Yasmin Nair

Lesbian Teen Pregnancy Rates: Can We See the Inequality beyond the Stigma?

Filed By Yasmin Nair | December 27, 2008 5:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Living, Marriage Equality
Tags: Elizabeth Saewyc, gay rights movement, Lesbian Teens, LGB Youth, LGBT youth, LGBTQ Youth, Narrow Agenda, Pregnancy, Stigma, Stigma Management, Survival Sex, teen pregnancy, The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, University of British Columbia

There's a new story about lesbian teens making the rounds, and it's being framed in somewhat sensationalist terms. The Vancouver Sun recently reported on University of British Columbia findings about pregnancy among LGB teens with the headline: "Lesbian Youth at High Risk for Pregnancy: Study at UBC." It summarized the findings of associate professor of nursing Elizabeth M. Saewyc and quoted her: "For some gay, lesbian and bisexual teens, [pregnancy is] camouflage because [their sexual orientation] is still pretty stigmatized and they still face a lot of harassment at school."

Saewyc is the lead researcher of an article published in the The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality titled "Stigma management? The links between enacted stigma and teen pregnancy trends among gay, lesbian, and bisexual students in British Columbia." It presents data showing that LGB youth show higher rates (two to seven times greater) of pregnancy involvement than their heterosexual peers.

I spoke to Saewyc and prominent teen and lesbian health advocates in Chicago for a story about the survey, which ran in this week's Windy City Times, and I've read the original journal article. It became clear that the actual causes of higher rates for teen pregnancy among LGB are more complicated than simply discrimination. That's not to discount the experiences of many people who have, in fact, gone the route of pregnancy, families, marriage and any combination thereof in order to evade the possibility of being stigmatised or outed as queer. But in our collective haste to reduce everything about teen life and sexuality to a fear of being outed, we risk losing sight of the myriad socio-economic factors that impact queer youth, especially those whose lives are affected by lethal combinations of poverty, abuse, and homelessness.

In following the story and its manifestations on the web, I've been intrigued by the way LGBTQ bloggers and commentators have seized on this story as yet another opportunity to prove that our community is stigmatised. But lost in the midst of this are the complicated issues surrounding teen queers, including the fact that LGB is itself hardly a stable identity category, especially for someone just figuring out sexuality. More importantly, teens also end up pregnant for some really scary reasons, like the inability to negotiate condom use during survival sex or the lack of access to sex education which erases queer sexuality. For that matter, even straight sexuality is rendered invisible in an era of increased funding for abstinence-only programs.

Most of all, we risk losing sight of issues like poverty, and the systemic conditions that create them, if we only focus on stigma. The gay movement knows, or thinks it knows, how to solve the problem of stigma. It's far less sure about how to deal with the complicated and interrelated ways that stigma functions within and without the daily economic and health crises that haunt millions.

I suspect that this study, or what people assume to be the study (since few have actually read the actual journal article) and its sensationalised core findings, will become part of the chest-banging rhetoric employed by the gay movement today: "look how terribly stigmatised we are, this is why we need [insert narrow gay rights agenda here]." But this might be our chance to ask instead: what else is going on here? Can we see the conditions of economic inequality that co-exist here?

Here's a sample from my article:

Lara Brooks, drop-in coordinator of Chicago's Broadway Youth Center, works with street-based queer youth, and she sees many who are either pregnant or with children. According to Brooks, they tend to be invisible to both LGBT-based organizations and straight reproductive-service centers since they do not fit the conventional paradigms of families. Their invisibility is compounded by any involvement with the Department of Children and Family Services, either as wards or as people who give up offspring for adoption or foster care. Responding to the article and the issues raised, Brooks was wary of too much emphasis on sexual identity: "I'm really tired of the emphasis on the closet; these queer youths' lives are impacted by multiple factors like race and economics, which, in turn, impact their risky behavior and/or access to safe sex or even health care. [Teen pregnancy] is also about family support systems [or lack thereof] and poverty, even survival. There needs to be a more complicated analysis around all the factors."

