Teenage years are often uncomfortable years for many of us to recall – reminiscent of moody music, issues with self-esteem, braces, and heart-breaking crushes. Sexual minority youth, the one way of describing young people who are navigating sexual identity questions or concerns (also LGBT youth), are subject to experience many dangers and complications during their adolescence in addition to the already noted difficulties with self-esteem, identity, and relationships the general teenage population face. Sexual minority youth weather challenges of self-disclosure, concern over parental reactions to disclosure, navigating the social impact of defining the self, and either compartmentalizing or integrating religious and sexual identities.
General milestones in development for sexual minority youth include awareness of same-sex attraction around age 12, self-labeling follows approximately five years after initial awareness (but can vary from just a few months to many more years), and first disclosure in the mid-late teens (Fish, 2014). The process of claiming a gay identity is just that – a process, which often takes females three to four years and males five to six years. Contrary to typical frameworks for sexual identity development, sexual questioning does not always end with identifying as bisexual, gay, or lesbian nor does taking on a label ensure acceptance of self and integration of same-sex attractions (Diamond, 2006).
In addition to the difficulty of walking through these developmental stages, research shows high percentages of victimization and bullying committed against sexual minority youth, with elevated rates of suicidality and increased likelihood of substance use and abuse. When considering victimization of sexual minority youth, it is reported that 81% experience verbal abuse, 38% receive threats of physical attacks, 22% have objects thrown at them, 16% are been sexually assaulted, 15% physical assaulted, and 6% have been assaulted with a weapon (Higdon, 2011). In most cases, other youth are perpetrating these acts, as is true with bullying.
Such victimization does not happen without leaving a mark – three out of five sexual minority youth report feeling unsafe due to their sexual orientation (GLSEN, 2009) and sexual minority youth are 190% more likely to use substances compared with heterosexual youth (Marshal et al., 2008). Self-identifying sexual minority teens are more likely to start substance use at younger ages than are heterosexual youth and also report higher lifetime rates of cocaine use and higher frequencies of tobacco use.
For those ages 15 to 24 years old, suicide is the third leading cause of death (CDC, 2010). When considering sexual minority teens, chances of attempted suicide increase up to four times of that in the general population. It’s up to eight times for those from a family with high levels of rejection. A perhaps more surprising statistic shows rates of teen pregnancy with sexual minority youth remain elevated although rates in the general population are declining.
As can be seen, sexual minority youth face unique difficulties and challenges during this developmental stage. Though much growth takes place within the individual, sexual minority youth do not have to endure the teenage years without support. How can you and I work against bullying and victimization? What is our role in decreasing drug use and suicidality? Maybe let’s start with kindness. We all walk through the awkward and hard years of teen-dom; let’s make sure nobody has to do it alone.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Webbased Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS) [online]. (2010). [cited 2012 Oct 19] Available from www.cdc.gov/injury/wisqars/index.html.
Diamond, L. (2006). What we got wrong about sexual identity development: Unexpected findings from a longitudinal study of young women. In A. Omoto & H. Kurtzman (Eds.),Sexual orientation and mental health: Examining identity and development in lesbian, gay, and bisexual people (pp. 73-94). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Diaz, E. M. and Kosciw, J. G. (2009). Shared Differences: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Students of Color in Our Nation’s Schools. New York: GLSEN.
Fish, J. N. (2014). Sexual minority mental health: A multidimensional and longitudinal approach (doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from Electronic Theses, Treatises and Dissertations (Paper 8985).
Higdon, M. (2011). To lynch a child: Bullying and gender nonconformity in our nation’s schools. Indiana Law Journal, 86(3), 826-378. Retrieved from http://www.repository.law.indiana.edu/ilj/vol86/iss3/3
Marshal, M. P., Friedman, M. S., Stall, R., King, K. M., Miles, J., Gold, M. A., Bukstein, O. G. and Morse, J. Q. (2008), Sexual orientation and adolescent substance use: a meta-analysis and methodological review. Addiction, 103: 546–556. doi: 10.1111/j.1360-0443.2008.02149.x