Research: Anti-Gay Harassment in Childhood Leads To Poor Adult Health

Jim Burroway

January 28th, 2009

Mark S. Friedman, Michael P. Marshall, Ron Stall, JeeWon Cheong, Eric R Wright. “Gay-related development, early abuse and adult health outcomes among gay males.” AIDS and Behavior 12, no. 6 (November 2008): 891-902. Abstract available at DOI 10.1007/s10461-007-9319-3.

The Urban Men’s Health Survey (UMHS) has revealed a lot of useful information in the decade since it was conducted. Much of it “dismaying,” in the words of Ron Stall, who worked on the survey at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and is now at the University of Pittsburgh. Stall was one of four researchers from the University of Pittsburgh (joined by a fifth researcher from Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis) who analyzed a subset of that data and concluded that “experience of homophobic attacks against young gay/bisexual male youth helps to explain heightened rates of serious health problems among adult gay men.”

The UMHS was a telephone interview of a probability sample of men who have sex with men (MSMs) living in four cities: San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. The survey was conducted between November 1996 and February 1998, with 2,881 UMHS participants being asked a wide-ranging battery of questions resulting in 855 variables. The results of that survey were fed into a database, which scores of researchers have been mining ever since for dozens of studies covering many different topics. Dr, Mark Friedman, who has previously investigated the link between anti-gay hostility and suicide among young gay males, led a team which poured over responses to key questions in that database to see if a link could be established between anti-gay hostility against young gay men and adverse health outcomes as adults.

Among the many questions in that survey, participants were asked about their experiences, if any, with parental physical abuse, gay-related harassment during childhood and adolescence, and forced sex. They were also asked about four gay-related identity milestones: the age at which they became aware of their same-sex attractions, age of first same-sex sexual activity, age of deciding that they were gay, and age of first disclosure that they were gay.

Participants were also asked about current depression, HIV serostatus, sexual risk behavior during childhood, partner abuse during adulthood, anti-gay victimization during adulthood, and suicide attempts during childhood.

Dr. Mark Friedman and associates used the responses from these questions from 1,383 men aged 18 through 40, and divided them into three categories (early bloomers, middle bloomers and late bloomers) according to how participants answered questions based on the four gay-related identity milestones. Then, by looking at the answers to the other questions, they were able to demonstrate three principle findings:

1) Gay males who developed early with respect to their sexual orientation were much more likely to experience anti-gay harassment and sexual abuse during adolescence than middle bloomers and late bloomers. This might be something of a “duh” conclusion since it stands to reason that those who are more visibly gay draw more attention than those who aren’t, and those who are visibly gay earlier have more time in which to experience anti-gay harassment and sexual abuse. Nevertheless, it’s important to establish this finding statistically, because it leads to the next finding.

2) Those early bloomers were also more likely to anti-gay victimization, depression, and become HIV-positive as an adult. Taken alone, this finding might play into the hands of anti-gay activists who contend that gay youth should remain closeted and continue to deny their true experiences for as long as possible. Well, not so fast, because…

3) While early bloomers were more likely to experience adverse health outcomes as adults, it wasn’t just because they were early bloomers. Friedman and associates found that harassment and violence were very common experiences among all young gay and bisexual males. Regardless of “bloomage,” 74% reported experiencing anti-gay harassment and 24% experienced parental physical abuse before the age of 17. And these experiences were capable of statistically predicting specific negative health outcomes as adults:

  • Early gay-related harassment was found to be positively associated with gay-related victimization in adulthood;
  • early parental abuse was found to be positively associated with partner abuse, gay-related victimization, depression, attempted suicide and becoming HIV-positive;
  • and early forced sex was positively associated with adult partner abuse, depression, engagement in high-risk sex, and becoming HIV-positive.

The men in this survey became adults, on average, in the mid 1980’s. We don’t know whether adolescents today experience statistically the same levels of abuse and harassment as adolescents did then. But the authors conclude that regardless of the extent of anti-gay harassment today, that:

“…a compelling case can still be made that the three sets of findings above, as a whole, support the hypothesis that the experience of homophobic attacks against gay youth contribute to health disparities among gay men. … [T]his suggests that their experience of abuse is related to homophobia and that these experiences in part determine the adult health problems that gay men often experience.

“To summarize, some of the health disparities of gay and bisexual men may have their genesis in these individuals’ childhood and adolescent years given that these disparities are already in place by early adulthood. The findings described above support the hypotheses that the disparities appear to be due, in part, to the timing of [gay-related development] and the violence these individuals experience related to being gay during their formative years.”

This week is National No Name Calling Week, sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). According to GLSEN’s non-representative survey of 6,209 middle and high school students, 86% of LGBT students experienced harassment at school in the past year, 61% felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, and 33% skipped a day of school in the past month because of they felt unsafe. This survey isn’t statistically representative nationwide, but that’s beside the point. They found an awful lot of harassed and frightened kids out there.

Of course, Focus On the Family is against No Name Calling Week, complaining that it has a hidden agenda. And they’re right; it does. The “hidden agenda” consists of safer youth and healthier adults, which Focus continues to oppose at all costs. After all, they’ve invested a lot of energy in maintaining the image of gay men as depressed, suicidal and unhealthy. Now we know that their own policy solutions will only serve to perpetuate that image.

NancyP

February 2nd, 2009

No Name Calling also applies to various other groups, for example poor girls or early-developing girls (calling them sluts), not to mention the usual racial and ethnic epithets.

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