Punished for being (too) different.
A study that investigated gender expression and victimization of youth aged 13-18 found that the most gender nonconforming students reported higher levels of being bullied and were more likely to report missing school than their more gender-conforming peers because they feel unsafe. They are also the most likely to report being victimized with a weapon on school property.
The study – titled “Gender Expression, Violence, and Bullying Victimization: Findings from Probability Samples of High School Students in 4 School Districts” – was published in Journal of School Health, and co-authored by Allegra R. Gordon, Kerith J. Conron, Jerel P. Calzo, Matthew T. White, Sari L. Reisner and S. Bryn Austin.
“Gender nonconforming” is a term used to describe people who do not conform to societal expectations for masculine or feminine appearance and/or behavior.
For this study, researchers analyzed data collected from 5,469 students ages 13-18 from four urban school districts, including San Diego, Los Angeles, Chicago and Broward County, Florida. Respondents were 51% Hispanic/Latino, 21% black/African American, and 14% white.
This study measured gender expression by asking adolescents how they thought people at school would describe their “appearance, style, dress or the way they walk or talk along a continuum of very feminine to very masculine.” Girls who responded that they were seen as very masculine and boys who responded that they were seen as very feminine were categorized as “highly gender nonconforming”.
It is worth stressing that gender nonconformity may not necessarily be linked with a person’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity, with lead author Allegra Gordon, a research scientist at Boston Children’s Hospital, noting that “majority of nonconforming youth were heterosexual”.
Key findings of the study include:
- The more gender nonconforming a student is, the more likely he/she is to experience in-school and electronic bullying than other students. Most notably, reports of being bullied increased with each level of gender nonconformity measured, so that “each step towards the most gender nonconforming end of the spectrum was associated with 15% greater odds of being bullied”.
- Among highly gender nonconforming students, 14.4% of girls and 23.5% of boys reported having been in a fight in the past year prior to the study.
- While highly conforming students (or those who thought they were seen to present themselves based on social expectations) were also at risk of being in a fight, it was worth noting that the “likelihood of having been in a fight was the highest among the most gender nonconforming students”.
- 36% of highly gender nonconforming girls were likely to be victimized with a weapon (while the moderately gender nonconforming girls are only at 4%).
Lead author Gordon thereby stressed “the importance of creating violence prevention programs that address gender expression in addition to sexuality and gender identity.”