Religion’s Effect on LGB Teen Health
A recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health has found a link between religious climate and health risk behaviors, such as alcohol abuse and multiple sexual partners, for lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) teenagers. Prior to this study, the focus of research had been on the effect of an individual’s religious beliefs and practices on their health risk behaviors.
Examining social institutions, such as religion, is important because their norms can support healthy identity development or can encourage disapproval or invalidation of particular sexual orientation identities and experiences. To illustrate, in 2003 approximately 85% of Americans identified as religious and more than half of the US population believed that homosexuality was sinful (Pew Forum, 2003). A 2011 survey (Pew Research Center, 2011) however, found that nearly half of Americans believe that society should accept homosexuality. This reflects the fact that while many religious doctrines condemn homosexuality, not all religions hold homosexuality in the same negative light.
Since LGB youth have to construct their identities within social climates shaped by these institutional influences, religion has the potential to impact LGB youths’ health. Using data from the Oregon Healthy Teens study, researchers found that religious climate, a dichotomous measure (0: low support, 1: high support) based on the number of religious adherents in each county and religious groups’ official stances and doctrinal statements on homosexuality, had an effect on the risk behavior of ALL teens. However, tobacco use and alcohol abuse were significantly higher among LGB youth than their heterosexual peers. Also, LGB teens were found to have significantly more sexual partners than heterosexual teens.
When controlling for personal and community-level characteristics (for example, rural vs. urban setting) that could affect risk behaviors, the interaction between sexual orientation and religious climate still had a significant effect on alcohol abuse and the number of sexual partners. That is, LGB teens who live in areas with a less supportive religious climate had higher levels of alcohol abuse and more sexual partners than LGB teens living in more supportive religious climates. The finding that LGB youth who live in more supportive religious climates have fewer health risk behaviors shows that religion can be protective and have a positive effect on LGB youth.
Knowing the important role that religion plays in the lives of all teens, but especially LGB youth, public health professionals can create interventions to counteract the negative effects of living in religious climates that stigmatize homosexuality.
Hatzenbuehler, M.L., Pachankis, J.E., & Wolff J. (2012). Religious Climate and Health Risk Behaviors in Sexual Minority Youths: A Population-Based Study. American Journal of Public Health, 102 (4), 657-663.
Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. (2003, November 18). Religious Beliefs Underpin Opposition to Homosexuality. Retrieved from http://www.pewforum.org/Gay-Marriage-and-Homosexuality/Religious-Beliefs-Underpin-Opposition-to-Homosexuality.aspx
Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. (2011, May 4). Beyond Red vs. Blue: Political Typology. Retrieved from http://www.people-press.org/2011/05/04/beyond-red-vs-blue-the-political-typology/