~ By Lis Maurer
About a year ago, the first major study linking the impact of family rejection on lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) youth health was released. Young people who identified as LGB and who reported high levels of family rejection had higher rates of attempted suicide, depression, drug use, and unprotected sex than their LGB peers who experienced low levels of rejection. This research, by Dr. Caitlyn Ryan of the Family Acceptance Project, about the critical role of families, is explored in detail in a previous blog post (Supporting the Families of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Youth).
A year later, there is still little current research on LGB health outcomes, especially those of LGB young people who self-identify as being gay (versus those having same-sex behavior but identifying as bisexual or heterosexual). A new study, Disparities in a Random Sample of Self-Identifying Gay and Non-Gay Male University Students, explores additional health risks—many of which were not examined in Dr. Ryan’s research—in a sample of college students. Due to the fact that many behaviors that impact health outcomes begin during adolescence or during the transition period to young adulthood, the study investigates the health risk behaviors of gay male college students as compared to their heterosexual peers.
The research compared health risk behaviors of gay and non-gay college students and found that young gay men had higher odds than their heterosexual peers of reporting:
• multiple sexual partners;
• cigarette smoking;
• methamphetamine use;
• gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB) use;
• other illegal drug use within the past 30 days and during lifetime;
• and intimate partner violence.
The authors theorize that these disparities are likely the result of a confluence of several factors, including:
• coping strategies to address or minimize stress, social stigma, or isolation;
• conflicts in reconciling gay identity, societal expectations of men, and conventional stereotypes of masculinity;
• and current health promotion messages that may unintentionally miss, or mis-message, gay audiences.
The authors note the importance of this type of research, which can inform future outreach and prevention efforts to adolescents and to young adults. The authors also note that in this sample, respondents self-identified as gay or heterosexual; there is much still to learn not only about adolescents and young adults who self-identify as gay, but also about those who do not identify as gay but who engage in same-sex sexual behavior.
A few other recent studies have analyzed other issues of LGB adolescents and health outcomes, including links between sexual orientation and unintended teen pregnancy, and the complex issue of whether bisexual youth may be at higher risk for suicide. Such disparities in health behaviors and health outcomes can serve to heighten awareness about ways prevention efforts can be better tailored to address the unique needs of LGB youth.
The literature about lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth (and adult) health behaviors, disparities, and outcomes is still very much in its early stages. As this body of research grows, so can efforts to better support LGB youth so that they might reach their full potential. Such efforts can be used to support youth workers and human service providers in working more effectively with LGB youth and their families, and to explore new models and approaches to improve health outcomes and address risk-reduction for LGB adolescents.
Additional resources and information:
Dr. Ryan discusses her work on the first major study of LGBT youth and their families, in this new podcast from the University at Buffalo School of Social Work. Dr. Caitlin Ryan: Reducing Risk and Promoting Well-Being for LGBT Youth: The Critical Role of Family Support.
Out for Health’s information about health disparities, free online training, learning modules, videos, and additional resources for providers serving LGBT youth and adults. The initiative provides outreach, education and information to LGBT people, their health care providers and the community at-large about the importance of inclusive, welcoming and respectful care.
The Fenway Institute learning module Caring for LGBTQ Youth explores healthcare issues of particular concern for LGBTQ youth populations.
National Youth Advocacy Coalition’s National LGBTQI Young Adult Tobacco Needs Assessment, available for young adults 18-24 to participate in, and for organizations to make available to young adults they serve. This initiative will make programmatic and policy recommendations for the nation, as well as cross-regional comparisons and regional statistics. The results of this project will be available in June 2010.
Lis Maurer is the coordinator of the Center for LGBT Education, Outreach & Services at Ithaca College, and is on the Editorial Board of The Prevention Researcher.