Exploring Physical, Nonphysical, and Discrimination-Based Victimization among Transgender Youth in California Public Schools
Research has shown elevated rates of peer victimization among transgender youth in schools, placing them at risk of an array of negative social and psychological outcomes well into adulthood. We conducted a secondary analysis of the 2015–2016 California Healthy Kids Survey to examine rates of physical victimization (physical acts such as being pushed or shoved) and nonphysical victimization (nonphysical acts such as having mean rumors spread about them) and discriminatory peer bullying (any act of bullying based on gender, perceived lesbian or gay identity, and race) among transgender and nontransgender youth. In addition, this study explored the intersection of race and transgender identity and associations with victimization. Chi-square tests and logistic regression results indicated that transgender youth reported significantly higher rates of physical and nonphysical victimization and discriminatory peer bullying than nontransgender peers. Logistic regression results also revealed that disparities in race-based discriminatory peer bullying between transgender and nontransgender youth were greater among Latinx students than White students. The study’s findings illustrate the need for schools to create affirming environments for racially diverse transgender youth.
KeywordsTransgender youth Peer victimization Race Discrimination Intersectionality
Transgender youth (youth whose gender identity or expression does not correspond with their birth sex) face a series of challenges associated with having a stigmatized gender identity and/or expression (Greytak et al. 2013; Stieglitz 2010). Challenges during adolescence include parental rejection and/or abuse as part of the coming out and disclosure process, as well as transphobic harassment, assault and discrimination from peers and adults in their schools (Grossman et al. 2006; Huebner et al. 2015; Kosciw et al. 2016; Toomey et al. 2010). Research has shown that persistent stress in school, family, and community contexts has adverse consequences on transgender adolescents, including elevated risk of substance use, sexual risk behavior, suicidality, and depression (De Pedro et al. 2017; Reisner et al. 2015). Moreover, research has indicated that there is a lasting impact of gender minority stress on the long-term social and emotional development on transgender individuals as they enter adulthood (Conron et al. 2015).
Despite the growing awareness of the transgender community in American society (i.e. the increasing media representation of transgender individuals), the school setting has remained a source of stress for transgender youth (Huebner et al. 2015; Kosciw et al. 2016; Toomey et al. 2010). Research has found elevated rates of physical and nonphysical victimization among transgender students. For instance, studies drawing from nationally representative samples have found that transgender youth in schools experience verbal harassment and physical assault by peers at significantly higher rates, compared to cisgender students (Kosciw et al. 2016; Russell et al. 2011). Recently, the 2015 National School Climate Survey found that almost half of transgender youth have been physically assaulted, while more than half have been verbally harassed (Kosciw et al. 2016). In addition to physical and nonphysical forms of victimization, studies also have found that transgender youth are especially vulnerable to discriminatory peer bullying. Recent studies have found that when compared to cisgender peers, transgender youth were significantly more likely to report bullying based on gender identity and being perceived as lesbian or gay (Greytak et al. 2013; Kosciw et al. 2016; Toomey et al. 2010). In this study, youth experiences of discriminatory peer bullying are distinct from experiences of physical and nonphysical victimization. Scholars have noted that discriminatory peer bullying involves youth attributing an experience of bullying as driven by the contextual saliency of a social identity, which may include gender, racial, and/or perceived lesbian or gay identity (Garnett et al. 2014). The current study adds to a growing research base on transgender youth and peer victimization by exploring rates of physical and nonphysical victimization and discriminatory peer bullying in a large sample of transgender youth and their peers.
Understanding Victimization among Transgender Youth of Color
Given the growing diversity of the K-12 student population in the USA, the Institute of Medicine and the American Educational Research Association have advocated for more research exploring racial differences in school victimization among transgender youth (Coulter et al. 2014; Graham et al. 2011; Wimberly 2015). Transgender youth may experience physical and nonphysical victimization and discriminatory peer bullying based on gender and perceived lesbian or gay identity; however, transgender youth of color may experience the additional stress of racially motivated bullying at school. Studies have indicated that transgender youth of color experience racial discrimination in various contexts, such as the criminal justice system, health care, and the communities where they reside (Olson et al. 2011; Simons et al. 2013). Unfortunately, little research has explored rates of race-based bullying as well as other forms of discriminatory peer bullying (i.e., gender-based, perceived lesbian or gay identity, general physical and nonphysical victimization) among transgender youth of color in schools. Thus, it is important to further examine the intersections of race and transgender identity and its associations with victimization. Given this gap in the research, this study draws from a large statewide sample of youth to explore rates of physical, nonphysical, and multiple forms of discriminatory peer bullying among transgender youth of color in California public schools.
