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Among thousands of LGBTQ teens, a survey finds anxiety and fears about safety

Hundreds of people in New York City in February protested a Trump administration announcement that rescinded an Obama-era order allowing transgender students to use school bathrooms matching their gender identities. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

A new survey finds significant anxiety and fear among teenagers who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer.

The survey findings, released Tuesday, are based on the answers of roughly 12,000 youth ages 13 to 17 who responded to an online solicitation by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation and other advocacy groups. Researchers say they reveal the depth of challenges that LGBTQ teens face.

At home, at school, in social circles and communities, these teens are experiencing high levels of anxiety, feelings of rejection and fears for their safety, according to a report on the survey findings.

“Despite the change in social attitudes, they’re still struggling,” said Ryan Watson, an assistant professor in human development and family studies at the University of Connecticut who is one of the researchers. “We still see alarming disparities and experiences, disheartening mental health problems and self-esteem issues.”

The report notes that nearly three-quarters of the teens responding to the survey said they have been threatened verbally because of their sexual identity. Ninety-five percent reported having trouble sleeping.

Problems associated with being transgender were particularly pernicious. About half of transgender teens surveyed said they were unable to use school restrooms or locker rooms that match their gender identity, with most of this group citing safety as the reason.

Yet teens generally shared similar concerns about school overall: Just 26 percent of those surveyed said they felt safe in their classroom.

The report comes at a particularly challenging time for LGBTQ individuals, with the Trump administration scaling back protections across several federal agencies. The Justice Department announced last July that civil rights laws do not include workplace protection against sexual orientation discrimination for lesbian and gay individuals. The Department of Education has reversed an Obama-era directive mandating schools protect and accommodate transgender students.

“Anecdotally, we have seen the Trump decision to rescind critical guidance [for schools] has caused fear and worry for transgender students and their families,” said Rebecca Kling, education program director at the National Center for Transgender Equality. “We’ve seen many cases where schools feel like they can roll back protections.”

These changes are particularly disappointing, say gay and transgender activists, because as a candidate, Donald Trump repeatedly expressed support for the LGBTQ community, once tweeting, “I will fight for you while Hillary brings in more people that will threaten your freedoms and beliefs.”

The survey, conducted online between April and December 2017 by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation and the University of Connecticut, asked about behavioral health, peer relationships, exercise and fitness, participation in sports, tobacco use and other elements of the teens’ lives.

“We wanted to know about a range of things, everyday lived experience, not isolating one aspect,” said Ellen Kahn, the foundation’s director of the Children, Youth and Families program.

To solicit subjects, the researchers advertised for LGBTQ teens on social media — Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat. Among the advocacy and nonprofit groups that helped publicize the survey were Planned Parenthood and the Trevor Project, which focuses on suicide prevention among
LGBTQ youth. The gay activist Tyler Oakley, whose videos on YouTube have reached more than 650 million people, also took part in spreading the word about the survey.

The results cannot be considered representative nationally because participants were not selected through a random sampling method.

Of the LGBTQ teens responding, 77 percent said they felt down or depressed in the prior week. Of those LGBTQ teens whose families did not know of their sexual orientation, 78 percent said they heard negative comments from their families.

Comments included in the report reflect their worries:

● “I’m not out to my parents for safety reasons.”

● “At school I have been bullied and called slurs by other students.”

● “My town is very tiny, racist, and homophobic. I don’t trust anyone to talk about LGBTQ issues.”

Ma’ayan Anafi, policy counsel at the National Center for Transgender Equality, was not surprised by the results of the survey.

“It’s consistent with what we’ve seen,” Anafi said. “Trans students face immense harassment and discrimination.”

One of the biggest surprises to researchers was the obvious interest in the survey by so many LGBTQ teens.

“It shows that youth are really excited about being asked about their experiences,” Watson said. “They care about being heard.”

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