High pregnancy rate for Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Teens
by Yasmin Nair, Windy City Times writer
The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality recently published an article Stigma management? That article explores links between enacted stigma and teen pregnancy trends among gay, lesbian, and bisexual students in British Columbia." It presents data showing that LGB youth show higher rates (two to seven times greater) of pregnancy involvement than their heterosexual peers.
Elizabeth M. Saewyc, associate professor of nursing at the University of British Columbia, is the lead author of the study. A Dec. 17 piece in The Vancouver Sun, "Lesbian Youth at High Risk for Pregnancy: Study at UBC," summarized her findings and quoted Saewyc: "For some gay, lesbian and bisexual teens, [pregnancy is] camouflage because [their sexual orientation] is still pretty stigmatized and they still face a lot of harassment at school."
The Sun article has been making the rounds of LGBTQ listservs and blogs. However, the original study shows more complicated findings and reasons for the rates of pregnancy.
The Journal article summed up three pen-and-paper anonymous adolescent health surveys-carried out in 1992, 1998 and 2003-among 30,000 high school students from grades 7-12 in Vancouver, British Columbia. These were not exclusively focused on sexuality.
The key term "pregnancy involvement" (as opposed to "pregnancy") allows the researchers to take gay and bisexual teens into account. The survey did not ask the teens the reasons why they became involved in pregnancy. Saewyc told Windy City Times that "íWhyí is an open-ended question and they may have different answers to that, so itís hard to make sure youíve captured all the possible reasons."
The supposition that teens are using pregnancy as a way to camouflage their sexual orientation is one of several hypotheses based on past and ongoing research into LGBTQ adolescent issues. However, it is clear, based on the emphasis given to it in the journal article and Saewycís comments, that she is inclined to favour it as a preponderant reason. She emphasized the correlation between discrimination and pregnancy involvement: "We do see that teens who have been pregnant or caused a pregnancy are far more likely to also report being discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation."
Frank Walker, the founder and director of Chicagoís Youth Pride Center (YPC), an organization that serves LGBTA youth of color-and someone who said he became a father himself to fulfill a conventional male role-responded, "Iím shocked that people are only just beginning to realize this." He sees a lot of young men in the same situation. Asked if the study might affect YPCís work, he pointed out, "Weíre dealing with the first issue [to make our community aware of young Black queer youth]; this isnít likely to be the priority right now."
What other factors influence these rates of pregnancy? They include risky sexual behaviour; substance abuse; and a lack of sexual education or resources. LGBTQ youth tend to be disproportionately among the homeless. As Saewyc put it, "Once they come out, theyíre ejected. And in situations of survival sex, condom negotiation can be difficult."
Lara Brooks, drop-in coordinator of Chicagoís Broadway Youth Center, works with street-based queer youth, and she sees many who are either pregnant or with children. According to Brooks, they tend to be invisible to both LGBT-based organizations and straight reproductive-service centers since they do not fit the conventional paradigms of families. Their invisibility is compounded by any involvement with the Department of Children and Family Services, either as wards or as people who give up offspring for adoption or foster care.
Responding to the article and the issues raised, Brooks was wary of too much emphasis on sexual identity: "Iím really tired of the emphasis on the closet; these queer youthsí lives are impacted by multiple factors like race and economics, which, in turn, impact their risky behavior and/or access to safe sex or even health care. [Teen pregnancy] is also about family support systems [or lack thereof] and poverty, even survival. There needs to be a more complicated analysis around all the factors."
Teenagersí access to safer-sex education is difficult. Saewyc told Windy City Times that "[i]n the U.S., abstinence-only mandated funding has meant that a lot of accurate information about sexual health has been off the table. Even in Canada, thereís a limited amount of time allocated to the important things like how to make decisions around sexual behaviour. Itís important to make accurate and supportive sexual education accessible for LGB youth."
Mandated abstinence-only funding is a concern for Lynne Johnson, director of advocacy at Chicago Foundation for Women, who sees a direct connection between that and the issue of LGB teen-pregnancy involvement. According to her, the Bush administration pours millions of dollars into abstinence-only funding and "all the abstinence programs have to promote a "mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage" as the expected standard of human sexuality, erasing LGBT [and straight] youth right off the top. [LGBT sexuality] is not even recognized in the standard of acceptable human activity. Then the programs make claims that condoms are not as effective." So Johnson isnít surprised at the rates of lesbian pregnancies.
Catherine Jefcoat, director of Lesbian Community Care Project, is both intrigued by and cautious of how this new studyís findings are used and discussed. She expressed concern about the possibility of creating a hierarchy of stigmatizations: "Is it easier to be a teenage mom than a lesbian?" Jefcoat was interested in the socioeconomic milieu in which teen pregnancy might occur, and factors like substance abuse and racialized poverty. She recognizes that pregnant lesbians and parenting queer youth are a relatively invisible population in a landscape where gay male youth, assumed to be non-parents, are seen as the default population. And Saewyc certainly wants to see the research used in its proper context: "These are co-relationships-these are links that donít equal cause."
Jefcoat is happy to see attention paid to the issues facing lesbians and their bodies. She says, "We need to know more about the truth of young queer lesbiansí lives; this adds to the work." She sees a need for more resources given that "Itís incredibly hard to build programs that address young queer female lives when funders [and many segments of the public] are only interested in our ability to make babies and not our sexuality, and that includes straight sexuality."
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