For the rest of this story, see:

High pregnancy rate for LGB teens

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Thanks for this Yasmin. Teen pregnancy in general is far more complicated than the talking heads in a lot of communities are willing to admit. When are we going to start thinking holistically about social issues?

Thanks, Greg,
I agree - "holistic" is the best way to think about this issue in particular, given how complex it is.

I really appreciate it any time a writer takes it upon him/herself to avoid the obvious conclusion and press further. Often times our agenda and our opportunities to pursue the truth end up at odds. The priority ought be the latter over the former, but that's certainly not the easy thing to do.

dawn storrud | December 27, 2008 8:25 PM

Yasmin, thank you. All sorts of children pass through my house and I have yet to meet one who would say she was hiding her orientation by becoming pregnant. More often she is trying to validate her adulthood or find in her child someone who can love her as she is.
There are simple answers to many things, but the actions of people are not so explained. We can't even figure out what will make us happy tomorrow


Yes, I suspect -- and there's plenty of evidence from people like you who work with teens -- that it's never one simple answer.

Thanks for this, Yasmin.

Indeed: "The gay movement knows, or thinks it knows, how to solve the problem of stigma. It's far less sure about how to deal with the complicated and interrelated ways that stigma functions within and without the daily economic and health crises that haunt millions."

Thanks for solid reporting and analysis on this.

Gee, you would think if the gay movement Did know how to solve the problem of stigma they would have done it by now. ( Waits for all the closeted gays to come out).

The MSGM (Main Stream Gay Movement) has an understanding of issues that is an inch wide and only as deep as the polling lets it be. You are right on the money Yasmin, in taking them to task on their lack of depth in their analysis and interpretation of the issue. That it involves the 'distaff' half of the equation just muddles it further for them. the Rich white Gays club that makes up the majority of the MSGM will never fully comprehend how much socio-economic factors affect those who are born into poverty or working class enviroments when it comes to matters of their identity. Hunger and hopelessness trumps pretty much all else when it comes to the struggle to make a living.

Wait, are you saying that gay movement leaders base the beliefs about the experiences of all queer youth off their experiences as a queer youth? Are you saying that the people in positions of power within the movement use a privileged lens to look at the experiences of a group of people that contains many who are underprivileged?

Say it ain't so!

I was thinking much the same thing about this study when I first read about it - how did they go straight to "stigma" from pregnancy rates? It raised an eyebrow, and I suppose the best place for the eye under said raised eyebrow to go is to the fact that this is the first study to notice such a trend and to wait for others to confirm its findings, at least, but it didn't make sense to me that there'd be an epidemic of lesbian teenagers, so wanting to prove their heterosexuality, that they weren't simply having relationships or sex, but were deliberately getting pregnant. And those numbers indicate an epidemic.

There are many other narratives that could lead to such a disparity between the theoretical lesbian teen pregnancy rate (0%) and reality, but stigma doesn't seem like it could account for such high numbers. These numbers deserve a closer look.

Thanks, Jessica, for those words!

Diddlygirl, I completely agree with you about "hunger and hopelessness" trumping everything else, and a consideration of that is absolutely what's lacking in the MSGM today.

Loved your eyebrow and eye raising and roving :-), and yes, both the numbers and the conclusions reached bear a closer reading. I wish there was a way to make that article widely accessible on the web somewhere so that people could read the whole thing. But, and I think this is also something you get at, that still wouldn't stop a lot of our fearless leaders cherry-picking from the article to suit their agenda. As you point out, this is an important bit of research. And it raises a lot of related issues.

This is a great post and a great article. You're describing one of the many drawbacks of identity politics. This is the mindset that allows some folks to make everything an LGBT issue rather than an issue that touches many communities, with solutions that must include specific LGBT needs if those exist but need to be part of a much larger effort.

Thanks, Nancy!
I agree, of course, that this is an example of the problems with identity politics. It'll be interesting to see if the next year brings any significant shifts in the mainstream LGBT politics.

Great post - and even better article in the Times, Yasmin. You've hit this one out of the park.