It’s not easy growing up gay in America, despite the nation’s increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage and other issues of gay equality.
Gay and lesbian teenagers across the United States are less likely to be happy, more likely to report harassment and more inclined to experiment with drugs and alcohol than the nation’s straight teens, according to a new nationwide survey of more than 10,000 gay and lesbian young people.
The survey, which will be released Thursday by the Human Rights Campaign, aWashington, D.C.-based civil rights group, is described as one of the largest ever to focus on the nation’s gay youth. It was conducted online and involved 10,030 participants aged 13 to 17 who identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. It also included interviews with about 500 13- to 17-year-olds who composed the poll’s “straight” population.
The study paints an often stark picture of the challenges of growing up gay in this country, even as same-sex marriage gains support among many Americans and other legal and cultural barriers to gay equality begin to fall.
The survey showed, for example, that half of all gay and lesbian teens reported being verbally harassed or called names at school, compared with a quarter of non-LGBT kids. About twice as many gay and lesbian respondents as straight teens also said they had been shoved, kicked or otherwise assaulted at their schools, with 17% of LGBT teens and 10% of straight youths reporting such assaults.
Fewer than half of gay teenagers said they believe their community is accepting of people like them, and 63% said they would need to move to another town or part of the country to find acceptance. Just 4 in 10 gay teens reported being happy, compared with nearly 7 in 10 of their straight peers.
And more than twice as many gay (52%) as non-gay (22%) respondents said they had experimented with drugs or alcohol.
Child welfare advocates who reviewed the study before publication praised it for shedding light on a population that is difficult to reach and in need of help from government agencies and others.
Linda Spears, vice president of policy for the Child Welfare League of America, said the study bears out “our worst fears about LBGT kids. These kids are often so vulnerable in the way their lives are being led because of the lack of support they have. They need what all young people need, parents and others who are there for them and nurture their development.”
Chad Griffin, the new president of the Human Rights Campaign and an advocate for same-sex marriage, said the survey “is yet another reminder that we still have a lot to do in this country so that young people can grow up healthy.”
Griffin, who helped organize the legal fight against Proposition 8, California’s ban on gay marriage, said he hopes the report will inform policymakers and serve as a reminder to parents, schools and elected officials about the challenges facing a vulnerable population.
“These are young people,” he said. “They worry about which hall they can walk down at school, which table they have to avoid in the lunchroom, what happens at church on Sunday and whether they need to hide their identity from their family.”
But the survey also showed that many gay teens find safe havens among their peers, on the Internet and in their schools. Nearly 3 in 4 gay teenagers said they were more honest about themselves online than elsewhere and 67% said their schools were “generally accepting” of gay people.
In interviews this week at L.A.’s Gay and Lesbian Center, several young people spoke about the survey’s findings and their own experiences coming to terms with their LGBT identity.
Jonathan McClain, a 22-year-old from Altadena, said he identified strongly with part of the study showing that many young gays and lesbians feel forced to change their identities almost hour by hour, depending on where they are and who’s around. Many LGBT kids are more likely to be “out” at school than they are with their families.
“Sometimes you’re out of the closet, sometimes you have to put yourself back in and watch what you say and how you act,” said McClain, who volunteers at the center.
McClain, who came out after he graduated from high school, said he had never directly experienced harassment.
That was not the case with others interviewed, including Edwin Chuc, from Los Angeles, who said he had been beaten up in middle school and ended up with broken ribs. Chuc said he had lived on the streets for several years and abused drugs and alcohol before turning his life around.
Now a confident 19-year-old who will attend USC in the fall, Chuc said his parents are much more supportive now than they were when he first came out. “I’m happy and I have people I can turn to,” he said.
Logan Woods, 18, of Manhattan Beach, said middle school was tough for him too, but high school, at the private Vistamar School in El Segundo, has been much better, with good friends and a strong gay support group among the students.
“It’s getting easier for me to live spontaneously and not feel like I have to plan everything out for fear of being hurt,” he said.
The survey was conducted online from April 16 through May 20. It was advertised through social media, as well as through LGBT youth centers across the country. The researchers said the survey method is not unusual for targeting hard-to-reach populations but may not represent a truly random sample.