SIECUS Logo

Support SIECUS!

Make sexuality education available to all.

Stay informed!

Sign up for SIECUS newsletters, updates, action alerts, and more!

Quick Links

Questions and Answers: LGBTQ Youth Issues

 

What is sexual orientation?

Sexual Orientation is the overall term that is used to describe people’s physical and/or romantic attractions to other people.  The most common labels are heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual.

  • Heterosexual (or straight) refers to a person who is attracted to and falls in love with someone of another gender.
  • Homosexual (or gay man or lesbian woman) refers to a person who is attracted to and falls in love with someone of the same gender.
  • Bisexual refers to a person who is attracted to and falls in love with someone of another or the same gender.   

What is gender identity?

Gender Identity refers to the internal sense that people have that they are female, male, or some variation of these.  For many people biological sex (which is based chromosomes and sexual anatomy) and gender identity are the same.  For others, however, they may be different.  The term transgender refers to individuals whose internal feelings of being male or female differ from the sexual anatomy they were born with. Transgender people may be heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual.   

How many people identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender?

Estimates of how many people identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual vary widely and there is not very much research done on the subject.  The CDC periodically conducts the National Survey of Family Growth (NFSG) (link to NSFG http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/about/major/nsfg/abclist.htm) which asks questions about reproductive and sexual health to men and women ages 15–44.  The NSFG asked respondents a number of questions about their sexual orientation and attractions.  Males and females ages 18–44 were asked ‘‘Do you think of yourself as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or something else?”

  • 90.2% of males ages 18–44 identified as heterosexual, 2.3% identified as homosexual, 1.8% identified as bisexual, and 3.9% identified as “something else.”  
  • 90.3% of female ages 18–44 identified as heterosexual, 1.3% identified as homosexual, 2.8 % identified as bisexual, and 4 % identified as “something else.”

There are some differences, however, when participants are asked who they are attracted to:

  • 92.2% of males ages 18–44 reported being attracted only to females, 3.9% reported being attracted mostly to females, 1.7% reported being attracted mostly to males, 1.5% reported being attracted only to males, 1.0% reported being attracted to both males and females, and 0.7% weren’t sure of who they were attracted to.   
  • 85.8% of female ages 18–44 reported being attracted only to males, 10.2% reported being attracted mostly to males, 1.9% reported being attracted to both males and females, 0.8 % reported being attracted mostly to females, 0.7% reported being attracted only to females, and 0.8% weren’t sure of who they were attracted to.   

The truth is there is almost no data on how many individuals identify as transgender. Informal estimates suggest that less than 1% of the population consider themselves transgender but these are based only on those transgender individuals who have sought mental health services. 

Is there good data on same-sex sexual behavior?  

Unfortunately, there is a limited amount of scientific data on same-sex sexual behavior. Research designed to examine this subject is often controversial and conservatives in congress regularly oppose its funding.

The most recent National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), conducted by the CDC in 2002 does include some questions about same-sex sexual behavior.  Men and women, however, were asked dramatically different questions in this category. Women were asked about “any sexual experience of any kind” with another female, whereas men were asked only about anal or oral sex with another male. 

In response, 11.2% of females ages 15–44 reported having had any sexual experience of any kind with another female.  Among young women ages 15–19 the numbers were similar with 10.6% reporting same-sex sexual contact. 

The numbers for males were much lower, with only 6% of males ages 15–44 reporting ever having anal or oral sex with another male and only 4.5% of males ages 15–19 reporting having done so.  Again, it’s possible the smaller numbers may be due to the more limited scope of the question asked to males.  

Are LGBTQ youth at higher risk for contracting HIV/AIDS?

Young men who have sex with men (MSM) are at higher risk for contracting HIV/AIDS than their heterosexual counterparts.  Studies have shown that rates of risky sexual behavior among young MSM are higher than among older MSM and that many young MSM don’t believe they are at risk.  

  • In the 7 cities that participated in the CDC’s Young Men’s Survey during 1994–98, 14% of African-American MSM and 7% of Hispanic MSM ages 15–22 were infected with HIV.
  • In a recent CDC study of young MSM, 77% of those who tested HIV-positive mistakenly believed that they were not infected.
  • Of the men who tested positive, most (74%) had previously tested negative for HIV infection, and 59% believed that they were at low or very low risk.
  • Young black MSM were more likely to be unaware of their infection—approximately 9 of 10 young black MSM were unaware compared with 6 of 10 young white MSM.  

It is important to note that the CDC counts M to F transgender women as MSM, and that very little research exists on the specific health risks transgender individuals face. A number of studies in different U.S. cities have found HIV prevalence in transgender women ranging from 14–47% and even higher rates in transgender sex workers.

Are LGBTQ youth at higher risk of contracting other STDs?

There is very little data on STDs other than HIV that is reported by either sexual orientation or sexual behavior.  Some data suggests that men who have sex with men are disproportionately affected by some STDs.  For example, the CDC says that, MSM have accounted for an increasing number of estimated syphilis cases in the United States.  Specifically, in 2006 64% of primary and secondary syphilis cases were among MSM.   

