b'ing stigma-free

3d-singing“Hey Retard!” were the words I heard every day when I walked into school, from first grade until the end of high school. As an individual growing up with Williams Syndrome, the word ‘retard’ made me feel isolated, as if I had no one to turn to as a friend. This mental abuse caused me to question who I was. I would often ask myself, “Why did I have to have a disability?” I’d cry to my mom in the hopes that she would let me stay home from school. I wasn’t proud of myself because of my disability and I struggled to find peers who didn’t view me differently. In grade school, no one ever took the time to see me for who I truly was. They only saw my disability and not the astounding abilities that I possess.

After finishing high school I was accepted to attend Berkshire Hill Music School in Boston, Massachusetts. It wasn’t until I went away to college that I finally escaped the abuse of my classmates and other peers. College offered me a breath of fresh air and I was able to see the light at the end of the tunnel of my dark past. For the first time I felt included, as if I was a “normal” person, integrated with my typical peers. I went to school without being judged because of my disability.

They only saw my disability and not the astounding abilities that I possess.

I am now able to call myself a friend, an employee, and an advocate in my community. I no longer see myself as a disability, something I believed I was for so many years: nothing more than a ‘retard.’ Being called this and thought of so negatively is dehumanizing. This is something that MUST be changed within our society. Individuals with disabilities are so much more than the “r-word.”

Join me in celebrating Spread the Word to End the Word, a national campaign supported by Best Buddies and Special Olympics that brings awareness to ending the disrespectful use of the r-word. As an individual with a disability, I have proven myself to be capable of everything all of my peers are. I have taught at an international conference; I have spoken at national events as a Best Buddies Ambassador; I volunteer in the community; I have held competitive employment positions; and I am now able to consider myself a true friend. None of these things fall under the stigma of the “r-word.”

Because we are different does not mean we are less.

I used to lack any awareness of my own self-worth. However, I now have the confidence to stand up for myself, and also others who might be the victim of bullying. In fact, I am proud to have Williams Syndrome and proud to be a leader in the community helping to Spread the Word to End the Word in the hopes that all people with a disability are not thought of in a negative way. End the use of the “r-word”, so that individuals with a disability are looked upon as equals. Because we are different does not mean we are less.


Rachel Lipke graduated from Berkshire Hills Music School in Boston, where she studied music. While there she was matched in a one-to-one friendship through Best Buddies, which changed her life. Best Buddies is an international non-profit organization that focuses on enhancing the lives of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) through one-to-one friendships, integrated employment, and leadership development. Rachel says that Best Buddies enriched her life by giving the gift of all three, offering the much-needed self-confidence she had been seeking. 

Since joining Best Buddies twelve years ago, Rachel quickly excelled in her passion for inclusion by completing ambassador trainings and speaking at local and national events. Rachel continued to challenge perceptions about the abilities of people with IDD by shifting from student to teacher, and began leading ambassador trainings. In this role she serves as an instructor and coach for her peers. Rachel was recognized for her achievements by being awarded the “Spirit of Courage Award” at the Best Buddies International Leadership Conference. She is also matched in the friendship program, and recently joined the jobs program providing her the opportunity for competitive employment. Rachel also volunteers in her community and is passionate about sharing her story to make a change in the world.

Rachel grew up in Chicago and moved to Maryland with her parents two years ago to be closer to her sister and her newborn niece.

Photo: Best Buddies Rachel (on the right) and Amy Davies.

“Coming from Kansas I’ve realized that this must be one of the worst states to be an atheist in the nation. Churches in Kansas are like Starbucks around the rest of the country: they’re everywhere, and everyone goes to them. When you first meet people it’s not odd for them to ask which church you go to or what religion you are. As an atheist, I’ve often lied and said I was Christian or that I didn’t belong to one church.

This is out of pure survival. I just wanted to avoid the dirty looks and disgusted words that pour out of my new Christian acquaintance. Of course, this doesn’t happen every time. There have been many moments where I shared my beliefs and my new friend acted very Christ-like. Those are the best encounters. I’ve been an atheist for quite a few years, and some of my closest friends still don’t know.”


