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UBC study to evaluate success of anti-homophobia programs

Research will include experiences of straight teens assumed to be gay

A new University of British Columbia study is examining how effective school and community programs are at reducing homophobic bullying of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and straight youth.

The five-year study is being led by Professor Elizabeth Saewyc, with $2 million in funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). It is the agency’s single largest investment aimed at improving health and school outcomes for sexual minority youth, says a Feb 20 UBC news release.

“We know from previous research how common stigma and anti-gay bullying is in schools across Canada and the health problems such violence can lead to,” says Saewyc, a professor of nursing and adolescent medicine at UBC’s School of Nursing.

“Schools and communities are using a lot of different strategies to try to change this, but very few of these strategies have been evaluated, to see not only if they work, and how well they work, but why they work,” Saewyc says.

According to Statistics Canada, 458 young Canadians between the ages of 10 and 24 committed suicide in 2008. Egale says suicide is the second leading cause of death among Canadian youth, and studies have found suicide rates among gay youth are four times higher than their non-queer peers, the CBC has reported.

Researchers from 10 universities — representing seven Canadian provinces and several US States — are co-investigators on the study. Research partners also include ministries of education and health, national teacher and public health associations, school districts and community programs that work with schools.

The team will also study the experiences of heterosexual teens who are harassed because people assume they are gay.

“Homophobia can affect anyone,” Saewyc observes. “In any high school, there are far more heterosexual teens than lesbian, gay, bisexual or questioning teens, and because of this, we have found half or more of those targeted for anti-gay harassment actually identify as straight.

“There isn’t much research about them, but what there is suggests they have the same health consequences as LGBTQ youth who are bullied.”

Professor Joy Johnson, scientific director of CIHR’s Institute of Gender and Health says it’s essential for the organization to support the research.

“We hope the results of this study will lead to measures that will help to make school a positive experience for sexual minority youth in Canada,” she says. The study will continue through 2016.

Goals include tracking trends in harassment, health issues and positive assets for queer youth, using existing large-scale school-based surveys in BC, the Atlantic provinces, Minnesota and Massachusetts; conducting a national inventory of programs and policies to foster school connectedness and reduce bullying in school districts across Canada, and link to existing surveys of youth health and homophobia; studying the long-term effects of homophobic bullying on queer youth, and how supportive families, schools and communities might help buffer these risks; exploring queer youth health issues regionally, among boys and girls and within ethnic groups, including among youth who identify as heterosexual but are targeted because they’re perceived to be gay; and using in-depth case studies of school districts and community programs to better evaluate how change happens, and not only what works to “make it better,” but how it works.

Results from an American study on gay-straight alliances (GSAs) late in 2011 confirmed what Canadian students fighting for GSAs have been saying all along: clubs that provide support for queer youth help prevent depression, victimization, substance abuse and suicide.

Those were among the findings in High School Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) and Young Adult Well-Being: An Examination of GSA Presence, Participation, and Perceived Effectiveness, a new study by Caitlin Ryan, a San Francisco State University  faculty member and director of the Family Acceptance Project, a research group that provides support for families with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender children.