Are LGBTQ youth disproportionately affected by mental health issues?

Discrimination and violence put LGBTQ youth in particularly vulnerable positions with respect to mental health and suicide.  The most commonly cited research on LGBTQ youth and suicide is a 1989 report from the Secretary’s Task Force on Youth Suicide at the United States Department of Health and Human Services which found that lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth were two to three times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers.  

Newer research shows that LGBT youth are still slightly more likely to report a suicide attempt than heterosexual youth, however, closer analysis revealed that half of the attempts by LGBT youth were suicidal ideation rather than a concrete act to end life.  The researcher believes these reported attempts are a way that LGBT youth communicate the hardships of their lives.  

More recent research published in the American Psychologist also concludes that high rates of “major depression, generalized anxiety disorder and substance use or dependence” persist in lesbian and gay youth.   

Are LGBTQ youth disproportionately affected by homelessness?

A 2006 report by the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce and the National Coalition for the Homeless estimates that between 20–40% of all homeless youth in the United States identify as LGBT.  Given that only 3–5% of Americans identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, it’s clear that homelessness disproportionately affects LGBTQ youth.   These numbers are corroborated by a 2005 study funded by the New York City Council which found that almost one-third of New York’s homeless youth identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.  

The primary cause of homelessness for all youth is family conflict, and research suggests that family conflict over a young person’s sexual orientation or gender identity can often lead to homelessness.   

Is their an increase of public acceptance of LGBTQ individuals?

There is certainly more discussion of sexual orientation in today’s popular culture and media than ever before, and surveys suggest that there is a corresponding greater acceptance of homosexuality among the public.  A Gallup poll conducted in May of each year asks Americans about their attitudes related to homosexuality.  In 2007, 57% of all Americans said they found homosexuality to be an acceptable lifestyle compared with 50% in 1998 and just 34% in 1982. 

The survey also shows that acceptance of LGBTQ individuals is even higher among younger generations; 75% of Americans ages 18–34 found homosexuality acceptable. 

Do schools teach about sexual orientation?

The content of health and sexuality education varies depending on the community and research on what topics each community teaches is quite limited.

A recent study of health education programs conducted by the CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health, however, provides some insight into what is being taught in America’s classroom. The study found that 48% of schools taught about sexual identity and sexual orientation.  In comparison 86% of all high schools that taught about abstinence as the most effective way to avoid pregnancy and STDs, 69% taught about marriage and commitment, 65% taught about condom efficacy, and 39% taught students how to correctly use a condom.

Every two years the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) surveys LGBT high school students across the country on their experiences.  The 2005 National School Climate Survey asked students some questions about sexuality education curricula and found that “nearly half (44.6%) of the students surveyed reported that their school followed an abstinence-only health curriculum, and these students were more likely to have experienced verbal harassment on the basis of sexual orientation, and were more likely to have missed school in the past year because they felt unsafe.”  These students also reported having fewer supportive faculty/school staff at their school. 

Are schools safe places for LGBTQ youth?

GLSEN’s 2005 National School Climate Survey concluded that in certain schools and certain states with supportive laws, the experiences of LGBT youth in schools are improving, but overall there has been a lack of consistent progress.   Most students still hear homophobic remarks and report feeling unsafe at some point, and many are still victims of physical harassment and assault. In particular the survey found:

  • 75.4% of LGBT high school students reported hearing remarks such as “faggot” or “dyke” frequently or often at school.
  • 89.2% of LGBT high school students reported hearing “that’s so gay” or “you’re so gay” (often used to indicate that someone or something is stupid or worthless) frequently or often at school.
  • 18.6% of LGBT high school students reported hearing homophobic remarks from their teachers or other school staff.
  • 74.2% of LGBT high school students in the survey reported feeling unsafe in school because of personal characteristics, such as their sexual orientation, gender or religion, 64.3% reported feeling unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation specifically, and 40.7% felt unsafe because of how they expressed their gender.
  • 64.1% of LGBT high school students reported that they had been verbally harassed at least some of the time in school in the past year because of their sexual orientation and 45.5% because of their gender expression.
  • 37.8% of LGBT high school students had experienced physical harassment at school on the basis of sexual orientation and 26.1% on the basis of their gender expression.
  • 17.6% of LGBT high school students had been physically assaulted because of their sexual orientation and 11.8% because of their gender expression.

The good news is, there are a growing number of resources and support for LGBTQ youth.  The first Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA)—school clubs that promote tolerance and respect for everyone regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity—formed in 1988.  GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, reports that there are now over 3,000 of the student clubs registered with their organization.  

Are LGBT people coming out at younger ages?

There is not a lot of research on when or why young people choose to publicly identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual.  Research by Cornell University professor Ritch Savin-Williams, however, suggests that the average LGBT youth now comes out at 16 compared to 21 in the 1970s.   

National Coalition to Support Sexuality Education National Coalition to Support Sexuality Education National Coalition to Support Sexuality Education National Coalition to Support Sexuality Education