Atheism_PEWWhen I put out a call for submissions for my book, Atheists in America, this was one of the first essays I received. It is a quote from Brittany Friedel’s piece “An Atheist in the Bible Belt” and when she wrote it, Brittany was a psychology major at a small Methodist college in Kansas. Although I completed my graduate studies outside of the bible belt, at a large public university, parts of her narrative paralleled my own experiences as an atheist (someone who does not believe in a god/gods or any supernatural beings) psychology doctoral student.

Training to be a psychologist – understandably – requires students to take a slew of coursework on therapy skills. In one of these courses, Career Counseling, we were discussing strategies that might help alleviate anxiety for a therapy client who was nervous about finding a job. Other students in the class volunteered a number of reassuring statements they would share with their client, including canned phrases such as “everything will work out as it should” and “trust in the universe.”

Though I was much more shy and mild-mannered in graduate school than I am now, I found that hearing these phrases pushed my discomfort to such a level that I had to say something. Raising my hand, I calmly asked, “But wouldn’t clients who are non-religious react poorly to statements like that?”

Other students in the class looked puzzled and asked what I meant.

Turning red and stammering, I continued, “Well… it just seems that if you aren’t religious or spiritual, ‘trusting in the universe’ is not a very reassuring concept, you know?”

At that point, one of my classmates who seemed slightly ruffled by my comment, turned to me and said “Melanie, you’d have to be a capital-A atheist to have a problem with those statements.”

“Well, I am.”

“Atheist? Really? But… you’re so nice.”

That same student stared at me blankly for a few seconds, and then skeptically remarked, “Atheist? Really? But… you’re so nice.”

At that moment, in that class, I realized just how stigmatized atheist people are in the United States (US). This stigma runs so deep that even in a large, public university amongst psychology doctoral students – who are, by the way, notoriously liberal and open-minded – it was completely acceptable to believe that being nice and being atheist were mutually exclusive identities to hold.

Pushing it further, if people do not believe atheists are nice, doesn’t it naturally follow that they are perceived as mean?

It turns out that the answer to that question, at least in the US, is yes. In 2003, philosophy of education professor Robert Nash defined Atheophobia as the fear and loathing of atheists that permeates American culture[1], and examples of this attitude persist at all levels of societal exchange.

As a snapshot, national polls from 2014[2] found that roughly half of Americans (1) believed that living a moral life was impossible without a belief in God, (2) would disapprove if a family member married an atheist, and (3) would be unlikely to vote for a presidential candidate who was atheist. To make matters worse, being an atheist was seen as the least desirable trait a presidential candidate could have – even worse than cheating on a spouse or using marijuana.

Being atheist may even cost you your life

The problem with prejudicial views and stigma, however, is that these beliefs motivate behavior. Thus, atheists experience both interpersonal discrimination (slander, social ostracism, coercion, verbal attacks, violence, property damage) and structural discrimination (denial of opportunities, goods and services) by those who hold atheophobia. In some countries, being atheist may even cost you your life, as seen by the recent murders of secular bloggers in Bangladesh.

At Teachers College, Columbia University my graduate students and I set out to further understand how experiencing stigma may impact atheists in the United States. To do this, we administered a questionnaire to several thousand atheist individuals and asked them to rate how frequently they were treated as if they were immoral, ostracized, made to feel ashamed, and/or asked to conceal their atheism. We found that the more participants experienced this atheophobic maltreatment, the higher their levels of psychological distress and social isolation were. Thus, experiencing stigma for being atheist has real ramifications for mental health.

Drawing parallels from my work with other stigmatized populations (e.g., people of color, LGBTQ individuals), I know that being involved in a community of likeminded people who share your identities is crucial to mental health. One way for atheists to assuage some of the stigma that they feel is to get involved with communities for humanists and nonbelievers such as Society for Ethical Culture, Sunday Assembly, OASIS, and other local organizations. Reflecting on Brittany Friedel’s story and my own, I wonder how these moments of marginalization would have felt with the presence of a supportive, atheist community at our backs.

In her narrative from Atheists in America, Pam Zerba wrote, “People who join Pennsylvania non-believers will often talk about how free they feel, how wonderful it is not to have to edit what you say, to hear others say all the things you’ve thought… It’s not that we’re obsessed with religion and talk about nothing else.

Even when we share stories about our kids, or swap recipes, that internal editor doesn’t have to be switched on, and that is an enormous relief. It is our intellectual home, the place where we can be ourselves without apology.”

