By Howey, Noelle
The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
The dangers faced by America's gay and lesbian youth--such as unsafe sex practices, rampant drug use, and suicidal tendencies--have been copiously documented in countless studies since 1989, when the Department of Health and Human Services first reported that gay young people were two to three times more likely than straight ones to try to kill themselves.
Some of the numbers cited in this research--particularly the disturbing statistic that gays and lesbians represent 30% of all youth suicides--have been reprinted in so many hundreds of articles and fact sheets that they have achieved the level of conventional wisdom. And while the far right has appropriated such stats to "prove" that being gay is inherently pathological, gay rights advocates have used them to show the need for more education and social services specifically targeted at gay and lesbian youths.
Now another study is tackling the issue, with even more surprising results--positing not only that gay youths are more likely to engage in drug use and unsafe sex and to attempt suicide but that, contrary to cultural assumptions, lesbians and bisexual females are at much higher risk than gay and bisexual males.
At the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association held in Philadelphia late last year, Western Kentucky University professor Lisa Lindley presented her findings that, of 927 lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered college students surveyed nationwide in the 2001-2002 school year, a stunning 10% of the females reported attempting suicide within the previous 12 months, compared to 4% of the males. Furthermore, she found that virtually across the board, lesbians and bisexual women were engaging in riskier behaviors than gay and bisexual men. The women, she said, were more likely to be regular smokers, to have sex without barrier protection, and to use illicit drugs such as marijuana or mushrooms. In fact, 25% of lesbians and bisexual women reported using LSD in their lifetimes, versus 13% of gay and bisexual men.
Lindley speculates that the gender divide may be due to "women coming out later--they're struggling with it out on their own," whereas men are often pushed out of the closet at a younger age and therefore find support much earlier.
"The main thing is that the risk [for LGBT youth] is higher than for the general population," she explains, "but as far as the females go, I was definitely surprised about the drug use and suicide ideation." Lindley says her research shows that education about gay issues needs to start at an earlier age and services that do focus on at-risk youth need to examine the different needs of males and females.
David Smith, communications director for the Washington, D.C.-based gay advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, applauds studies such as Lindley's. "It's our view that there has not been enough research done on LGBT-related health issues," says Smith, who had not seen Lindley's specific research. "Some of these studies' findings might be negative, but assuming [they] are being conducted from a scientific perspective, they provide the community with the evidence to go after funding for social service programs."
Just how scientific the perspective is, however, is in question. Cornell University professor Ritch Savin-Williams, whose research has found no significant difference between the suicide-attempt rate of gay youths and that of straight ones, has not seen Lindley's specific study but has called similar findings "horribly flawed." He told The New York Times that "most of this research was done essentially to gain resources and services for these youth by demonstrating to the outside world how poorly they have been treated. …