Race and Intersectionality in Research on Transgender Youth
Exploring the role of race in rates of peer victimization is critical given the growing racial diversity within the transgender youth population. Several states, for instance, are classified as majority-minority (e.g., California, Hawaii). In addition, by 2050, the proportion of adolescents who are racial and ethnic minorities is expected to rise to 60% across the USA (Colby and Ortman 2014). Due to the growing diversity of youth overall, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) has prompted researchers to explore racial differences in an array of outcomes within the transgender youth population (Graham et al. 2011). This knowledge could inform how school leaders develop and implement programs for an increasingly diverse transgender youth population.
Unfortunately, few studies have explored race as a factor in rates of school victimization among transgender youth, partly due to the challenges of sampling transgender youth. First, transgender youth comprise a small proportion of the overall youth population, and thus, researchers have often aggregated transgender youth with lesbian, gay, and bisexual peers in study samples (Coulter et al. 2014). Second, researchers have found it labor intensive and costly to recruit a large enough sample of transgender youth in general population surveys for meaningful analysis of racial subgroups (Coulter et al. 2014). The recent inclusion of items identifying transgender youth in statewide school climate and health surveys (i.e., California Healthy Kids Survey) have generated large, representative samples of transgender youth. Large, racially diverse samples enable researchers to examine the intersection of race and transgender identity and associations with an array of school victimization and health problems.
A recent report from IOM has called for more quantitative research that employs the tenet of intersectionality in studies on transgender youth (Graham et al. 2011). Adopted from the critical race theoretical tradition, the tenet of intersectionality recognizes social identities—both advantaged and disadvantaged—as multiple, intertwined, and mutually constitutive (Bowleg 2012; Carbado et al. 2013; Collins 1998; Crenshaw 2005; Graham et al. 2011;Hancock 2007). Past research on victimization has largely assessed differences in school victimization among social groups by treating social identities as discrete analytical categories. Employing an additive approach (race + transgender identity) to quantitative research does not capture the ways in which multiple social identities intersect in the experiences of youth as well as how intersecting identities may explain disparities (Bowleg 2012). Intersectionality researchers have recommended multiplicative approaches (race x transgender identity) in quantitative research, when examining disparities in victimization and other health outcomes (Bowleg 2012). Using an intersectional perspective, the current study examines interconnections of race and transgender identity and associations with physical and nonphysical victimization and discriminatory peer bullying in a large sample of transgender youth and nontransgender peers in California public schools.
The Context of California Schools
California schools are a unique context for exploring rates of victimization among transgender youth and potential racial differences. First, California is one of the most racially diverse states in the USA. More than half of California public middle and high school students identify as racial minorities (“Fingertip Facts on Education in California–CalEdFacts” 2016). Second, major youth advocacy organizations consider California state educational policies to be supportive of LGBT youth in schools, when compared to other states. California state education code, for example, requires all schools to have an LGBT inclusive curriculum and to implement anti-bullying policies that specifically address anti-LGBT harassment and violence (California Department of Education 2015). These policy requirements may play a role in making school environments safe and supportive for transgender and gender nonconforming youth. Because of California’s cultural diversity and supportive educational policy context, rates of victimization may differ from studies conducted in other contexts.
Objectives of Study
Drawing from a large statewide sample of transgender and nontransgender youth, what are rates of victimization (physical and nonphysical victimization and discriminatory peer bullying) among transgender and nontransgender youth?
What are the relationships among race, transgender identity, and rates of victimization (physical and nonphysical victimization and discriminatory peer bullying)? 2a. Is there a significant interaction between race and transgender identity?
Given past research on transgender youth and victimization, we hypothesized rates of physical and nonphysical victimization and discriminatory peer bullying would be significantly higher among transgender youth, when compared to nontransgender peers. Due to a lack of past empirical studies, the study’s analyses assessing the intersection of race and transgender identity in rates of victimization were exploratory in nature.
Procedures and Methods
In this study, we conducted a secondary analysis of data from the 2015-2016 administration of the California Healthy Kids Survey (CHKS), the largest statewide survey of youth perceptions of school climate, bullying, and health risk behaviors in the USA (Austin et al. 2014). The CHKS is administered to 5th, 7th, 9th, and 11th graders, and includes items asking students whether or not they identify as transgender. The California Department of Education and West Ed, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, research and development agency obtained appropriate consent and assent from parents and student participants as part of district- and state-level procedures. In addition, the authors of this study obtained permission to use this dataset for research purposes. Measures in the CHKS are similar to those used in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBS) for adolescent risk behaviors. The CHKS module for fifth grade students does not include a question about transgender identity, and thus, fifth grade participants were excluded from the study.
