The 2015 study released this month by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reviewed the self-reported frequency of adolescents engaging in activities with negative health impact. These events ranged in degrees of risk such as riding in a car without seatbelts to use of substances (drugs and alcohol). The intent of this study was to assess the rate of these behaviors when compared across sexual identities. In category after category, the reported instances of engaging in activities that contributed to a higher risk of negative health outcomes were increased for gender and sexual minorities in comparison to their straight peers (CDC, 2016).
These findings are very consistent with my earlier research, as is the question behind it….why?
I attempted to elucidate this ‘why’ in the design of my own study, as part of my dissertation process. While interviewing 10 adults about their experience of growing up as lesbian or gay, themes began to emerge. Patterns in a story of early messages received during childhood about what it meant to be ‘queer’. These messages formed the first story these kids would use to interpret themselves the world. Although each narrative varied, similar points were consistent. Feeling alone. Feeling isolated. Feeling as though a ‘terrible secret’ had just been uncovered within themselves, and no one must ever know.
Imagine you are this six year old child carrying along this terrible and heavy burden everywhere. They carry it into school, into church, into family reunions and summer picnics. It never leaves them. When predators pick-up on this sense of isolation and vulnerability, LGBTQ kids are at higher risk of exploitation. Because they also experience increased rates of parental rejection and violence than their straight peers, this child may carry the secret of their abuse as completely intertwined with their ‘terrible secret’ of being queer. And they carry this with them everywhere. Every day.
It doesn’t go away when they grow up. Queer kids grow into queer teens and eventually, if they make it, queer adults. Some will have a supportive environment in which they can come out and experience the sense of walking through the world as their complete self. Others find the resiliency to create this freedom for themselves when the space they find themselves in is not so amenable. Some are lost, either through death or the seemingly inevitable fading away into the abyss. Still more continue to carry their ‘terrible secret’ with them. Every day.
So when we talk about our queer kids and the exhaustingly higher rates of negative outcomes, that conversation must come with serious social implications. We are creating this world that our children walk through; either directly through perpetuating a heteronormative mindset, or complicitly when we fail to intervene on behalf of that child. The side comments about Caitlyn Jenner, this strange cultural obsession with who can go to the bathroom and where, the message of sin and eternal damnation for daring to have a crush on someone who rides the same school bus as you…each of these contributes in their own way of adding more weight to that child’s burden, and ultimately the risks they find themselves more willing to take as they begin to exert control over their bodies and destinies.
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