Highly gender nonconforming teens at greater risk of bullying and violence, study finds

For Immediate Release
March 21, 2018

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Rachel Dowd
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Highly gender nonconforming teens at greater risk of bullying and violence, study finds

This is the first study to examine gender expression and bullying in racially and ethnically diverse populations of urban high school students

A new study investigating gender expression and victimization of youth ages 13-18 found that the most gender nonconforming students reported higher levels of being bullied and were more likely to report missing school than their more gender conforming peers because they felt unsafe. They were also the most likely to report being victimized with a weapon on school property.

Gender nonconforming is term to describe people who do not conform to societal expectations for masculine or feminine appearance and behavior. The study measured gender expression by asking adolescents how they thought people at school would describe their “appearance, style, dress or the way they walk or talk along a continuum of very feminine to very masculine.” Girls who thought they were seen as very masculine and boys who thought they were seen as very feminine were categorized as highly gender nonconforming.

“Previous research on gender nonconformity and violence among youth has focused primarily on sexual minorities,” said lead author Allegra Gordon, research scientist at Boston Children’s Hospital. “However, youth of any sexual orientation may be gender nonconforming. Our study found that while LGB students were more likely to report a nonconforming gender expression, the majority of nonconforming youth were heterosexual. This underscores the importance of creating violence-prevention programs that address gender expression in addition to sexuality and gender identity.”

Researchers analyzed data collected from 5,469 students ages 13-18 from four urban school districts, including San Diego, Los Angeles, Chicago and Broward County, Fla. Respondents were 51 percent Hispanic/Latino, 21 percent black/African American and 14 percent white.

Key findings include

  • The most gender nonconforming students were more likely to experience in-school and electronic bullying than other students. Reports of being bullied increased with each level of gender nonconformity measured: each step towards the most gender nonconforming end of the spectrum was associated with 15% greater odds of being bullied.
  • Among highly gender nonconforming students, 14.4% of girls and 23.5% of boys reported having been in a fight in the past year.
  • Highly conforming students (e.g., girls who thought they were seen as very feminine and boys who thought they were seen as very masculine) were also at increased risk of being in a fight compared to moderately conforming students; however, the likelihood of having been in a fight was the highest among the most gender nonconforming students.
  • Highly gender nonconforming girls were nine times more likely to be victimized with a weapon, compared to moderately gender nonconforming girls (36% and 4%, respectively).

Currently, 19 U.S. states have enumerated anti-bullying laws that prohibit bullying and harassment of students based on sexual orientation and gender identity/gender expression that cover gender nonconformity. Thirty-one states do not have laws that specifically protect students from bullying based on these characteristics.  In addition to state-level protections, a number of courts have interpreted Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 to prohibit discrimination and harassment against students based on their nonconformity with gender stereotypes.

“Bullying can have negative effects on academic performance, physical and mental health, and future earnings,” said study author Kerith Conron, Blachford-Cooper Distinguished Scholar and research director at the Williams Institute. “Efforts to promote school safety that encompass attitudes about gender are likely to benefit LGBT and heterosexual youth alike and to reduce economic costs associated with poor health and other adverse social conditions.”

The study, Gender Expression, Violence, and Bullying Victimization: Findings from Probability Samples of High School Students in 4 School Districts, was published in Journal of School Health and co-authored by Allegra R. Gordon, Kerith J. Conron, Jerel P. Calzo, Matthew T. White, Sari L. Reisner and S. Bryn Austin.

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