research review quantifies the problem and offers strategies for improvement.

Key points

  • Trans gendered students face bullying at much higher rates than cis gendered students.
  • Bullying has a detrimental effect on trans students' mental health and academic performance.
  • Schools and communities can prevent bullying and empower trans students by fostering education and belonging, among other strategies.
vdovichenkodenis/Adobe Stock
Source: vdovichenkodenis/Adobe Stock

Transgender youth, kids whose gender identity does not match their assigned sex, experience bullying and violence in schools at much higher rates compared to cisgender youth, whose gender identity does match their assigned sex.

In fact, evidence shows that trans youth are more likely to experience what researchers call poly-victimization — multiple forms of abuse or discrimination simultaneously — compared to cis youth. This type of abuse is associated with serious mental and emotional problems including lower self-esteem, anxiety, depression, suicide, poor school performance and more.

A systematic review published last year in the journal Children and Youth Services Review takes a careful look at how bullying and victimization affect school-aged transgender youth. The review also identifies evidenced-based strategies to prevent transgender victimization in schools.

The review includes 19 studies published between 2009 and 2018 of youth ages 8 to 25. It found that transgender youth are six times more likely to experience bullying, abuse and violence due to their gender orientation compared to cisgender youth.

This has serious consequences. Transgender kids were significantly more likely to skip school because they felt unsafe. They got lower grades and were more likely to drop out of school, and they were more likely to consider suicide.

The researchers did find specific aspects of the school experience that protect trans students. Trans youth in more affluent schools and schools with more college-educated parents were less likely to experience victimization.

The review found that family support is absolutely essential in protecting trans youth from the negative consequences of bullying and victimization. Transgender students who reported no support from their parents experienced much higher rates of depression, suicidal ideation and substance use.

The review identified concrete steps school districts can take to prevent the victimization of trans students. In schools where leaders worked to create a sense of belonging, trans youth experienced less bullying and were more likely to feel safe at school.

Social support from peers was a key factor in helping trans youth overcome bullying and victimization. And teachers were especially important in having a positive influence on student behavior toward transgender people. According to the review, training teachers to model respectful behavior is a key component of supporting trans youth.

Creating and offering specific school activities for trans students and providing all students with information about transgender people as part of sex education or health classes are strategies to help reduce bullying and intimidation. Trans youth fared better when a wide range of school staff members—counselors, principals, teachers and nursing staff—worked together on initiatives to integrate trans students in the school setting.

Trans youth also fared better in schools that created safe spaces for them to express their opinions and share cases of injustice; examples included in-person forums, social networks or designating a school leader to represent and advocate for trans students. Studies found these initiatives made significant differences in reducing feelings of isolation and vulnerability among trans students.

Allowing trans youth to use their pronouns, wear clothing and use facilities (such as bathrooms and locker rooms) that correspond to their gender identities were also important components of helping them to feel less vulnerable and more included.

The take-home message: Bullying and victimization is a serious problem for transgender students, and leads to serious mental health problems and poor academic performance. But there are clear steps schools can take to decrease the abuse of trans students. Creating a sense of belonging, educating staff and students and allowing youth to identify with their gender identity all helped to reduce the victimization of trans students.