GLAAD’s annual Spirit Day today is a time to speak out against anti-LGBTQ bullying and stand with LGBTQ youth. That’s a tough mandate at a time when our country is led by someone for whom bullying and name-calling is a way of life, but it’s also all the more reason to focus our attention on the problem.

Spirit Day 2020

GLSEN’s latest National School Climate Survey, just out this week, found that:

  • The vast majority of LGBTQ students (86.3 percent) have experienced harassment or assault based on personal characteristics, including sexual orientation, gender expression, gender, actual or perceived religion, actual or perceived race and ethnicity, and actual or perceived disability;
  • More than half (56.6 percent) of those students who were harassed or assaulted in school did not report the incident to school staff, most commonly because they doubted that effective intervention would occur or the situation could become worse if reported.
  • Among those who did report their incidents, 60.5 percent said that school staff did nothing in response or told the student to ignore it.
  • Many LGBTQ students of color experienced victimization based on both their race/ethnicity and their LGBTQ identities.
  • This hostile school climate can have a negative effect on students’ academic success and mental health.

Much of this is a problem to be addressed by the parents or guardians of the bullies and by local schools and school districts. (It’s a problem for the victims and their parents and guardians, too, but ultimately it’s the bullies who need to change their behavior.) I would like to think, however, that our country’s leaders would set an example of civil discourse despite difference that all citizens could look up to. Alas, President Trump is failing catastrophically on that count. There was the presidential debate, in which he tried to bully Democratic nominee Joe Biden; his foreign policy; his interactions with the media; many of his tweets, and the tone at his rallies, where name-calling his opponents is commonplace. This bullying behavior, some have said, goes back to his childhood, where his father presented life in terms of “winners” and “losers,” then sent him to military school where bullying meant power and winning.

The president’s words don’t fall solely on grown-ups’ ears. Right after Trump took office, some noted the “Trump effect”: “the rise of classroom bullying and harassment driven, at least in part, by the antagonistic rhetoric of the presidential campaign.” That effect has continued, as the Washington Post reported earlier this year:

Trump’s words, those chanted by his followers at campaign rallies and even his last name have been wielded by students and school staff members to harass children more than 300 times since the start of 2016, a Washington Post review of 28,000 news stories found. At least three-quarters of the attacks were directed at kids who are Hispanic, black or Muslim, according to the analysis. Students have also been victimized because they support the president — more than 45 times during the same period.

Although many hateful episodes garnered coverage just after the election, The Post found that Trump-connected persecution of children has never stopped. Even without the huge total from November 2016, an average of nearly two incidents per school week have been publicly reported over the past four years. Still, because so much of the bullying never appears in the news, The Post’s figure represents a small fraction of the actual total. It also doesn’t include the thousands of slurs, swastikas and racial epithets that aren’t directly linked to Trump but that the president’s detractors argue his behavior has exacerbated.

In sum, this means that LGBTQ youth and others who are the targets of bullies need our help more than ever—and we as parents need to be remain aware in case our own children exhibit bullying behavior. The American Psychological Association has a number of pieces about prevention and response strategies for bullying of many kinds; GLSEN has some good resources for those looking to create positive change in their local schools; the Movement Advancement Project offers a map of safe schools laws in every state; and my LGBTQ Back-to-School Resources list has links to additional materials, programs, and organizations.

Let’s start with the examples of our own lives, however, being mindful of our own behaviors and attitudes and showing our children the difference between standing up for ourselves and belittling others. A family, school, or country in which people bully and harass each other is inherently divided; it will never be as strong as one in which there is a willingness to engage, learn, and find points of commonality and mutual respect, or at the very least, treat each other with civility. May we set such an example—and may our nation’s leaders do so as well.