I’m hopeful that through continued awareness-raising, we’ll reach a point in the US where nice and atheist are no longer seen as mutually exclusive.

[1] Nash, Robert J, (2003.) Inviting Atheists to the Table: A Modest Proposal for Higher Education, Religion & Education, 30,1.

[2] Political Polarization in the American Public: How Increasing Ideological Uniformity and Partisan Antipathy Affect Politics, Compromise and Everyday Life, Pew Research Center, June 12, 2014. http://www.people-press.org/files/2014/06/6-12-2014-Political-Polarization-Release.pdf, Accessed 11/16/15.


Melanie_BrewsterMelanie Brewster is an Assistant Professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia University and earned her Ph.D from the University of Florida. Her research focuses on marginalized groups and examines how experiences of discrimination and stigma may shape the mental health of minority group members (e.g., LGBTQ individuals, atheists, people of color). Dr. Brewster also examines potential resilience factors, such as bicultural self-efficacy and cognitive flexibility, that may promote the mental health of minority individuals. Her first book, Atheists in America, was published in 2014 by Columbia University Press. She tweets about atheism, queer issues, and academia @melysebrewster

upham woods stageIn seventh grade I spent two days and two nights in Upham Woods. On a Wednesday morning in April, my middle school class piled into a yellow school bus for the one hour drive. Every student at my middle school made the retreat to Upham Woods at least once during their three years of middle school. It was as much a part of the curriculum as math and science class. In the Woods, we bonded for two days. Working in groups, we climbed over tall walls, navigated through the forest with a compass, and built shelters out of branches and leaves. We slept in bunk beds spread out in four large log cabins — two for the boys and two for the girls. After each day of activities, we’d gather at the central meeting hall, a big building in the middle of the cabins, for a general assembly where we’d talks about the day’s events, then play games and do activities.

Before going to Upham Woods, our teachers had told us that if we didn’t like anything else about Upham Woods, we’d always remember the skit performed during the general assembly on the second night. They just referred to the performance as “The Skit.” They shared nothing more about it, except that it was probably the most hilarious routine ever performed before a group of middle schoolers.

By the time we sat down on the floor of the meeting hall on the second night, we were ready for George Carlin or Eddie Murphy to appear from behind the curtain. When the curtains drew, it was two of our teachers who stood up on stage. They were dwarfs — well, not really dwarfs. They just looked like dwarfs. They stood behind a white bed sheet. Five large holes had been cut out for the two characters. Each teacher stuck a head through one of the holes and stuck their arms through the holes that were meant to be the characters’ legs. Then, two other people who hid behind the curtain put their arms through the four remaining holes. To the audience, these characters, created by a head and four arms, had the appearance of an achondroplastic dwarf, the type of dwarfism I have.

It was as if they held up a picture of me.

Before that day, I had managed to attend over a year and a half of middle school without truly acknowledging my dwarfism. Every once in a while my height or my physical difference would come up, but I would move the subject along as quickly as possible. Since I felt I was no different than anybody else, there was no point of bringing it up. When the teachers appeared on stage for the skit, it was as if they held up a picture of me, and everyone was laughing at what they saw.

For ten minutes, the teachers puttered around, pretending to be students at Upham Woods. They got out of bed, brushed their teeth and went running through the forest. They even shaved at one point. With every move the characters made, the audience screamed with delight. Always trying to fit in, I screamed right along with them.

Finally, as the characters boarded a cardboard yellow school bus to return to the school, the skit came to an end. The students roared their approval, and when the teachers appeared from behind the curtain, we delivered a standing ovation. One of the teachers from the skit, who was my teacher, laughed also, so hard she began to cry. She hugged the other teacher on stage and waved to her students. As my classmates continued to cheer, I began looking around. I studied the faces of my peers, trying to figure out what was happening, trying to figure out if we were laughing at the skit, or laughing at me.

Matt, a seventh grader from my class, sat on the floor just behind me. While I gazed past Matt, looking out at the audience, Matt muttered, in a kind of joking way, “That’s discrimination.”

That’s discrimination.

“What do you mean?” I asked. He didn’t answer. I looked at him and asked again and again, “What do you mean?” Matt kept quiet. Finally, he turned away from me and shook his head. I pleaded with him for about a minute. Eventually, the student next to Matt, Byron, spoke. He had been watching us, and now he stared at me through these long bangs that curled around his eyes.

