Sexual identity and teen suicide

A deeper look at a groundbreaking McGill study on the connections between the two

Gay, lesbian, and bisexual teenagers are at a higher suicide risk than their heterosexual peers. It’s not exactly breaking news. But according to a group of McGill researchers, there is a lack of scientific literature that properly interrogates the causes for suicidal thoughts and attempts among GLB teens.   
Yue Zhao, a McGill graduate student, is the first author of a recent study published last February in The Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, which connects suicide risks among GLB-identified teenagers with negative social attitudes towards homosexuality.   
Zhao argues that previous studies on the topic do not address the complexity of sexual identity and consequently fail to properly interrogate the relationship between social stigma and psychological trauma among GLB youth.  
The research was conducted through an anonymous survey distributed to teenagers in  public and private Montreal high schools. Contrary to previous studies concerning queer sexuality and suicide, the researchers included more than one question aimed at establishing their subjects’ sexual orientation.  
Zhao explains that there are three components to sexuality: attraction / fantasy, behaviour, and identity. According to Zhao, the new study is unique because it separates identity from the other two components. Students were asked, in three separate questions, whether they had same-sex attraction or fantasies, whether they had experienced same-sex encounters, and whether they were heterosexual, LGB, or unsure. 
Unsurprisingly, students who identified as GLB or unsure were shown to have a higher likelihood for suicidal thoughts and attempts relative to other heterosexual teens.  
There was, however, a statistically significant group of students who reported having same-sex attractions or sexual encounters, but nevertheless identified as heterosexual. These students were shown to have no greater suicide risk than their other heterosexual-identified peers.  
This result was the most striking and significant aspect of the study, according to Dr. Richard Montoro, the Co-Director of The McGill University Sexual Identity Centre and one of the study’s co-authors. The findings suggest that queer sexuality, in and of itself, is not a cause of psychological distress; it is only when students begin to identify as GLB, and to encounter the social ramifications associated with that identity, that they experience negative psychological effects.   
Montoro argues that many older studies, which fail to isolate the social component of sexuality, imply that “there is something intrinsically harmful in being GLB.” While he finds these types of assertions troubling, he claims that they may well be the product of flawed methodology rather than outright prejudice on the part of the researchers. 
The present study counters notions of GLB sexuality as intrinsically harmful by suggesting that widespread gay-negative attitudes are the real source of psychological distress among GLB-identified teens. 
Public vs. Private 
The researchers acknowledge that their survey did not differentiate between students who identity privately as GLB and those who publicly assert their GLB identity.  
The study points out, however, that GLB teens who keep their sexuality to themselves are still likely to experience the harmful effects of queer-negative social attitudes. For instance, LGB students can be negatively affected by encounters with homophobia that are not explicitly directed at them. They can also experience disparaging feelings towards themselves because of their sexuality, a phenomenon that psychologists refer to as ‘internalized homophobia.’ 
The real gays?
Students who identified as heterosexual, but reported having same-sex fantasies or sexual encounters, were accepted as straight by the research team. This methodological decision accords with the researchers’ conviction that sexual identity does not perfectly coincide with fantasy or experience. 
“There’s a lot of difference between the ways people think about themselves and what their sexual practices are,” says the study’s corresponding author Dr. Brett Thombs, a McGill Assistant Professor with The Department of Psychiatry. “A lot of adults, for instance, don’t identify as gay, but may have a separate sexual life.” 
According to Montoro, identity is a crucial concern precisely because it determines the way people are treated, or the way that they expect to be treated, by those around them. 
Montoro maintains that he and his fellow researchers are not interested in pin-pointing an essential GLB sexuality that is somehow separate form identity. “People keep asking me: How do you know that you’ve got the real gays?” he says. “The answer is that we don’t really care. What we want to know is: how are these kids identifying themselves? And how do these identities affect their suicidality?” 
Montoro acknowledges that some students who identified as heterosexual but reported having same-sex fantasies may be experiencing a degree of identity confusion. According to Montoro, the fact that these participants did not face an increased suicide risk implies that this alleged confusion does not necessarily have negative effects. “The Survey suggests that being closeted in a dangerous environment is not such a bad idea” he says.  
“A variety of thoughts and experiences”

Of the students who self-identified as GLB, approximately one fifth denied having same-sex fantasies or attractions. Both Thombs and Montoro believe that there is no single explanation for this statistic. Montoro suggests that participants who were asexual, or who had not yet developed strong sexual feelings, may have counted themselves among the GLB set. He also asserts that people sometimes identify as GLB despite having largely heterosexual desires and experiences. 
“We see in adults that people identify with groups with whom they feel comfortable” says Montoro. “The queer community is more accepting. If you’re a teen who doesn’t fit in, the queer community might be a better place to go.” 
At the very least, this result seems to indicate that it is better not to ascribe too close of a relationship between fantasies and attraction, on the one hand, and sexual identity, on the other. 
Montoro adds that rigid social classifications fail to account for the process of experimentation that many teenagers undergo. “Adolescence is a time of identity formation, it’s tied to a variety of thoughts and experiences. I don’t think that it’s necessary for teenagers to jump into every box that society offers them.” 

Related stories:

Queer rights back in citizen guide, 3/6/10
Family matters: Researchers find family rejection a predictor of negative health outcomes in LGB youth, 1/12/09
Commentary: Queering Montreal, 9/24/09
Loud and proud, 3/10/08
Commentary: Non-normative gender is not a disease, 11/10/08