Independent variables included race and ethnicity and transgender identity as well as control variables (grade level, and socioeconomic status). Race and ethnicity were assessed using White as the reference category with the following dummy variables: Asian/Pacific Islander, Black, Multiracial, and Latinx. Students were defined as transgender if they responded yes to the item asking whether or not they identified as transgender. This item allowed us to categorize students as transgender and nontransgender. It is important to note that the term transgender may not capture other gender nonbinary identities such as bigender, gender nonconforming, and other identities and expressions across the gender spectrum. The category representing nontransgender students could include gender nonbinary identities and expressions and thus, could not be labeled as cisgender. Grade level was comprised of three categories: 7th, 9th, and 11th grade. Socioeconomic status was assessed by parent educational level. Students were asked to report the highest level of education of the parent who went the furthest in school (did not finish high school, graduated from high school, attended college but did not complete a 4-year degree, and graduated from college).
Physical and Nonphysical Victimization
This study included items assessing physical and nonphysical victimization and discriminatory peer bullying in the past year. These items have been in recent studies on transgender youth and the general youth population (De Pedro and Esqueda 2017; Moore et al. 2018). Seven items comprised the physical victimization scale (= 0.75) asking whether in the past 12 months on school property, students had been pushed, shoved, slapped, hit, or kicked by someone who wasn’t just kidding around; been in a physical fight; was afraid of being beaten up; had property stolen or deliberately damaged; been threatened with harm; been threatened or injured with a weapon (gun, knife, club, etc.); and/or seen someone with a weapon. The nonphysical victimization scale (= 0.82) comprised of five questions asking whether in the past 12 months on school property, students had mean rumors or lies spread about them; had sexual jokes, comments or gestures made to them; had been made fun of because of their looks or the way they talked; were called names; and/or had mean rumors spread about them on the Internet.
Discriminatory Peer Bullying
This study also included three variables, pertaining to discriminatory peer bullying. The three items asked participants to report the number of times on school property they had been harassed or bullied for their gender; race, ethnicity or national origin; or because they were gay or lesbian or someone thought they were. In the current analysis, all physical victimization, nonphysical victimization, and discriminatory peer bullying items had response items of 0 times, 1 time, 2–3 times, and 4 or more times. Each discriminatory peer bullying variable (gender-based, perceived lesbian or gay identity, and race-based) was dichotomized and treated as a yes or no response. In addition, it should be noted that the any physical victimization and any nonphysical victimization variables in the multivariate models (see Table 4) indicate the experience of any of the items in that particular domain.
To address the study objectives, SPSS 24 was utilized to generate cross-classification tables and conduct chi-square tests of association, comparing rates of victimization—physical and nonphysical victimization, and discriminatory peer bullying—among transgender and nontransgender students. Cross-classification tables and chi-square tests of association were also generated to compare rates of victimization among racial groups within the transgender youth subsample. Second, drawing from the whole sample, we conducted multivariate logistic regression analyses to explore transgender students’ likelihood of reporting any physical victimization, any nonphysical victimization, and each measure of discriminatory peer bullying (gender-based, perceived lesbian or gay identity, and race-based), controlling for grade level and parent educational attainment. Last, to examine the intersection of race and transgender identity, we examined statistical interactions between race and transgender identity and associations with any physical victimization, any nonphysical victimization, and each measure of discriminatory peer bullying.
Overall sample characteristics
Total (N = 423,168)
Transgender (N = 3810)
Less than high school
High school graduate
Peer Victimization in Schools
Victimization among transgender youth and their peers (n = 423,168)
Afraid of being attacked*
Threatened with harm*
Threatened with a weapon*
Seen someone with weapon*
Had mean rumors*
Made fun of because of looks*
Mean rumors spread on Internet*
Discriminatory peer bullying
Perceived lesbian or gay identity*
Racial differences in physical victimization, nonphysical victimization, and discriminatory peer bullying among transgender youth (n = 3810)
Afraid of being attacked*
Threatened with harm*
Threatened with weapon*
Seen someone with weapon*
Made fun looks*
Mean rumors on Internet*
Discriminatory peer bullying
Perceived lesbian or gay identity*
Adjusted odds ratios from logistic regression of any physical, any nonphysical victimization, and discriminatory peer bullying by transgender identity, race, grade, and parent education among youth in California schools (n = 423,168)
Any physical victimization
Any nonphysical victimization
Perceived lesbian or gay
Less than high school (ref)
High school graduate
Intersection of Race and Transgender Identity
Findings from the multivariate models that explored victimization in the whole sample and included two-way statistical interactions showed some significant results. We examined adjusted odds ratios in the significant two-way statistical interactions for comparing transgender/nontransgender disparities in victimization rates across racial groups. Results from race-based bullying models indicated that White transgender students were 2.19 times more likely than White nontransgender students to report race-based bullying. The findings indicated that the disparity in racial bullying rates between transgender and nontransgender students within the Latinx sample was greater. Latinx transgender students were 2.48 times as likely to report race-based bullying than Latinx nontransgender students.
