Social work professor urges schools to reach out to students struggling with gender issues

February 18, 2003

Gwenne Culpepper, UNI Office of Marketing & Public Relations, (319) 273-2761

(Part of the EducatioNet series from the University of Northern Iowa)

For release during February 2003

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa -- Katherine van Wormer says society expects teenagers to be a little rebellious, a little moody, a little confused. Adolescence is, after all, a turbulent time. But gay, lesbian and transgendered teens have it '100 times worse.'

Van Wormer, a professor of social work at the University of Northern Iowa, and co-author of the textbook, 'Social Work with Lesbians, Gays, and Bisexuals: A Strengths Perspective,' explains homosexual students often are targeted by others for ridicule. Studies indicate that 90 percent of high school students in this country had heard anti-gay epithets at school, and 69 percent of gay teens reported verbal or physical harassment at school.

'The school system is largely a toxic environment for children with gender-role differences,' she says.

Further, says van Wormer, homosexual students typically don't have a built-in support system.

'You could compare them to an ethnic group, as an example, or a kid from a different economic background. When those students are teased or confronted about being different from their peer group, they can go home for reassurance. Gender non-conforming students usually can't do this.'

In fact, says van Wormer, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered teens rarely have anywhere to go for support. 'The problem is that those who are taunted the most generally lack protection from their families, teachers and religious leaders -- the usual support systems to which young people turn.'

The result is a high level of alcohol abuse to treat the depression that accompanies self-hatred, high use of narcotics, and high levels of suicide.

A 1991 study indicated that gender identity issues were the primary causes of suicide among all teens. Another study in the United Kingdom found that four out of 10 children bullied about their sexuality attempted suicide or harmed themselves by cutting or burning their skin.

'Peer, teacher and parental rejection often is internalized as self-hatred and self-destructive behavior by the victim of chronic abuse and name calling,' says van Wormer.

Researchers are finding that there may be other consequences that affect not just the depressed teenager, but also those around him.

'In this country, it took the Columbine tragedy -- where unpopular students who could not fit into the masculinized culture of their high school went on a murder-suicide rampage -- to finally spark a national debate on the culture of harassment and hatred that can lead to violence,' says van Wormer.

In this professor's mind, the only logical place to begin change is the school. 'These students can't count on parents or the church, so school is the only place left.'

There are several ways for that to happen, she says, but all of her suggestions mean a radical shift from the norm.

'First, we need out-of-the-closet role models in the school, someone who is happy with his or her identity. The problem with that, though, is a teacher can be fired for coming out of the closet because there are no laws that say otherwise.'

Van Wormer also suggests after-school groups, preferably led by an openly gay individual, to help cope with gender identity issues of all students. 'That would probably be horrifying for parents, at least at first,' she says. 'But what we've found is that once parents accept their child, they can be the greatest advocates.'

Her other suggestions for schools are:

Help institute programs to prevent bullying and verbal abuse.

Organize workshops on sexual orientation for student leaders, faculty and administrators.

Help organize and support gay/straight alliance groups.

Encourage panels featuring gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered students from nearby colleges.

Make sure the school library has information about gender non-conformity.

Maintain strict confidentiality in all services provided.