More than 10 percent of Cook County suburban youth have been bullied for being perceived as lesbian, gay or bisexual, according to new survey findings.
The information is the first of its kind on young people in suburban Cook County.
According to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), administered nationally but issued for the first time for suburban Cook County alone, nearly 12 percent of young males have been teased for being perceived as gay or bisexual. Just over eight percent of females surveyed reported being teased for the same reason (the study did not include transgender youth in its questions).
Those numbers exceed percentages of young people reportedly identifying as LGB. In total, less than eight percent of young people identified as LGB or questioning in the survey.
"Bullying is a big issue in our schools," said Amy Poore, a spokesperson for the Cook County Department of Public Health (CCDPH), which administered the survey.
According to the survey, just over three percent of males had same-sex sexual contact, while 8 percent of females had had a same-sex sexual encounter. Females were also far more likely to identify as LGB or questioning. Nearly 10 percent of females identified as LGB or questioning, compared to slightly more than 4 percent of males.
Poore said the findings would be used by the department's Bullying Prevention Program as well as independent organizations.
The YRBS survey, run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), polls young people grades 9-12 about their experiences with everything from exercise and sex to drugs and road safety. In the past, local municipalities have had the option of including two questions about sexual orientation. Illinois YRBS surveys include those questions currently.
The Illinois State Board of Education issues the survey every two years statewide, while Chicago Public Schools administers a survey of its own.
The CCDPH survey, made possible by a grant from the Department of Health and Human Services, offers new suburb-specific information on LGB youth.
That information will be helpful to LGBT youth activists, said Shannon Sullivan, Executive Director of the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance which advocates for LGBTQ youth in schools.
"We're going to be able to say to parents, to educators that this data is more local to their experience," she said. "The more local, the more likely it is to move people to action."
The survey also asks a new question unheard of by many youth advocates.
"During the past 12 months, have you ever been the victim of teasing or name calling because someone thought you were gay, lesbian, or bisexual?" the survey asks.
In the past, YRBS has only questioned young people about how they identify and the genders of people they have been sexually active with. The new question on bullying could give fresh context to other behaviors, experts say.
At face value, the three statistics provide scant details. But such questions are extremely useful, say LGBT youth advocates, when compared with other risk behaviors.
Past studies have found that young people who identify as LGB on YRBS tend to report higher percentages of other "risk" behaviors like drug and alcohol use. The correlation signals that queer youth might engage in such activities as coping mechanisms.
The study also tracks depression rates, cyber bullying and thoughts of suicide, all of which can be matched up against data on LGB students.
"There is a perception maybe among adults that things are getting better," said Sullivan. "These numbers just paint a totally different picture."
CCDPH is currently in the process of evaluating the LGB-specific questions against the other risk behaviors. That information is expected to be made available in the coming months. Once that study is complete, the numbers will likely be compared with state and City of Chicago findings.
Still, none of that data will include information on transgender issues. All questions on local YRBS surveys must first be approved by the CDC, which has never offered an optional transgender question.
In recent years, national LGBT organizations have lobbied the CDC to add transgender to the survey.
Alison Gill, public policy manager at the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, is hopeful that the CDC will include transgender youth in the next round of surveys.
"This is especially important because it's governmental data," she said. "They're a particularly vulnerable population."
Such a change could impact future surveys in Illinois, where there is a dearth of state data on transgender people of all ages, youth especially.
YRBS data can be particularly useful for LGBT advocates as the survey is put out by the CDC, not LGBT groups. That distinction makes it hard to dispute, said Sullivan.
"It's a large, random, representative sample," she said.