In addition, the results indicated that White transgender students were 7.03 times as likely to report gender-based bullying, when compared to White nontransgender students. The findings indicated that the transgender/nontransgender disparities in gender-based bullying rates among Black and Asian/PI students were smaller. Among Black students, Black transgender students were 4.34 times as likely to report gender-based bullying than Black nontransgender students.
Among Asian/PI students, Asian/PI transgender students were 4.41 times as likely to report gender-based bullying, when compared to Asian/PI nontransgender students. The findings also indicated that among White students, White transgender students were 9.69 times as likely to report bullying based on perceived lesbian or gay identity. Within the Black student population, Black transgender students were 5 times as likely to be bullied based on perceived lesbian or gay identity. Asian transgender students were 6.73 times as likely to report bullying based on perceived gay or lesbian identity, when compared to Asian nontransgender peers.
A large number of studies have found elevated rates of peer victimization in schools among transgender youth; however, there are few studies exploring racial differences within the transgender youth population (Kosciw et al. 2016; Russell et al. 2011). This study adds to extant research by exploring rates of physical and nonphysical victimization and discriminatory peer bullying among transgender and nontransgender youth in California schools. In addition, this study fills a gap in the research by examining the role of race in rates of physical and nonphysical victimization and discriminatory peer bullying among transgender youth and their peers attending public schools throughout California. This study also adopted an intersectional perspective to examine the interconnections of race and transgender identity and associations with rates of physical and nonphysical victimization and discriminatory peer bullying.
The results indicated that transgender youth were twice as likely as nontransgender peers to report physical and nonphysical victimization. This finding aligns with recent studies, which have found elevated rates of verbal harassment and physical assault among transgender youth (Kosciw et al. 2016; Toomey et al. 2010). Despite California’s supportive LGBT educational policies (e.g., state mandates that require schools to integrate positive representations of LGBT people and implement enumerated anti-bullying policies), the results of this study indicate that elevated rates of physical and nonphysical victimization among transgender persist in California schools. It is possible that there is wide variation in the extent to which California schools have so far implemented LGBT-inclusive school policies; some schools may have yet to create LGBT-affirming and protective school environments. In addition, it is also feasible that LGBT-inclusive state policies in California may not be far reaching enough to promote inclusive school environments statewide. Overall, it is important that future studies continue to explore rates of victimization among transgender youth in California public schools, while also assessing the protective role of LGBT-affirming school climate and policies.
The findings also found elevated rates of bullying based on gender and perceived lesbian or gay identity among transgender youth. Past research has found that school environments may reinforce gender norms that exclude the gender identities, expressions, and gender fluidity of transgender and gender nonconforming youth (Pascoe 2005). In addition, research has found that adolescents often conflate gender nonconforming identities and expressions with nonheterosexual identities (i.e., lesbian or gay), and hence, transgender youth are vulnerable to homophobic harassment (Pascoe 2005; Toomey et al. 2012; Toomey et al. 2010). Future research is necessary to explore school-based protective factors that mitigate gender-based and homophobic harassment perpetrated against transgender youth. This knowledge would inform current programs aimed at making school environments affirming of transgender youth.
Results from Intersectional Analyses
The current study adds to the current bullying and victimization research literature as well as studies on transgender youth in schools. This study utilized intersectionality as a framework for exploring rates of victimization among transgender youth and their peers in schools. The study analyses included a multiplicative approach for measuring disparities in rates of victimization, specifically exploring the intersection of race and transgender identity. Findings from the intersectional models indicated that the disparity between transgender and nontransgender students was greater in the White student population for both gender-based bullying and bullying based on lesbian or gay identity than disparities within the Asian/PI and Black students. We acknowledge that an explanation for why smaller transgender/nontransgender disparities among Asian/PI and Black students is beyond the scope of this study. It is critical to note that, in past studies on youth of color, researchers have devised theoretical models positing that youth of color may develop resilience in the face of adversity as a result of navigating life challenges and racial discrimination in schools and communities (Bowleg 2012; Carbado et al. 2013; Hancock 2007; Kosciw et al. 2016; Morales 2010; Russell et al. 2011). These strengths may influence their capacity to navigate hostile school environments and perpetrators of victimization (Yosso 2005). In addition, scholars have noted factors within communities of color (i.e., family support) that may act as protective factors for youth of color in school environments (Yosso 2005). Overall, it is recommended that future studies on victimization utilize intersectional approaches when examining the intertwined effects of race and transgender identity on school victimization and discriminatory peer bullying. In addition, future studies could also explore risk and protective factors contributing to disparities in victimization.
