According to research findings in a study released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) youth are more likely than their heterosexual peers to engage in risky behaviors such as substance abuse (e.g., tobacco, alcohol, and drugs), sexual risk behaviors that lead to pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, and suicidal thoughts and behavior.
Furthermore, the study found that compared to their heterosexual peers, LGB students are disproportionately at risk for victimization by others, such as being threatened or injured with a weapon on school property, findings that corroborate GLSEN’s own research on the general secondary school population in the report From Teasing to Torment: School Climate in America. The release of this report marks the momentous first instance of a federal research report examining the experiences of LGB youth.
The study examined data from the 2001-2009 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), a large-scale federal survey of adolescent risk behaviors. The YRBS is managed by the CDC and has been conducted biennially at the state and local levels for over two decades. It serves to examine risk behaviors that undermine the well-being of youth in the U.S. States and localities decide what questions to ask in a YRBS. The CDC study analyzed YRBS data from public school students in grades 9-12 in 13 of the states or localities that asked questions related to sexual identity, i.e., either a question specifically about sexual orientation or a question relating information about same-sex sexual behavior. Above and beyond the risk factors mentioned above, the study also examined a wide range of other health risks in numerous categories, including behaviors that can result in unintended injuries (e.g., not wearing a seat belt), physical activity behavior (e.g., participation in a sports team), and weight control behaviors (e.g., taking diet pills). Research findings from the study show that LGB youth had higher rates of health risk behaviors in a majority of the examined categories.
When taking into account the risk disparities between LGB and non-LGB youth, it is vital to consider the contextual factors that may explain such disparities. Although the CDC report does not examine the possible causes of these disparities, results from GLSEN’s 2009 National School Climate Survey (NSCS), show that the high prevalence of victimization experienced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students is related to students missing school and experiencing increased levels of depression and anxiety.
The CDC report highlights the importance of the school context for improving risk factors for LGB students:
The policies and practices designed to reduce the prevalence of health-risk behaviors are more likely to have an impact if they consider the context in which risk behaviors occur. For sexual minority students, this means addressing the challenges they face at school.
To support this claim, the authors cite GLSEN’s 2009 NSCS report.
The report only further underscores the urgent need for LGBT-inclusive in-school resources and supports and recommends:
Effective state and local public health and school health policies and practices should be developed to help reduce the prevalence of health-risk behaviors and improve health outcomes among sexual minority youths.
The report specifically suggests that GSAs, professional development for school staff and state and local policies addressing sexual minority youth are important interventions for improving the school experiences of this population, thereby providing support for GLSEN’s longtime claims that these interventions, along with implementing a curriculum that includes positive representations of LGBT people, history and events, are key for creating supportive, safe, and affirming school environments where all students can succeed.
Beyond highlighting the dire need to address health disparities among LGB youth and outlining specific interventions, this report also recommends that more research on these issues is needed. Specifically:
…[M]ore state and local surveys designed to monitor health-risk behaviors and selected health outcomes among population-based samples of students in grades 9–12 should include questions on sexual identity and sex of sexual contacts.
Of particular importance, the study does not include information about the experiences of transgender and gender non-conforming students. GLSEN’s NSCS remains one of the few studies to examine the school experiences of LGB students nationally, and is the only national study to examine transgender student experiences. GLSEN Research maintains that all large-scale population-based studies, such as the YRBS, should include questions about youth’s sexual orientation and gender identity. We applaud the CDC for their attention to the health disparities of the LGB population and recommend that sexual orientation and gender identity (inclusive of transgender identities) be included on all future surveys.