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Media-Driven Political Controversies May Increase Bullying

Divisive political issues are correlated with an uptick in bias-based bullying.

Clipart Library
Source: Clipart Library

Bias-based bullying among youth increases when controversial voter referendums (e.g., marriage equality) arouse divisive political discourse and receive polarizing media coverage before a statewide election, according to a new study. This paper, " Proposition 8 and Homophobic Bullying in California, " was published online May 13 in the journal Pediatrics .

Stephen Russell , chair of the Human Development and Family Sciences Department at The University of Texas at Austin, was the senior author of the paper. Mark Hatzenbuehler , associate professor of sociomedical sciences and sociology at Columbia University, was the paper's first author.

For this study, Russell and Hatzenbuehler—along with co-authors Yishan Shen of Texas State University and Elizabeth Vandewater of UT Austin—used a quasi-experimental design to compare rates of homophobic bullying before and after the statewide voter referendum in California known as, " Proposition 8: Eliminates Right of Same-Sex Couples to Marry (2008) ."

The researchers found that homophobic bullying peaked in the months leading up to the "Prop 8" vote but declined after the November 8, 2008 election, when widespread media coverage of the "same-sex marriage" debate subsided. As the authors explain, "This research provides some of the first empirical evidence that public campaigns that promote stigma may confer risk for bias-based bullying among youth."

More specifically, Russell and colleagues found that the rate of homophobic bullying increased from 7.6 percent during the 2001-02 school year to 10.8 percent in the 2008-09 school year when the Proposition 8 referendum was on everybody's mind.

This uptick in homophobic bullying among California students between 2001 and 2009 is noteworthy because trends for other types of bullying associated with race or ethnicity, religion, and gender all declined during the same period. The good news: After peaking in 2008-2009, the rate of homophobic bullying in California has steadily decreased over the past decade.

The researchers also examined the potential impact of school initiatives designed to prevent bullying and bias. Notably, they found that rates of homophobic bullying in schools that had a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) club were lower during the 2008-2009 school year.

"Public votes and voter referendums on the rights of minority groups occur in approximately half of U.S. states," Hatzenbuehler said in a press release. "Our findings suggest that the public discourse surrounding these votes may increase risk for bias-based bullying."

An accompanying commentary about this new study, titled, " LGBT Policy Discourse and Prevention of Homophobic Bullying ," was also published online in the May 13 issue of Pediatrics . In this commentary, Valerie Earnshaw (who was not involved in the original study) and her co-authors write:

"It has been theorized that public campaigns that promote stigma act as contextual and ecological factors that drive bias-based bullying among youth, which, evidence reveals, results in lasting psychological and physical harm. Yet to date, research on associations between these public campaigns that promote stigma and rates of bias-based bullying has been limited. In their innovative article, “Proposition 8 and Homophobic Bullying in California,” Hatzenbuehler et al. address this critical gap in the literature."

In a statement, Stephen Russell concluded, "Policies and campaigns related to bathroom bills or immigration—these can be concerning in how they affect the health and well-being of youth. The public health consequences of these very contentious and media-driven discussions are more important than we knew." He also said, "The data are telling us that straight kids are getting bullied for this, too. It's all about what the bullies perceive."

After reading the press release about this new study on Proposition 8 and homophobic bullying in California that was published online yesterday in Pediatrics , I was curious to learn more from Stephen Russell about his team's research. In an email, I asked Russell these questions:

Christopher Bergland : How can adult political activists—who self-identify as belonging to a marginalized group but are no longer in school or subject to bias-based bullying among youth—most effectively advocate for government policy changes in the public arena while simultaneously minimizing the risk of triggering a backlash that might harm younger members of their group during heated "us against them" policy debates on social media and other media platforms?

Stephen Russell : This is a great point: Any form of visibility might create backlash. Yet the issue here is not that people are advocating for their rights, but that a group was being specifically targeted. The debates about Proposition 8 were based in limiting marriage – and the rhetoric was based on longstanding tropes of homophobia. So I would say that advocating for your own rights or the rights of other marginalized people is not the same as working to maintain a status quo that excludes some people.

CB : Did your research identify any ways to defuse potential antagonism between " ingroups and outgroups " (e.g., straight students vs. LGBTQ students) when " Proposition 8: Eliminates Right of Same-Sex Couples to Marry (2008 )" was a hot-button voter referendum topic in California?

SR : Unfortunately we can’t answer those questions with these data. Questions about homophobic bullying have been asked in the California Healthy Kids Survey for more than 15 years – but only for the last few years has the survey included a question about LGBTQ identities. So one point about this study is that we don’t know whether youth who report homophobic bullying are LGBTQ themselves – but other studies show that many straight youth experience homophobic bullying.

