CHICAGO — It really does get better for gay and bisexual teens when it comes to being bullied, although young gay men have it worse than their lesbian peers, according to the first long-term scientific evidence on how the problem changes over time.
The seven-year study involved more than 4,000 teens in England who were questioned yearly through 2010, until they were 19 and 20 years old. At the start, just over half of the 187 gay, lesbian and bisexual teens said they had been bullied; by 2010 that dropped to 9 percent of gay and bisexual boys and 6 percent of lesbian and bisexual girls.
The researchers said the same results likely would be found in the United States.
In both countries, a “sea change” in cultural acceptance of gays and growing intolerance for bullying occurred during the study years, which partly explains the results, said study co-author Ian Rivers, a psychologist and professor of human development at Brunel University in London.
That includes a government mandate in England that schools work to prevent bullying, and changes in the United States permitting same-sex marriage in several states.
In 2010, syndicated columnist Dan Savage launched the “It Gets Better” video project to encourage bullied gay teens. It was prompted by widely publicized suicides of young gays, and includes videos from politicians and celebrities.
“Bullying tends to decline with age regardless of sexual orientation and gender,” and the study confirms that, said co-author Joseph Robinson, a researcher and assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. “In absolute terms, this would suggest that yes, it gets better.”
The study appears online Monday in the journal Pediatrics.
Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, said the results mirror surveys by her anti-bullying advocacy group that show bullying is more common in U.S. middle schools than in high schools.
But the researchers said their results show the situation is more nuanced for young gay men.
In the first years of the study, gay boys and girls were almost twice as likely to be bullied as their straight peers. By the last year, bullying dropped overall and was at about the same level for lesbians and straight girls. But the difference between men got worse by ages 19 and 20, with gay young men almost four times more likely than their straight peers to be bullied.
The mixed results for young gay men may reflect the fact that masculine tendencies in girls and women are more culturally acceptable than femininity in boys and men, Robinson said.
Savage, who was not involved in the study, agreed.
“A lot of the disgust that people feel when you bring up homosexuality … centers around gay male sexuality,” Savage said. “There’s more of a comfort level” around gay women, he said.
Kendall Johnson, 21, a junior theater major at the University of Illinois, said he was bullied for being gay in high school, mostly when he brought boyfriends to school dances or football games.
“One year at prom, I had a guy tell us that we were disgusting and he didn’t want to see us dancing anymore,” Johnson said. A football player and the president of the drama club intervened on his behalf, he recalled.
Johnson hasn’t been bullied in college, but he said that’s partly because he hangs out with the theater crowd and avoids the fraternity scene. Still, he agreed, that it generally gets better for gays as they mature.
“As you grow older, you become more accepting of yourself,” Johnson said.