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Proposition 8 and homophobic bullying in schools

Proposition 8 Increased Homophobic Bullying in Schools Without a Gay-Straight Alliance Club

Mark L. Hatzenbuehler, Yishan Shen, Elizabeth A. Vandewater, and Stephen T. Russell

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Bias-based bullying, which is motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived membership in a stigmatized group, is common among youth. This type of bullying is more strongly associated with negative outcomes than bullying unrelated to bias. However, the contexts that might contribute to an increase in bias-based bullying are largely unknown.

Previous research has shown that voter campaigns that target lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) groups create a social environment that is conducive to bias against sexual and gender minorities. This increase in bias may in turn manifest in heightened victimization against LGBT youth. This brief explores whether Proposition 8 (Prop 8), a November 2008 California voter referendum that restricted marriage to heterosexuals, was associated with an increase in homophobic bullying, or bullying related to actual or perceived sexual orientation, among California youth.

The authors analyze data from surveys taken over a 14-year period by nearly 5 million youth in grades 7 to 11 from over 5,100 schools California. They examine whether, as previous research on bias would predict, the rate of homophobic bullying increased and accelerated in the period leading up to the vote on Prop 8 and whether the rate declined in subsequent years after a decrease of Prop 8-related activities. If the authors find an increase in homophobic bullying around the time of Prop 8, they would want to test for alternative explanations to have greater confidence that Prop 8 caused the increase rather than an unmeasured historical event happening at the same time.

To test for alternative explanations, they first explore whether Prop 8 is associated with similar changes in bias-based bullying for reasons of race and/or ethnicity, religion, or gender but not for sexual orientation. If the authors find that Prop 8 is not associated with other types of bias-based bullying, their confidence in the association of homophobic bullying and Prop 8 would be stronger.

Second, the authors examined whether there were smaller increases in homophobic bullying in schools with gay-straight alliances (GSAs). GSAs are school-based clubs that focus on improving the school climate for LGBT youth. Extensive prior research documents that GSAs protect LGBT youth from victimization and mental health problems. The authors contend that if trends in homophobic bullying were due to some unmeasured historical event co-occurring with Prop 8, they would be unlikely to find a protective role of GSAs in changes in rates of homophobic bullying, given that GSAs are specific to school contexts among LGBT youth. In contrast, if GSAs were found to be protective of homophobic bullying around the time of the Prop 8 vote, then that would be further evidence of the link between Prop 8 and increases in homophobic bullying.

Key Findings

  • In the period leading up to the Prop 8 vote, homophobic bullying increased in California schools. In fact, during the school year that included Prop 8, there was a 29.6% relative increase in homophobic bullying. In the school years following the vote, rates of homophobic bullying declined. No other forms of bullying (based on race/ethnicity, gender, or religion) showed a similar pattern, indicating the Prop 8 likely caused the increase in bullying.
  • The increase in homophobic bullying was not significant in schools that had a gay-straight alliance club; in other words, GSAs had a protective effect.
  • Together, these findings lend strong support to the argument that the stigma and vitriol generated by Prop 8 caused an increase in homophobic bullying among California youth in schools without a gay-straight alliance club.

Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) protected students from increased homophobic bullying around the time of Proposition 8

College of Liberal Arts

This caption describes the image above.

The vertical line in this figure [1] indicates when Proposition 8 voting took place: in November of the 2009-2009 academic year. Rates of homophobic bullying were estimated using aggregated school-level data from 5,121 schools.

Policy Implications

Adults typically think that heated policy debates are not relevant for youth; this study shows that political discourse and debates are relevant to students – and students act out bias and discrimination that they hear in politics and the media.

In recent years, policies and campaigns related to immigration, terrorism and Islamophobia, and bathrooms for transgender individuals were prominent in the public discourse. These results provide evidence that public campaigns that promote stigma against particular groups may increase risk for bias-based bullying among youth. The negative public health consequences of such frequent campaigns may be more wide-ranging than previously realized.


[1] Hatzenbuehler, M.L., Shen, Y., Vandewater, E.A., & Russell, S.T. (2019). Proposition 8 and homophobic bullying in California. Pediatrics

Suggested Citation

Hatzenbuehler, M.L., Shen, Y., Vandewater, E.A., & Russell, S.T. (2019). Proposition 8 increased homophobic bullying in schools without a gay-straight alliance club. PRC Research Brief 4(6). DOI: 10.26153/ tsw/2633.

About the Authors

Stephen T. Russell (stephen.russell@utexas.edu) is Priscilla Pond Flawn Regents Professor in Child Development, chair of the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences, and a faculty research associate in the Population Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin; Mark L. Hatzenbuehler is an associate professor of sociomedical sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University; Yishan Shen is an assistant professor of family and child development in the School of Family and Consumer Sciences at Texas State University; and Elizabeth A. Vandewater is a research development officer in the Office of the Vice President for Research.


The California Healthy Kids Survey was developed by WestEd under contract to the California Department of Education. The authors acknowledge generous support from the Communities for Just Schools Fund Project at the New Venture Fund and the Priscilla Pond Flawn Endowment at The University of Texas at Austin. Support for this research also was provided by grants (R24HD042849 and P2CHD042849) awarded to the Population Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health. Funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).