CB : Can you elaborate on the data from your research that identified an increase of homophobic bullying before the Proposition 8 vote, but also showed that straight kids were getting bullied as a result of this LGBTQ-related policy discourse? What were some of the dynamics surrounding straight students in California being bullied around the time of the Prop 8 voter referendum regarding marriage equality in 2008?

SR : Just based on the sheer numbers, the spike in homophobic bullying undoubtedly included straight students as well as LGBTQ students. One of the things we have known for a long time is that anti-LGBTQ slurs are common in many schools, and “fag” is a catch-all insult for boys in middle and high school. It isn’t a surprise to me that those forms of bullying or harassment increased – for LGBTQ as well as straight students – during the time of heightened public debates about marriage for same-sex couples.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Did the Media-Driven Controversies Relating to ACT UP (circa 1989) Create Unintended Short-Term Harm to LGBTQ Youth?

The latest study on the uptick in homophobic bullying associated with media coverage of same-sex marriage legislation caused me to question if my political activism with ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) 30 years ago may have had any unintended adverse consequences for gay teens during that era of intense stigma associated with HIV and AIDS. The final section of this post is a first-person narrative that reevaluates possible ripple effects of my political activism three decades ago through the lens of the latest research by Hatzenbuehler et al., 2019 .

 Keith Haring/Public Domain
"Ignorance = Fear, 1989" by Keith Haring (1958-1990) for ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power)
Source: Keith Haring/Public Domain

In the late 1980s and early '90s, I was a vocal member of ACT UP New York . Our motto was "Silence = Death." We were fighting for our lives via nonviolent civil disobedience and took to the streets to protest/advocate for government policies that would address the epidemic and fund HIV/AIDS research. During this Reagan era of politics, HIV and AIDS were highly stigmatized; most national politicians wouldn't even say these acronyms.

Although I'm unaware of any research on adverse ripple effects created by ACT UP, I realize now, after reading the new paper " Proposition 8 and Homophobic Bullying in California ," (2019) that our outspokenness and media-savvy "gay rights" activism may have created an uptick in bullying among youth, especially in zip codes outside of Manhattan.

Gran Fury/Public Domain
Read My Lips (1988)
Source: Gran Fury/Public Domain

ACT UP protests (along with our posters, buttons, and T-shirts) were consciously designed and "marketed" with slick graphics to make headlines in the local and national news and to stir up controversial media buzz that brought awareness to our life-or-death mission. For example, on December 11, 1989, the New York Times reported, " 111 Held in St. Patricks AIDS Protest ," about ACT UP's Die-In that shut down Fifth Avenue traffic in front of the cathedral on the Upper East Side.

As a public health advocate and political activist, learning about the increase of bullying among marginalized youth when a controversial voter referendum puts their stigmatized group in the media spotlight creates a conundrum. One might ask: Is it worth it to vehemently fight for equal rights in a media-driven way, if you end up hurting a younger generation of people you're actually trying to help by putting these potentially divisive issues in heavy rotation on FOX, CNN, or MSNBC?

 Gran Fury/Public Domain
This graphic from 1988 is one of many created for ACT UP by Gran Fury in response to the lack of awareness regarding the AIDS pandemic.
Source: Gran Fury/Public Domain

As a former ACT UP member, this study caused part of my mind to momentarily question our media-driven methodology. A little voice in my head asked, "Should we have refrained from using guerrilla marketing and politically-charged Gran Fury graphic-based campaigns or artwork by Keith Haring (1958-1990) designed to raise awareness, push people's buttons, and propel ACT UP's mission into the national media spotlight?" After a half-second of thought, my answer to this question is a resounding, "No! The masterminds of ACT UP did a brilliant job."

In the short-term, ACT UP may have created some unintended ripple effects that unwittingly hurt members of the local and global gay communities who were in vulnerable situations at the time. But in the long run, if we'd stayed silent, it seems that many more people would have died from AIDS-related complications over the past 30 years. Ultimately, the ACT UP movement moved gay rights forward for future generations—much like the Stonewall Riots in New York City did for the international gay community 50 years ago.

The latest findings about homophobic bullying in California during Proposition 8 have unearthed community-based collectives that seem to reduce bias-based bullying during media-driven political controversies. In particular, school initiatives that promote intermingling between ingroups and marginalized outgroups (e.g., GSA clubs ) can help to safeguard LGBTQ+ students and reduce bias-based bullying.

If you are interested in joining a GSA network in your state, visit the National Association of GSA Networks.


Mark L. Hatzenbuehler, Yishan Shen, Elizabeth A. Vandewater, and Stephen T. Russell. "Proposition 8 and Homophobic Bullying in California." Pediatrics (First published online: May 13, 2019) DOI: 10.1542/peds.2018-2116

Commentary by Valerie A. Earnshaw, Camila M. Mateo, and Sari L. Reisner. "LGBT Policy Discourse and Prevention of Homophobic Bullying." Pediatrics (First published online: May 13, 2019) DOI: 10.1542/peds.2019-0903