"Youth Standing Up for Human Rights" — this year’s Human Rights Day theme — has particular resonance for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth around the world. LGBT children and young adults face social stigma and experience widespread discrimination and abuse; serious human rights violations that can have lifelong consequences, including for their health. They struggle to find inclusive education and supportive health care. And they often experience daunting pressure to suppress, conceal or change their sexual orientation or gender identity.
This September, the United Nations General Assembly heard about these endemic problems facing LGBT youth directly from the UN expert on combating violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, Victor Madrigal-Borloz. He highlighted systematic abuses LGBT youth face in school, with few avenues for redress. Bullying is exacerbated by the absence of protective policy, by poor policy, or by the inability or unwillingness of institutions to address it.
He described the experience of trans students in schools that insist on distinct uniforms for boys and girls, and bathrooms or changing rooms strictly segregated by gender. And he noted that while comprehensive sexuality education has been shown to promote self-esteem and better health outcomes, it is under sustained attack by ultra-conservative groups seeking to push back against LGBT people’s rights.
Studies in the United States and Netherlands show that LGBT youth experience higher levels of depression, anxiety and substance abuse than their heterosexual peers. And in the U.S., an estimated 40 percent of homeless children are LGBT. LGBT youth often end up homeless because their families and communities ostracize them at a time when they remain economically dependent, and they disproportionately face depression as a result of social stigma.
Yet, instead of taking steps to protect LGBT youth, many countries instead justify anti-LGBT laws and policies on grounds of "protecting children." This is nothing new. Consider the U.K.’s notorious (and since repealed) Section 28 that prevented local councils and schools from "promoting homosexuality," or the "no promo homo" laws that restrict sexuality education in six U.S. states, and the notorious "gay propaganda law" in Russia prohibiting positive communication with children about "non-traditional" sexual relations. This rhetoric of protecting children has been given renewed impetus by opponents of so-called "gender ideology," who target comprehensive sexuality education as part of a strategy to push back against reproductive rights and the rights of sexual and gender minorities.
The effect of bullying doesn’t end at graduation. Aside from leaving emotional scars, children’s exposure to violence and discrimination in educational settings significantly reduces their chances of academic success, leads to higher truancy and dropout rates, reduces their life-chances and increases vulnerability as adults. It is a vicious cycle. As Human Rights Watch research shows, socio-economic factors play a determining role in vulnerability to violence and discrimination, as evident in the relationship between poverty and exposure to violence for lesbians in South Africa, young men in Mombasa, or homeless youth in Jamaica.
We have documented some of the unique difficulties LGBT youth face around the globe. In our first report on LGBT issues, "Hatred in the Hallways," in 2001, we documented rampant bullying in schools. Fifteen years later, "Like Walking Through a Hailstorm" revisited the topic in five U.S. states and took a contemporary look at the experiences of LGBT youth. Sadly, we found that while school administrators have taken positive steps, children continue to face bullying and discrimination in schools in many places. LGBT children also face significant barriers to obtaining accurate information about sexual health as well as about LGBT people and identities, especially in the states with “no promo homo” laws.
In 2017 Japan updated its national bullying prevention policy to include “sexual orientation and gender identity” aligned with the recommendation of a Human Rights Watch report documenting physical and verbal abuse, harassment, and frequent insults from peers and staff in Japanese schools. Good policy does not always translate into practice, as in the Philippines, where students are frustrated by the uneven implementation of laws and policies designed to protect children from bullying.
Meanwhile Russian authorities have increasingly used the ‘gay propaganda” law in extreme ways — including to shut down information and support services for LGBT youth and even as a prelude to bringing criminal charges against social workers in a gay adoption case, and a TV show that allowed children to chat with a gay man on air. The insidious effects of the propaganda law can be felt in the school system, where the myth of protecting children is shown for what it is — a weapon that does considerable harm, even having an inhibiting effect on mental health workers.
This research is only the tip of the iceberg. This year, comprehensive sexuality education was subject to a public opinion poll in a Taiwan referendum that rejected an LGBT-inclusive school curriculum. The government rightly held firm on protecting human rights and the Education Ministry committed to retain the existing curriculum despite public pressure to censor it. In the U.K., a program for including age-appropriate LGBT components in school curricula became embroiled in controversy, including protests by parents.
Despite research showing that LGBT kids are marginalized in South Korea’s education system, the Education Ministry expressly forbids LGBT-related material in schools. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has ordered the Ministry of Education to draft a law banning what he calls “gender ideology” in schools and has tried to prevent children from accessing comprehensive sexuality education. This echoes conservative social movements around the world that use the rhetoric of "gender ideology" as a way of delegitimizing reproductive health and LGBT rights.
Young people, at a vulnerable time in their lives, find themselves under siege by governments intent on demonizing LGBT people as a threat to family and society. LGBT kids suffer the consequences of this dangerous rhetoric, including to their mental health and economic prospects. It is apt and timely for this year’s Human Rights Day theme to pay tribute to the strength and resilience of youth, who uphold the fundamental promise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that everyone is born free and equal in dignity and rights.
Graeme Reid is the LGBT rights director at Human Rights Watch.