Suicidal gender divide: an Internet survey suggests that lesbians and bisexual women engage in riskier behaviors than their male counterparts—but is it bad science? – Society

Noelle Howey

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. The research is delivering what I call `the suffering suicide script,’ which essentially tells them, `Hey, look how horrible it is to be gay.'”

Savin-Williams also criticizes the methodology of the studies, pointing out that the students in the studies are generally willing to self-identify as gay and may be drawn from support groups, where the percentage of troubled youths may be higher than in the population at large. And the professor finds suicide-attempt rates to be the most skewed statistics of all. In his own study published in December 2001, he found that more than half of all reported attempts simply involved “thinking about it,” rather than engaging in anything remotely life-threatening.

In the case of Lindley’s study, which has not yet been published or peer-reviewed, there may be additional reason to be skeptical. Take the 10% suicide-attempt rate for lesbians and bi women, which has already rated headlines in gay newspapers across the nation. A federal public health researcher who examined the study for The Advocate (and who prefers not to be identified) is dubious about putting any stock in the results of Lindley’s survey. Not only is it an an anonymous online survey–“the reliability of which is not known, since people can take it again and again”–but, she points out, only half of the females who participated actually answered the question about suicide attempts. This means that there was not a 10% suicide-attempt rate among all lesbians and bi women who took the survey but merely among those who answered that question. “It’s totally inappropriate to draw any conclusions about the [gay and lesbian] population from this,” she asserts. “There’s just no basis.”

Lindley acknowledges that her study–which was conducted largely through 135 gay and lesbian college organizations–is not “representative of all LGBT college students,” and that only about half of the respondents answered the entire survey. When asked how the results for lesbians and bisexual women compared to those for heterosexual females. Lindley admitted that her only comparative statistics were drawn from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study that was done about eight years ago and thus was based on a totally different generation of college students.

Regardless of the validity of Lindley’s study, some critics are calling for less study of the alleged dysfunction of gay youths and more work on how successful gay and lesbian students thrive in a homophobic world. Says John D’Emilio, director of gender and women’s studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago: “The motivation behind these studies is to prove that gay men and lesbians are oppressed, OK? That’s not very interesting anymore. Wouldn’t it be interesting to study LGBT youth who are doing well to see what allows them to do well? From two angles–one, does this identity provide for living in a complex world? And two, what can we do to foster the strength that successful adolescents have?”

Lindley concurs with the critics who say there’s been too much about the negative aspects of being young and gay, and she plans to release further information from her study, focusing on the resilience and intellect of most gay youths. “Their GPAs, for example, are really high,” she says hopefully. One can hope that such an empowering image can become as ingrained in the media’s depiction of gay young people as the specter of the tragically silent sufferer has been.

Howey’s book Dress Codes: Of Three Girlhoods–My Mother’s, My Father’s, and Mine was published last spring.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Liberation Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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