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Queer Teens at Higher Risk of Suicide, Risky Behavior

A new study published in the May 5 issue of Pediatrics has documented that queer teens are far more likely than their straight peers to be victimized, threatened, and to engage in health-endangering behaviors, including suicide attempts, drug use, and unprotected sex.

The study was conducted in Massachusetts high schools in 1995 as part of a national survey. The Youth Risk Behavior Survey is conducted every two years by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and administered on a voluntary and anonymous basis to high school students in all 50 states. Students participate in the survey on a voluntary and anonymous basis.

The national survey does not include questions about sexual orientation. However, in 1995, Massachusetts added a question asking, "Which of the following best describes you?" Of the over four thousand students surveyed that year, 2.5 percent self-identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual (0.6 percent identified as gay and 1.9 percent as bisexual). An additional 1.5 percent responded "not sure," 3.7 percent checked "none of the above," and 9.3 percent did not answer the question.

Queer teens engaged in risky behaviors at a younger age; 59 percent reported using alcohol before age 13, 48 percent smoked cigarettes, 37 percent had tried marijuana, 17 percent had tried cocaine, and 27 percent engaged in sexual intercourse. All these figures were higher than among straight teens.

Despite Massachusetts' civil rights law barring anti-gay discrimination, and programs aimed at developing gay/straight student alliances and sensitizing students, teachers, and administrators to gay issues, the school conditions reported in the survey were striking.

Commenting on the results, the authors note that "gay, lesbian and bisexual (GLB) adolescents face tremendous challenges growing up physically and mentally healthy in a culture that is often unaccepting."

These youth, the authors note, face rejection, isolation, verbal harassment and physical violence both at school and at home. "[T]hese stresses," they say, "place GLB adolescents at risk of engaging in individual risk behaviors, clusters of risk behaviors, and initiating behaviors at an earlier age than their peers."

Nevertheless, the authors emphasize that most queer youth "cope with a variety" of stresses and become healthy and productive adults.

Similar findings about queer youth have been reported for years. But most of these surveys relied on volunteers or on youth who came into social service agencies for help, factors that critics said may have skewed results. Joyce Hunter, a researcher at the HIV Center for Clinical and Behavior Studies at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, said the Massachusetts findings are important because they come from a random sample that reinforces findings from other non-random surveys that she and others have conducted.

The researchers in the Massachusetts study cautioned that while it may be possible to generalize from their results to other public high school adolescents, the runaway and homeless youth who don't attend school could send the risk behavior figures even higher. At the same time, youth who may not self-identify as non-straight until adulthood may not have the same high-risk profile as the Massachusetts study group and could lower the figures, researchers said.

Rea Carey, executive director of the National Youth Advocacy Coalition, a coalition of social service agencies that work with gay youth, called the Massachusetts study important because it's "much harder to dispute government studies which have gone through rigorous review processes."

Despite methodological differences from previous surveys, Carey said, the results on suicide attempts are similar, "which, to me, says that, regardless of who does the study, gay youth are at an incredible risk for taking their own lives."

The statistics on risky behaviors engaged in by gay youth in Massachusetts, Carey said, "despite the 'most highly developed support system for gay youth in the country,' makes me ask, 'What in the world is happening in Oklahoma, what is happening in Texas, what is happening in other states?'"

compiled by ATM staff

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