“They were making fun of midgets,” he said.

I should have done something. If not that night, I should have done something after we returned to school, or maybe even a few years later. Just something so that if another person of short stature ever made the trip to Upham Woods, the teachers might think twice before subjecting him or her to the skit which had become such a part of Upham Woods lore. I never did.



Gary ArnoldGary Arnold serves as the Public Affairs Manager for Access Living, where he has worked since 1999. He also served as the President of the Board for Little People of America, a national membership organization that offers support and resources for people with dwarfism. He represented LPA as a Steering Committee Member for the National Disability Leadership Alliance, a coalition of 13 disability led membership organizations. He sits on the Board for Public Narrative; serves as a Board member for the Crossroads Fund; and is a 2013 graduate of Leadership Greater Chicago. In 2012, the American Association of People with Disabilities presented Gary with the Justice For All Disability Rights Award. Gary is a contributor to Streetwise and the Huffington Post. Married in 2009, Gary lives in the south loop of Chicago with his wife Katie.


food_allergy_plate_caution“Faster Mom, FASTER!” I screamed as I sat helpless in the back seat of the car. My eyes scanned my body as hundreds of hives sprouted from my legs, arms, and chest. My oxygen level was so low it was as if I were breathing through a straw. I was experiencing anaphylaxis. Moments earlier, a metal needle loaded with epinephrine exploded into my upper thigh muscle and helped my body counter the allergic reactions. My predominant memories of the quick drive to the hospital are the consoling words of my parents and my overwhelming fear of death. Vividly, I remember I passed a stop sign and became intrigued. I had never noticed it before, but now I reflected, “Would this be the last time I saw this stop sign? Will food allergies stop me?”

I Am Not Alone

I have been living with severe food allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, and sheep/goat milk for 19 years. However, as a child I was also allergic to cow’s milk, soy, and all legumes. If I ate anything with these foods in it, or if anything I ate came into cross-contact with these allergens, death became a possibility. This is a constant worry that I harbor in the back of my mind – every time I place a piece of food in my mouth. I am not alone: others share this worry, and battle against food allergies too. According to Food Allergy Research & Education, known as FARE, about 15 million individuals in the United States, including one in 13 children, have one or multiple food allergies. From 2008 to 2013, I have had the privilege of meeting some of them; teens from across the United States living with severe food allergies get together at the FARE Teen Summit, an annual conference.

No Cupcakes for You 

People with food allergies see certain foods as poisons, while others see the same foods as treats. During my childhood I was frustrated by having to cope with the problems associated with food allergies. In elementary school others would have fun enjoying cupcakes and cakes at birthday parties, and I could not join them. My mom would make special, safe treats for me, but I became labeled as the kid who would eat differently or not eat at all. To a young child this hurt. I hated explaining myself every time an event involved food. Many times I would not even go to certain events because I dreaded the hassle of explaining my allergies and being perceived as rude or needy by adults or peers. Throughout middle and high school the stigma continued. At other people’s homes I would try to explain why I was not eating, and the host would treat it as a sign of disrespect or they would just feel bad for me. Many people do not know the severity of food allergies, so it becomes very difficult to explain yourself. I did not want people to have to go out of their way for me or change their plans to eat somewhere else because of me. I felt as though I was becoming a burden. Dating even became hard because of the embarrassment of asking girls what they had eaten that day. If they recently ate something I was allergic to I could not kiss them without fear of exposure.

Hearing stories about children with food allergies being bullied saddens me the most. In elementary school I remember a kid at my table put a cheese cracker in my face and teased me about how this little cracker could kill me. In middle school a student almost put a peanut snack in my can of soda when I left the table. Though I remember those events, better memories prevail: Learning that my friends had stopped the boy from putting the peanut in my drink, teaching my concerned roommate how to use my epinephrine auto-injector, having a chef in a restaurant care to talk to me and bring me a safely prepared meal, and when a friend will go out of his or her way to make sure we will eat at a safe place. These moments of understanding and empathy have helped me move forward. They have dissolved the stigma.