This study also generated findings pertaining to the role of race in rates of race-based bullying among transgender students. First, this study found elevated rates of race-based bullying among transgender youth in general, when compared to nontransgender youth. Previous studies have examined the prevalence of racial discrimination in the general youth population; a study conducted in Boston Public Schools found that 33% of youth experienced a high level of racial discrimination in school (Garnett et al. 2014). The current analysis is unique for comparing racial discrimination among transgender youth and their peers. It is not clear why there were elevated rates of race-based victimization among transgender youth in general. More research and theoretical frameworks are needed to uncover factors explaining why transgender youth are at risk for race-based bullying. Second, results from the multivariate analyses found a significant interaction effect (Latinx and transgender) on victimization, indicating that the gap in race-based bullying was greater between transgender and nontransgender youth in the Latinx sample, when compared to the White sample. This finding is not surprising given past research identifying youth in color in general, including Latinx students, as vulnerable to race-based bullying in schools in California (Atuel et al. 2014).
Results from the multivariate models (Tables 4) also found that no one racial group consistently reported the highest rates of physical and nonphysical victimization. Scholars have posited that widely used measures of victimization may not reliably capture the perceptions of racial minority students. Black and Latinx students, for instance, may perceive nonphysical victimization differently from White peers. Future research could explore the development of culturally relevant measures of physical and nonphysical victimization perceptions among racial minority students.
Limitations and Conclusions
As with most studies, this study has limitations worth nothing. First, this study drew from cross-sectional survey data. Thus, it is not possible to infer any conclusions regarding causality. Second, transgender identity was assessed by a variable asking participants to indicate whether or not they identified as transgender. Researchers have advocated for survey measures that capture more gender categories representing nonbinary gender identities and expressions, including gender nonconforming, gender fluid, nonbinary, gender queer, and others (Graham et al. 2011). We recommend that nationally representative surveys (e.g., Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) and statewide surveys (e.g., CHKS) include items that capture nonbinary identities and expressions. Third, this study drew from a racially and ethnically diverse sample of youth attending public schools throughout California. It should be noted that California schools are a unique context, given the large degree of racial and ethnic diversity. Hence, this sample may not be generalizable to contexts comprised of majority White youth. Fifth, this study was comprised of a large sample of transgender youth in public schools across California; however, we acknowledge that a nationally representative sample would have greater generalizability. Policymakers and researchers have advocated for the addition of transgender and other nonbinary gender measures to the national youth surveys such as the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS). Such research would advance our understanding of peer victimization in schools among nonbinary youth. Sixth, we recognize that discrimination-based victimization items may have overlapped with physical and nonphysical victimization items. For instance, a participant who experienced being victimized as a result of racist name calling may have responded yes to the nonphysical victimization item assessing whether or not a participant has been called names and the item assessing race-based bullying. This potential overlap may have introduced some over reporting of victimization incidents in the results. Last, the discriminatory peer bullying measures assessed victimization on school property and did not capture incidents of discrimination outside of school. We recognize that discrimination-based victimization incidents also occur outside of school. It is critical that future research explore discriminatory peer bullying inside and outside of school, and their impact on the well-being of transgender youth.
Overall, we also acknowledge the broader contribution of this study to existing empirical work on transgender youth and school victimization. The 2015–2016 CHKS is a large statewide dataset that thousands of transgender youth in public middle and high schools located in almost every county in California. In addition, the CHKS data was racially and ethnically diverse. The majority of students identified as Hispanic, while about three-fourths of the sample identified as a youth of color. A large statewide dataset comprised of racially diverse students provided the study with substantial power, which is unique in comparison to previous studies conducted on transgender youth. This enabled us to exploring intersections of transgender identity with race and their associations with physical and nonphysical victimization and discriminatory peer bullying. We encourage researchers to utilize existing large datasets with transgender identifiers to utilize an intersectional perspective when exploring school victimization and health disparities. Such research would aide scholars and practitioners to understand the diversity of experiences among transgender students.
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