Faggot. This was the first word Orlando high school senior Ben O’Keefe saw when he checked his e-mail after school one day in September 2010. The e-mail was from a classmate. Ben tried to ignore it as he clicked on the “Delete” button at the bottom of the e-mail. He watched his inbox refresh, even though he knew no button could erase the sting of the word.
GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network)is a non-profit organization that strives to make K-12 schools safe for all students regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Through conducting original research, educating lawmakers and teachers, and empowering students making positive changes in school communities, GLSEN raises awareness about the discrimination LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) students face and helps foster accepting communities nationwide.
Ben, who first told his story to me at the 2011 GLSEN Student Ambassador Media Summit at the Embassy Suites in Glendale, California, remembered wondering during his senior year why he was not used to the slur. Since the day he came out as gay freshman year, classmates had pelted his e-mail and Facebook accounts with derogatory names. All he could do was to try to ignore the messages day after day, year after year.
“My faceless assailants could say anything behind the keys of a keyboard,” recalls Ben in a Facebook message to me about his experience in September 2013. “In fact, it seemed to empower them to become even more vicious since, in their eyes, they seemed to face no repercussions for their actions.”
Ben’s story is not uncommon. In a study conducted by GLSEN and released in 2013, 42% of LGBT teens in the United States said they were bullied online and 26% of the LGBT teens surveyed said they were bullied online specifically because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Only 15% of heterosexual teens said they were bullied online.
“This research adds to the growing literature documenting increased risk for victimization among LGBT youth,” says Dr. Kimberly Mitchell, Research Associate Professor at the Crimes Against Children Research Center, in GLSEN’s press release regarding the survey.
The study also documents the impacts that cyber bullying has on LGBT teens. Teens who said they were bullied online also said they had lower GPAs than teens who were not bullied online. Teens who said they were bullied online also reported higher rates of depression than those who were not bullied online.
“Cyber bullying damaged me, just as it breaks down the self-esteem of hundreds of thousands of young people every year,” Ben says. “Bullies have seen that cyber bullying can lead to very real consequences, including the death of those that they continue to bully. Still, the bullies keep going.”
GLSEN’s study also reveals that the bullying LGBT students experience online is not limited to name-calling. The study found that LGBT teens are four times more likely than heterosexual teens to be sexually harassed online. In fact, 32% of LGBT teens said they were sexually harassed online compared to only 8% of heterosexual teens.
Emily is a 15-year-old sophomore at a public high school in California who told her story in an e-mail to The Make It Safe Project in January 2013. When near the end of freshman year rumors began to circulate that Emily was lesbian, she started getting sexually harassed online by her classmates.
“Classmates started messaging me rape threats on Facebook, saying they wanted to ‘make me straight,’” Emily says. “One classmate texted me pornographic images.”
Asked what could make her feel safer at school, Emily replies, “I want my school to intervene. I can’t fight this on my own.”
Emily says that the teachers at her school are similar to the 42.5% of teachers who, according to students in GLSEN’s survey, hear homophobic remarks made and do not intervene.
“I told the principal and my teachers that people were sending me threats online and he just told me to try to ignore it,” Emily says.
In Ben’s case, the first reply he received from his high school was disbelief.
“I told a friend that I was being bullied and that I was contemplating suicide,” Ben says. “My friend told a school counselor who didn’t believe me because on the surface, I looked so put together.”
Ben, now a few years removed from his high school graduation, also remembers the difference having a supportive teacher made. “I at first lied about the bullying and then broke down,” Ben says. “I told my drama teacher what I was going through. She was there for me and showed me why my existence was so important.”
Eric Temple, principal at Lick-Wilmerding High School, understands how scary it can be for students to come forward when they are being bullied. “The hardest part is getting students to come forward with a printed out version of the bullying,” says Eric. “Schools can counter this by talking openly about online bullying and ensuring students that we will take such acts seriously.”
While Emily, still fearful of logging into her email account every day, says that she hopes teachers and administrators at her school will intervene when they hear that students are being bullied, she also thinks it is not just the responsibility of teachers to stop bullying.
“Even if you have never experienced cyber bullying or bullied someone online, this is still a problem that affects you,” cautions Emily. “It is everyone’s responsibility to intervene when someone is being harassed online. Standing up for someone can make a huge impact on their life, and maybe even save it.”