Ending the Stigma

Through educating others, the stigma surrounding food allergies can become extinct. Food allergies are severe and not a joke, unlike what is illustrated in popular culture. Individuals with food allergies can explain to others what it means to live with poison on the dinner table. Together we can help end the stigma by recognizing that food allergies are not a lifestyle choice, but rather a life-threatening and life-altering immune-based disease.



Nick BellaciccoNicholas Bellacicco is a nineteen-year-old college student born and raised in Stamford, CT. He is currently in his sophomore year at Baylor University in Waco, TX studying Medical Humanities on the pre-med track. Nicholas is severely allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, and sheep/goat milk. Living with food allergies has given him the passion to enter the medical field; he hopes to attend medical school and become a physician. In 2009, Nicholas co-starred in Nick News, “I’m Allergic to my World” television broadcast. The Nickelodeon program explained the everyday hardships of living with food allergies. 

Nicholas is a TAG (Teen Advisory Group) member for Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE). FARE works on behalf of the 15 million Americans with food allergies, including all those at risk for life-threatening anaphylaxis. FARE’s mission is to improve the quality of life and the health of individuals with food allergies, and to provide them hope through the promise of new treatments. Learn more at www.foodallergy.org.

Currently in the United States, 1/3 of youth are either overweight or obese. As rates of childhood obesity have continued to climb in recent decades, so has teasing and Image: Weight-based stigma in youthbullying of these children. Weight-based teasing and bullying is a problem that begins early in childhood and continues throughout adolescence. Youth who are obese are significantly more likely to be bullied than their thinner classmates, and among the heaviest youth, at least 60% report being teased or bullied about their weight. The research is so robust in this area, that a child’s likelihood of being teased or bullied in the future can be predicted by his or her weight status.

As a psychologist and researcher, I’ve been studying weight-based bullying and stigma for almost 15 years. Consistently, we have found in our studies (and observed in research by others) that weight-based victimization is one of the most common forms of bullying reported in the school setting.1-2 In fact, a report by the National Education Association in 2011 found that teachers across the country viewed weight-based bullying to be the most problematic form of bullying in the school setting.[3] Our studies have similarly found that both students and parents report that being overweight is the most common reason that youth are teased and bullied.1-4

As with other forms of bullying, there are many negative consequences for youth who are teased, ignored, excluded, verbally threatened and physically harassed because of their weight. Weight-based stigma has negative implications for the psychological well-being, social functioning and physical health of youth who are targeted. In addition to increased social isolation, youth who are teased or bullied about their weight are at heightened risk for depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, poor body image, suicidal ideation, unhealthy eating behaviors, avoidance of physical activity, poorer school performance and avoidance of school.[5-9] Many of these outcomes can actually reinforce additional weight gain and obesity in children.

The pervasiveness of this problem reinforces the need for effective strategies to protect students from being bullied about their weight in the school setting. One approach is to ensure that body weight and weight-based bullying are included in school-based curriculum, and treated on par with other forms of bullying. But we may also need to look more broadly at existing anti-bullying policies and laws that can help protect these vulnerable students.

Many (most) school districts now have anti-bullying policies in place. However, few of these policies include body weight as a characteristic that places youth at risk for bullying. Similarly, 49 states currently have school-based anti-bullying laws, but only three states (Maine, New York and New Hampshire) include body weight or physical appearance as a distinguishing characteristic. This makes it unclear whether or not students who are overweight and obese are adequately protected from weight-based bullying under existing provisions. Recently, we’ve conducted some national studies to examine parental support for policies and laws to address this issue. We found that over 75% of parents are in favor of strengthening school-based anti-bullying laws to specifically include body weight as a distinguishing characteristic and increase protections against bullying for students who are overweight, as well as efforts to promote more awareness of this problem in schools.

In addition to policies and laws to address weight-based bullying, we also need to take a hard, critical look at how the media reinforces weight stigma in our society. In all forms of media – television, film, news media, social media – weight stigma is perpetuated toward individuals who are obese by communicating negative stereotypes that they are lazy, lacking in willpower, sloppy, and gluttonous.10-11 Research examining the content of children’s media shows this to be consistently true. Stated simply, weight stigma is rarely challenged in the media, and is instead often ignored. When we consider how much media our culture consumes, it’s not surprising that studies show that children who watch more television are more likely to express weight bias toward their overweight peers.

