by Michael Raitt -
SGN Contributing Writer
As a child/adolescent, were you called a faggot or a dyke? Were you threatened or physically attacked? Did you feel isolated, or were you excluded because people perceived you as being GLBTQ? Was fear a motivating factor to keep you in the closet to avoid being labeled as Gay and, therefore, subjected to verbal and/or physical assaults? How much time did you spend being afraid of what might happen or be said?
It is not uncommon for GLBTQ men and women to tell of stories of being bullied as children because others used their sexual identity against them. Equally as troubling were those who were so terrified of being found out that they lived in chronic fear and stayed in the closet. People talk of being called names, getting physically attacked, and feeling isolated. Men and women report that these experiences were excruciatingly painful. We also know this is not an experience that exists solely in the past. GLBTQ adolescents experience this around the world today, and the effects can be catastrophic.
A report came out last week about research that was published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry about the long-term health effects that bullying has on its victims. The study substantiates that victims of bullying exhibit physical and mental health effects well into adulthood.
Clearly, there are huge implications in the GLBTQ community regarding the effects of bullying. We know that too many adolescents and adults commit suicide because of the bullying they have been subjected to, which leads to them feeling unloved, worthless, isolated, and hopeless. From personal and professional experience, I also know that many GLBTQ adults are still affected by the bullying they experienced earlier in life.
How does bullying affect us? There are two major parts to this. First, there is a physiological effect on the body when it chronically feels like there is a threat. Under that kind of stress, hormones are constantly being released which keep the body in a heightened state of alert that we call, "fight, flight, or freeze." After long periods of time like this, the chemistry and physiology of the body changes. Sometimes this is experienced as chronic anxiety.
The second effect that bullying has on victims is its impact on how we see ourselves and how we relate to others around us - we call this our "psychological script." Human development involves identity formation and, in large part, we form our identity through the messages and experiences we have in relation to others. When we receive constant messages - verbally and/or behaviorally - that we are unwanted, undesirable, weird, perverted, weak, and generally unlovable, this will influence how we see ourselves and how we interact with others. People who have experienced this can have chronic depression, low self-esteem, and/or anxiety. They may try to manage these feelings through substance abuse, social isolation, self-harm, or suicide.
What can be done? On an individual basis, know that you are not alone and that you need to get help establishing an accurate, healthy psychological script - one that says that you are healthy, normal, and lovable being GLBTQ. You will feel better and your anxiety and depression will lessen. Get support in learning how to develop and maintain relationships in ways that reflect you feeling good about yourself, and work on dealing with how you feel about having been bullied. Many kids who were bullied felt more isolated because they were told to "stand up for yourself and fight back" when there was no possible way of doing that. This was a frustrating, angering, and a lonely place to be.
Also, as hard as this is, you can't blame yourself for being bullied. Bullying is a complex dynamic that has been socially sanctioned, and you need help in putting this into proper perspective. This is an important piece in developing your healthy psychological script.
If you are a GLBTQ adolescent who is currently being subjected to bullying, reach out to somebody who you can talk to and who will help you in dealing with this. Sometimes it doesn't feel like there is anyone you can talk to, but find someone. Every major city has GLBTQ resources, so if you don't live in one of these cities, find a city nearby and call and see if they can make referrals for you. Whatever you do, don't give up!
In schools and as a culture, we've got to stand up and stop making excuses for bullying, and stop allowing it to happen. Stand up to bullying parents who justify and support their children who are bullies. Bullies are not bullies because they secretly feel bad about themselves; they are bullies because they have entitlement issues, tend toward being narcissistic or psychopathic, and because they are not subjected to any meaningful consequences.
In the straight community, as individual leaders in schools and religious communities, some of you will never support or understand the GLBTQ community, and you don't have to. I'd encourage you to decide what kind of person you want to be and whether you want to contribute to the pain and suffering of certain individuals or to their well-being. You may want to consider doing your own personal work to figure out how to balance your own beliefs while contributing in a positive way to another.
If you are a bully, you know you are a bully. Your friends know. Stop glorifying yourself. Get help. Again, you've got to decide what kind of person you want to be, and you need to understand the negative impact your attitudes and actions have on others. If your immediate reaction is "I don't care," then I'd be really concerned! You seriously want some help. If you want some help, it's out there, and you'll be better off for it.
It is now official: Bullying has long-term negative effects. For those of us who have been bullied, we can't change that. We can change the effects it has on us. If you are, or were, a bully, there are things you can do to stop the negative impact your actions and attitudes are having on others. Let's take this seriously and continue to do something about it.
Michael Raitt, MA LMHC, is a therapist and a contributing writer to the SGN. He writes a bi-monthly column in the SGN. If you would like to comment on this column, ask a question you'd like him to write about, or suggest another topic of interest, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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