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Heteronormativity and Gay Youth Suicide

with 5 comments

A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics determined that being surrounded by heterosexuals (especially Republican ones) and a heteronormative culture is associated with increased risk of suicide in gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth.

The study by Mark L. Hatzenbuehler (“The Social Environment and Suicide Attempts in Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Youth“) found that in a sample of 31,852 Oregon 11th graders, queerness was a major risk factor in having attempted suicide in the previous 12 months (21.5% of queer kids vs. 4.2% of straight ones), but that the presence of a “supportive environment” was associated with a 20% reduction in suicide attempts by queer kids. From the study:

We created a composite index of the social environment in 34 counties, including (1) the proportion of same-sex couples, (2) the proportion of registered Democrats, (3) the presence of gay-straight alliances in schools, and (4) school policies (nondiscrimination and antibullying) that specifically protected lesbian, gay, and bisexual students . . . .

Among lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth, the risk of attempting suicide was 20% greater in unsupportive environments compared to supportive environments. A more supportive social environment was significantly associated with fewer suicide attempts, controlling for sociodemographic variables and multiple risk factors for suicide attempts, including depressive symptoms, binge drinking, peer victimization, and physical abuse by an adult (odds ratio: 0.97 [95% confidence interval: 0.96–0.99]). [Emphasis mine.]

This is the first study I’ve seen that links gay youth suicide attempts specifically to the crappiness of living in a controlling, breeder-dominated, heteronormative, redneck culture. The more they’re surrounded by fellow queer folks and Democrats, and the more they’re protected from bullying, the less queer kids try to off themselves.

What about the straight kids? They seem to benefit from liberality as well, with a 9% lower suicide attempt rate in “supportive” counties compared to more anti-gay counties.

It is my hope that findings like these, to the extent that they are replicated by cohort and/or case-control studies as well as studies examining other populations, be used in determining custody and visitation of children when these are contested, and also in placement of children for adoption. To the extent that it is replicated, evidence like this should be considered within the context of neglect and emotional abuse investigations.


Written by Sister Y

April 19, 2011 at 6:32 pm

5 Responses

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  1. No surprise here. Still, it's important to have such studies anyway – even if they do turn out to mesh with our “common sense” notions. After all, common sense often isn't a reliable guide to truth.


    April 20, 2011 at 2:12 am

  2. The article is gated. Do you know if the difference holds for “successful” suicide attempts?

    The findings are intuitive — and probably true — but the controlled variables could be confounded if there is an overriding culture-bound difference in self-reporting that tracks the indexed group environments, which wouldn't surprise me. Corresponding divergent trends in “completed” suicides for the groups would be more compelling, since corpses (presumably) don't have subjective biases.


    April 20, 2011 at 5:22 am

  3. Chip, I haven't seen any other studies like this – you'd need a much bigger sample to reach significance on completed suicides, I suspect.

    I am very curious about reporting. I bet you could do something with suicide attempts that result in hospitalization, as a compromise.

    I wonder why kids in “red” counties might be more likely to report a suicide attempt than kids in “blue” counties. (If anything, I'd expect the opposite.) Either kids in blue counties would have to be making attempts and not reporting them on the survey, or kids in red counties would have to be falsely reporting attempts. Also, the “reporting” effect between types of counties, whatever it is, would have to be much larger for gay kids than for straight kids.

    Sister Y

    April 20, 2011 at 3:46 pm

  4. I wonder what the rates of suicide are now, in our more progressive, liberalized and gay normalized world compared to that say 45 years ago when it was less so.


    April 21, 2011 at 5:24 pm

  5. Jesus_Lizard, there are many more variables at play in a simple time comparison – greater acceptance of gayness is not the only change that's occurred in 45 years. Actually, suicide rates have been pretty flat since 1950.

    Sister Y

    April 21, 2011 at 6:28 pm

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