Weight-based stigma toward youth is a societal problem in need of broad solutions. Although obesity is a particularly visible condition that is stigmatized, efforts to effectively address this problem are scarce and remain invisible. With so many youth in our country now overweight or obese, millions are vulnerable to stigma and its negative consequences. More than ever, we need to increase awareness of this problem and promote efforts to improve the quality of life of these youth.

[1] Bucchianeri MM, Eisenberg ME, Neumark-Sztainer D. Weightism, racism, classism, and sexism: shared forms of harassment in adolescents. J Adolesc Health. 2013;53(1):47-53.
2 Puhl RM, Luedicke J, Heuer C. Weight-based victimization toward overweight adolescents: Observations and reactions of peers. Journal of School Health. 2011;81(11):696-703.
3 Bradshaw CP, Waasdorp TE, O’Brennan LM, Gulemetova M. Findings from the National Education Association’s nationwide study of bullying: Teachers’ and education support professionals’ perspectives. 2011.
4 Puhl RM, Luedicke J, Depierre JA. Parental Concerns about Weight-Based Victimization in Youth. Child Obes. 2013.
5 Bucchianeri MM, Eisenberg ME, Wall MM, Piran N, Neumark-Sztainer D. Multiple types of harassment: associations with emotional well-being and unhealthy behaviors in adolescents. J Adolesc Health. 2014;54(6):724-9.
6 Greenleaf C, Petrie TA, Martin SB. Relationship of weight‐based teasing and adolescents’ psychological well‐being and physical health. Journal of School Health. 2014;84(1):49-55.
[7] Haines J, Neumark-Sztainer D, Eisenberg ME, Hannan PJ. Weight teasing and disordered eating behaviors in adolescents: Longitudinal findings from Project EAT (Eating Among Teens). Pediatrics. 2006;117(2):209-15.
8 Krukowski RA, West DS, Perez AP, Bursac Z, Phillips MM, Raczynski JM. Overweight children, weight-based teasing and academic performance. International Journal of Pediatric Obesity. 2009;4(4):274-80.
[9] Puhl RM, Luedicke J. Weight-based victimization among adolescents in the school setting: Emotional reactions and coping behaviors. J Youth Adolesc. 2012;41:27-40.
[10] Latner JD, Rosewall JK, Simmonds MB. Childhood obesity stigma: association with television, videogame, and magazine exposure. Body image. 2007;4(2):147-55.
[11] Robinson T, Callister M, Jankoski T. Portrayal of body weight on children’s television sitcoms: A content analysis. Body image. 2008;5(2):141-51.

Image of Rebecca PuhlDr. Rebecca Puhl is the Deputy Director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. As a Senior Research Scientist, she coordinates research and policy efforts aimed at reducing weight bias and improving the quality of life of children and adults affected by obesity. Dr. Puhl received her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Yale University. She has conducted research on weight bias for 14 years and has published numerous studies on weight-based bullying in youth, weight bias in health care and the media, interventions to reduce weight bias, and the impact of weight stigma on emotional and physical health. Dr. Puhl has testified in state legislative hearings on weight bias, routinely provides expertise on this issue to State Departments of Health and national health organizations, and has developed evidence-based trainings to reduce weight bias that have been implemented in medical facilities across the country. Dr. Puhl has emerged as the leading national expert in the field of weight bias, and her research is routinely reported on in national and international media. Dr. Puhl has served on the Council of The Obesity Society, and on the Board of Directors for the Obesity Action Coalition. In 2013, she was awarded the Excellence in Policy Research Award from the National Eating Disorders Coalition. More information on Dr. Puhl’s work is available at www.yaleruddcenter.org.

To learn more about weight stigma in youth, please visit the following Rudd Center websites which provide free educational resources, videos, handouts, and more: www.yaleruddcenter.org and www.ruddrootsparents.org


During the past several years there have been major shifts in attitudes toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals throughout the United States.[i] At the same time, there has been a growing national conversation about how to address bullying in schools and make schools safer and more welcoming for LGBT youth.[ii] Nonetheless, many LGBT individuals still face incredible stigma and prejudice including biased language related their sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or gender expression, which is particularly ubiquitous in schools.[iii] This can make schools unwelcoming to many LGBT students.[iv]

In order to capture and further understand the experience of LGBT students in schools, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) conducts the biennial National School Climate Survey (NSCS). The survey of LGBT middle and high school students explores the prevalence of biased language about sexual orientation, gender, gender expression, sex, and race; it also examines their rates of victimization, the effects of that victimization, and how to mitigate the negative impact of the stigmatizing remarks and behaviors.

