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Lesbian Teen Pregnancy Rates: Can We See the Inequality beyond the Stigma? [27 December, 2008]

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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

Originally published on The Bilerico Project, 27 December, 2008.  Read comments here.



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