Homosexuality has historically been perceived as an issue that should not be talked about with young people. As is witnessed by recent tragic events and a national focus on preventing bullying toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth, that’s not the case anymore.
On average, girls have their first awareness of same-sex attraction at age 10 while boys are aware of an attraction to boys by age 9. Boys and girls on average begin to identify themselves as being lesbian or gay at age 16, although many self-identify much younger.
“Because American society has traditionally viewed homosexuality to be an adult issue, the concerns and needs of LGBTQ students have often been neglected by the curriculum and in student services planning,” explains Edward Cannon, assistant professor of counseling psychology and psychology and counselor education in the School of Education and Human Development.
LGBTQ youth are often subjected to harassment several times a day and are at higher risk for health issues, high-risk sexual behaviors, substance abuse, truancy and suicide. One effort to improve the experience of sexual minority youth is the formation of gay/straight alliances (GSAs), student-led clubs open to youth of all sexual orientations that support LGBTQ youth and their heterosexual allies. With more than 3,000 groups in U.S. high schools and colleges, GSAs are thought to be making a positive impact. Still, Cannon notes, more research is needed to find the short and long term impact of these alliances.
Working with Rainbow Alley, a program of the Youth Services Department of the GLBT Community Center of Colorado, and with the help of a grant from the Center for Faculty Development, Cannon is collecting survey data to best understand the influence of GSAs. “This project will examine GSAs and other services targeted to this population as potential protective factors against alcohol, tobacco and other drug use by sexual minority youth,” Cannon says.
The goals of the project include organizing the data set of the Rainbow Alley existing survey so that it can be compared to responses from statewide and national samples. Cannon will also contribute to the professional literature, specifically around the understanding of how GSAs and LGBTQ youth-specific programming can be a protective factor.
“By creating an open and accepting climate, schools can send a message that every individual matters to the community,” Cannon stresses.