Image: GLSEN LGBT students frequency bias language in school


The 2011 NSCS found that biased language toward LGBT students is highly prevalent throughout schools in the U.S.[v] Nearly three-quarters (71.3%) of LGBT students reported hearing students make derogatory remarks, such as “dyke” or “faggot”, often or frequently in school. More than a third of LGBT students (38.8%) reported that these types of derogatory remarks were made by most of their peers and more than half (56.9%) reported hearing homophobic remarks from their teachers or school staff.

The phrases “that’s so gay” and “you’re so gay” are used to indicate that something or someone is stupid or worthless and easily dismissed. The 2011 NSCS found that 84.9% of LGBT students frequently or often heard “gay” used in a negative way at school. Although people who use “gay” in a negative way may not intend for it to be offensive, 91.4% of LGBT students reported feeling bothered by hearing this type of language.

Image GLSEN degree LGBT students bothered gay derogatory way


“No homo”, another stigmatizing phrase examined in the 2011 NSCS, is employed to rid a statement or action from any homosexual connotation. For example, when two people of the same gender greet each other with a hug they might say “no homo” to convey that their hug was of a strictly heterosexual nature. Accordingly, “no homo” attaches judgment to homosexual behavior or same-sex attraction. Slightly more than half (53.8%) of LGBT students heard “no homo” used in their schools often or frequently, and although many people who employ this phrase do not necessarily use it to purposely denigrate LGBT individuals, more than 4 in 5 (84.8%) LGBT students reported that hearing “no homo” made them uncomfortable.

In addition, LGBT students commonly reported hearing other types of biased remarks in school. Nearly two thirds (61.4%) heard negative remarks about gender expression often or  frequently (e.g., about someone not acting “masculine” or “feminine” enough), which serve to reinforce norms for what is considered an appropriate expression of gender. LGBT students also commonly heard sexist remarks (74.4% heard them often or frequently) and, to a lesser extent, racist remarks (41.6% heard them often or frequently).

The pervasiveness of biased language in our schools continues to marginalize sexual and gender minority students. However, GLSEN’s research has found that institutional supports such as supportive educators, Gay Straight Alliances (GSAs) or other supportive student clubs, LGBT- inclusive curricula, and comprehensive school policies that include protections against bullying and harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression are associated with more positive school experiences for LGBT students. With greater attention being paid to bullying in schools and the isolation faced by LGBT students, the percentage of LGBT youth hearing homophobic remarks often or frequently has fallen from approximately 84% in 2001 to about 71% in 2011. As the country becomes mindful of the LGBT bias prevalent in our nation’s schools, we hope to see these numbers and the stigma experienced by LGBT students decline even further.

[i]Jones, R. P., Cox, D., & Navarro-Rivera, J. (2014). A shifting landscape: A decade of change in American attitudes about same-sex marriage and LGBT issues. Washington, DC: Public Religion Research Institute. Retrieved from http://publicreligion.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/2014.LGBT_REPORT.pdf

Pew Research. (2013). A survey of LGBT Americans: Attitudes, experiences, and values in changing times. Retrieved from http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2013/06/13/a-survey-of-lgbt-americans/.

[ii] Bullying and LGBT youth. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.stopbullying.gov/at-risk/groups/lgbt/index.html.

[iii] Kelleher, C. (2009). Minority stress and health: Implications for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) young people. Counselling Psychology Quarterly22(4): 373-9.

[iv] Kosciw, J. G., Greytak, E. A., Bartkiewicz, M. J., Boesen, M. J., & Palmer, N. A. (2012). The 2011 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in our nation’s schools. New York: GLSEN.

[v] Kosciw et al., 2012.


Image of Jordan Silverman, GLSEN guest bloggerJordan Silverman is an Intern in Gay Lesbian & Straight Education Network’s (GLSEN) Research Department and a current MPH candidate at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. GLSEN is recognized worldwide as an innovative leader in the education, youth development and civil rights sectors fighting to end bias-based bullying, violence and discrimination in K-12 schools and promote a culture of respect for all.


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