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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Symposium examines disconnect between LGBTQ youth, researchers
Despite disagreements, panelists, youth seek common ground
by David Thill
2017-07-12

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The second annual "State of LGBTQ Youth Health and Wellbeing" symposium presented plenty of research on LGBTQ youth. The question now seems to be how—and whether—that research can serve LGBTQ youth.

The June 29 symposium—subtitled "Strengthening Schools and Families to Build Resilience," and with the Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing ( ISGMH ) at Northwestern University sponsoring the event—focused primarily on the roles of families and educators in caring for LGBTQ youth in the United States. LGBTQ youth who attended the conference, however, said that they would have liked to see researchers pay more attention to the youth themselves.

An estimated 1.3 million U.S. high school students identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, said David Purcell, JD, deputy director for behavioral and social science at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, delivering the keynote address.

Purcell presented data from CDC's 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Survey showing that LGB students reported higher rates of suicide ideation, sexual and physical dating violence, and bullying at school or online than their non-LGB-identifying peers, among other findings. He added that other research indicates similar discrepancies exist between transgender youth and non-transgender youth.

Reasons for the discrepancies between LGB youth and non-LGB youth may include social isolation and stigma, lack of caregiver or parental support, lack of safety and support at school, and rigid norms about masculinity and femininity, Purcell said.

He described several programs throughout the country aimed at promoting LGBTQ safety and support in schools. These programs include Florida-based Broward County Public Schools' "Critical Support Guide" aimed at training school staff to competently address their LGBTQ students' needs; LGBTQ-inclusive school curricula in San Francisco public schools; and the "National OUT For Safe Schools Campaign," which allows school staff to wear badges identifying themselves as LGBTQ allies for students. This campaign, which began in 2013 as a partnership between the Los Angeles LGBT Center and Los Angeles Unified School District, has since expanded to nine other school districts across the country, including Chicago Public Schools.

Dorothy Espelage, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Florida, described a "bully-to-sexual violence" pathway in schools, in which peer-to-peer bullying escalates to homophobic name-calling, which escalates to sexual harassment. Schools need to acknowledge and include LGBTQ students before students reach high school, Espelage said.

She discussed other issues too, including higher rates of suicide ideation among LGBTQ youth than non-LGBTQ youth, negative effects of gang presence in schools on LGBTQ youth, and lack of LGBTQ competency on the part of school staff. "We just need a lot of work," she concluded.

Family and parental support has significant effects on reducing rates of HIV and mental health problems in youth, said panelist Brian Mustanski, Ph.D., a Northwestern professor and the ISGMH director. He added, however, that research needs to extend beyond simply examining parental support and acceptance, to look at the effects of specific parenting practices on the well-being of sexual and gender minority youth and the prevalence of risk behaviors among those youth.

Following the research panel, Alloíza Mari and Elon Sloan, youth leaders at the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health, addressed the audience to discuss their perspective on the findings. They said that while the research presented at the symposium might be helpful to researchers, youth like themselves often don't experience its benefits.

Mari said that research should focus on harm reduction rather than stopping risk behaviors.

Sloan noted that while they appreciate that the research exists, "it doesn't affect me in a direct way." Research should focus on the youth themselves—not their parents, Sloan said.

Both of the youth expressed their wish that the quantitative data resulting from studies such as the ones conducted by Purcell and the others be paired with more qualitative, narrative data that documents individual LGBTQ youths' experiences.

Espelage defended the studies, saying that the research teams on which she works take the quantitative data back to the youth they study, who then drive the research that follows.

The group of researchers and youth had a chance to address their differing perspectives in a closed working group Friday. In emails to Windy City Times following that working group, both Mari and Espelage said they felt the group made progress.

Mari wrote that the youth in the working group "pushed for more research on the number of trans and gender expansive youth in the country and how they could be better served." The working group found common ground, they added, in identifying the need to expand the scope of research to include topics that have received limited focus, such as issues transgender youth face.


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