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What Bystanders Can Do in Response to Anti-LGBTQIA+ Action

Using institutional betrayal and bullying research as a guide.

Key points

  • Anti-LGBTQIA+ actions, such as discrimination in schools, have serious consequences for youth, from anxiety and depression to suicidality.
  • Community affirmation of LGBTQIA+ youth matters for their well-being, including decreasing suicidality.
  • As bystanders, we can each take action to support LGBTQIA+ youth.

This piece was authored with Dr. Michelle Rozenman, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Denver, expert in child anxiety, and director of the BRAVE Lab.

Over the last month, national headlines have brought attention to the LGBTQIA+ community. Just days before Thanksgiving, five people were murdered and many others injured in a mass shooting at Club Q in Colorado. On the heels of that violence, and fearing that the Supreme Court might overturn rulings on marriage equality, the House and Senate passed bipartisan legislation to protect same-sex marriages which has now been signed into law by President Biden.

In the aftermath of the Club Q shooting, reports of candlelight vigils across the country reflected many people’s desire to take action. Of course, taking action can feel daunting when events are taking place on a national scale. Yet, connecting psychological science to local news stories offers a roadmap.

Understanding Anti-LGBTIA+ Actions Through Institutional Betrayal and Bullying Research

Beyond the national headlines, this year has seen a steady stream of local stories about institutions on whom people depend – from schools to state governments – advancing discriminatory policies aimed at LGBTQIA+ people and families.

In our home state of Colorado, for example, news broke last month that the Archdiocese of Denver had sent policies regarding LGBTQIA+ students to Catholic schools, instructing them not to enroll transgender youth, to refuse requests to use gender-affirming pronouns, and not to recognize two parents of the same sex. The Archdiocese’s policies are part of a larger pattern of institutions taking deliberate actions to invalidate and erase LGBTQIA+ youth and families. Earlier this year, Florida enacted its Don’t Say Gay legislation as Texas took steps to equate gender-affirming care with child abuse.

Some anti-LGBTQIA policies frame their actions as protecting LGBTQIA+ youth, including the Archdiocese of Denver. Their guidance stressed that pastoral counseling might “assist” toward “integrated sexual identity (aligned with bodily reality).” Yet, similar efforts at so-called “conversion” or “reparative therapy” have caused harm in forcing people toward heteronormative outcomes. In fact, there is no scientific evidence to support any attempts to promote a particular gender or sexual orientation. Rather, such techniques constitute “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment and torture” because they significantly increase health and mental health risk, including suicide. Efforts to counsel youth toward outcomes that disconfirm, rather than affirm, their identities are harmful and dangerous.

In that same document, the Archdiocese called on schools to treat LGBTQIA+ youth with “charity," in “an atmosphere of respect," where “the child is not bullied.” The American Psychological Association defines bullying as aggressive behavior in which someone “intentionally and repeatedly causes another person injury or discomfort.” While the definition focuses on individual actions, the end result of intentional and repeated institutional efforts – such as the ways that the Archdioceses and some states are targeting LBTQIA+ youth and their families – is no different than when individuals bully. And it may be worse.

Consider, for example, that LGBTQIA+ youth are at higher risk for health problems than peers. Across studies with tens of thousands of youth, researchers consistently find that LGBTQIA+ youth experience anxiety and depression at more than double the rates of peers. This translates to roughly 50-70% of LGBTQIA+ youth relative to 20-30% of their peers. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for teens, and LGBTQIA+ youth are at five times the risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors than other youth.

To be clear, though, it’s not sexual orientation or gender identity that place LGBTQIA+ youth at higher risk for mental health problems and suicidality; it’s the mistreatment and everyday discrimination they experience in the communities where they live and learn. When LGBTQIA+ youth find their schools to be affirming, they report significantly lower rates of suicidality.

That research fits with the field’s growing understanding of institutional betrayal. Introduced by psychologist Jennifer Freyd and colleagues, institutional betrayal refers to the many ways that institutions can cause harm to the people who depend on them, through action or inaction. Research points to additional harm caused by institutional betrayal, including for persons from LGBTQIA+ communities.

What Actions Can We Take?

Research on bullying shows that bystanders play an important role – with the potential to make things worse or better for the bullied. Bystanders who do nothing, by choice or ignorance, effectively condone and reinforce bullying. But bystanders who take action can make a positive difference.

With young people’s lives on the line, we can each play a role in advocating that all schools and institutions embrace best practices to support the lives and health of LGBTQIA+ youth. Indeed, there are many research-driven recommendations and guidelines available for providing care and support to LGBTQIA+ youth and families through expert organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, and the TREVOR Project. For example, research-driven recommendations include (but are not limited to) using the youth’s gender pronouns, supporting identities students share and not outing them to parents or others if they do not share, and making the school community a safe space for all youth and families irrespective of identity.

Of course, when institutions – whether faith-based organizations or states – are the ones taking anti-LGBTQIA+ action, it’s tempting to assume that people outside those institutions should sit on the sidelines. Yet, it’s precisely these situations in which bystander action is important. Indeed, youth need all of us – parents, teachers, professionals, religious leaders, and community members – to be bystanders who take action to ensure schools and communities are safe for all to live and thrive, including LGBTQIA+ youth.

There’s also a role for each of us in calling for institutional courage, a concept developed by Freyd to reflect the importance of institutions taking actions to be accountable to the people who depend on them. LGBTQIA+ youth need schools and state governments along with the rest of us to take action to support their healthy development. With their lives on the line, we have a chance to take research-driven action.

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