No place like home? One in four LGB teens are driven out

Tragic stories of teens being bullied and ostracized at school have been saturating media headlines. But while these tales are making news, there’s another story to be told: that of homosexual teens’ estrangement—even banishment—from their families.

According to the recent Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Surveys (YRBS), one in four teens who identify themselves as lesbian or gay are homeless, and a study in the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH) says that it’s more likely that these teens are being driven out of their homes by their parents. Supporting this are findings from studies of homeless youth living apart from their families. One such study shows that 73 percent of homeless gay and lesbian teens indicated that they were homeless because their parents disapproved of their sexual orientation.

The AJPH study based its findings on the YRBS, which is a survey conducted every other year in most U.S. states in high schools, and defines homelessness as lacking a fixed, regular or adequate nighttime residence.

“There are probably a lot of contributing factors why these teens are more likely to be homeless, but the biggest one is the undeniable stigma associated with a sexual minority orientation,” says Heather Corliss, PhD, MPH, researcher in the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at Children’s Hospital Boston, and the study’s first author.

Heather Corliss, PhD, MPH

A recent landmark report by the Institute of Medicine drafted in part by Mark Schuster, MD, PhD, chief of General Pediatrics at Children’s, points to other connections between homosexuality and health. Compared to their heterosexual peers, lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) youth have higher rates of suicidal ideation, depression, disordered eating and substance abuse. Social obstacles like harassment, lack of support and a general sense of unsafety add to the challenges that LGB youth face when they lack family encouragement.

According to Corliss, a loss of family connectedness can quickly—and hugely— affect a teen’s health. “Youth who live with their parents or guardians do much better health-wise than those who don’t, and they almost always have lower rates of risk behaviors and better mental health,” she says.

Perhaps the most important findings are homeless youth’s risks of malnutrition, violence and participating in “survival sex” whereby they have sex in exchange for food, money or shelter. To cope with the emotional strain, many homeless teens turn to substance abuse, says Corliss. What’s more, without parental guidance, homeless teens are likely to lack access to health care.

Mark Schuster, MD, PhD

Corliss hopes that her research will bring awareness to an often-overlooked subject, and underscore the need for further research. Meanwhile, Schuster would like to create a research center to address just that. “It would bring together researchers throughout Children’s who are closely studying this issue so that they can collaborate and generate creative solutions to the challenges these children face,” he says.

But while research will help shed light on the extent of the problem, the solutions need to start at the ground level. “As researchers, all we can do is describe the challenges that these youths face,” says Corliss. “The real change has to be from the community in schools, peer networks and of course, the families themselves.”

In an effort to promote acceptance and offer hope to young people within the LGBT community struggling with these issues, Children’s recently joined the It Gets Better Movement.

For more information on this study, listen to this radio interview Dr. Corliss did with WGBH’s Callie Crossley.