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Lesbian teen pregnancy rates [27 December, 2008]

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The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality recently published an article “Stigma management? The links between enacted stigma and teen pregnancy trends among gay, lesbian, and bisexual students in British Columbia.”  It presents data showing that LGB youth show higher rates (two to seven times greater) of pregnancy involvement than their heterosexual peers.  Elizabeth M.  Saewyc, associate professor of nursing at the University of British Columbia, is the lead author of the study.  A December 17 piece in The Vancouver Sun summarized her findings, “Lesbian Youth at High Risk for Pregnancy: Study at UBC,” and quoted Saewyc: “For some gay, lesbian and bisexual teens [pregnancy is] camouflage because [their sexual orientation] is still pretty stigmatized and they still face a lot of harassment at school.”

The Vancouver Sun article has been making the rounds of LGBTQ listservs and blogs.  However, the original study shows more complicated findings and reasons for the rates of pregnancy.  Windy City Times spoke to Elizabeth Saewyc for more details, and to leading Chicago advocates for lesbians and queer youth to see how the research resonated with their own work.

The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality article sums up three pen-and-paper anonymous adolescent health surveys, carried out in 1992, 1998, and 2003, among 30,000 high school students from grades 7-12 in British Vancouver.  These were not exclusively focused on sexuality.

The key term “pregnancy involvement” (as opposed to “pregnancy”) allows the researchers to take gay and bisexual teens into account.  The survey did not ask the teens the reasons why they became involved in pregnancy.  Says Saewyc, “Why” is an open-ended question and they may have different answers to that, so it’s hard to make sure you’ve captured all the possible reasons.”  The supposition that teens are using pregnancy as a way to camouflage their sexual orientation is one of several hypotheses based on past and ongoing research into LGBTQ adolescent issues.  However, it’s clear, based on the emphasis given to it in the journal article and Saewyc’s comments, that she is inclined to favor it as a preponderant reason.  She emphasizes the correlation between discrimination and pregnancy involvement: “We do see that teens who have been pregnant or caused a pregnancy are far more likely to also report being discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation.”

Frank Walker, the founder and director of Youth Pride Center, an organization that serves LGBTA youth of color, said, “I’m shocked that people are only just beginning to realize this.”  Walker became a father after pressure from his family to fulfill a conventional male role.  He sees a lot of young men in the same situation.  Asked if the study might affect YPC’s work, he pointed out, “We’re dealing with the first issue [to make our community aware of young black queer youth]; this isn’t likely to be the priority right now.”

What other factors influence these rates of pregnancy?  They include risky sexual behavior, substance abuse, and lack of sexual education or resources.  LGBTQ youth tend to be disproportionately among the homeless.  As Saewyc puts it, “Once they come out, they’re ejected.  And in situations of survival sex, condom negotiation can be difficult.”

Lara Brooks, drop in coordinator of Broadway Youth Center, works with street-based queer youth, and she sees many who are either pregnant or with children.  According to Brooks, they tend to be invisible to both LGBT-based organizations and straight reproductive service centers since they don’t fit the conventional paradigms of families.  Their invisibility is compounded by any involvement with the Department of Children and Family Services, either as wards or as people who give up offspring for adoption or foster care.  Responding to the article and the issues raised, Brooks was wary of too much emphasis on sexual identity, “I’m really tired of the emphasis on the closet; these queer youths’ lives are impacted by multiple factors like race and economics, which in turn impact their risky behavior and/or access to safe sex or even health care.  [Teen pregnancy] is also about family support systems [or lack thereof] and poverty, even survival.  There needs to be a more complicated analysis around all the factors.”

Teenagers’ access to safe sex education is difficult.  Saewyc said to Windy City Times, “In the U.S.  abstinence-only mandated funding has meant that a lot of accurate information about sexual health has been off the table.  Even in Canada, there’s a limited amount of time allocated to the important things like how to make decisions around sexual behavior.  It’s important to make accurate and supportive sexual education accessible for LGB youth.”

Mandated abstinence-only funding is a concern for Lynne Johnson, director of advocacy at Chicago Foundation for Women, who sees a direct connection between that and the issue of LGB teen pregnancy involvement.  According to her, the Bush administration pours millions of dollars into abstinence-only funding and “all the abstinence programs have to promote a “mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage” as the expected standard of human sexuality, erasing LGBT [and straight] youth right off the top.  [LGBT sexuality] is not even recognized in the standard of acceptable human activity.  Then the programs make claims that condoms are not as effective.”  So Johnson isn’t surprised at the rates of lesbian pregnancies.

Catherine Jefcoat, director of Lesbian Community Care Project, is both intrigued by and cautious about how this new study’s findings are used and discussed.  She’s concerned about the possibility of creating a hierarchy of stigmatizations: “Is it easier to be a teenage mom than a lesbian?”  Jefcoat is interested in the socio-economic milieu in which teen pregnancy might occur, and factors like substance abuse and racialised poverty.  She recognizes that pregnant lesbians and parenting queer youth are a relatively invisible population in a landscape where gay male youth, assumed to be non-parents, are seen as the default population.  And Seawyc certainly wants to see the research used in its proper context: “These are co-relationships – these are links that don’t equal cause.”

Jefcoat is happy to see attention paid to the issues facing lesbians and their bodies.   She says, “We need to know more about the truth of young queer lesbians’ lives; this adds to the work.” he sees a need for more resources given that “[i]t’s incredibly hard to build programs that address young queer female lives when funders [and many segments of the public] are only interested in our ability to make babies and not our sexuality, and that includes straight sexuality.”

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