At a time when teen pregnancy rates across the state are at historic lows, the numbers for gay teens are surprisingly high.
In Minnesota, these young people are far more likely than their straight peers to become pregnant or have gotten someone pregnant, according to a recent analysis of data on adolescent sexual health.
“It’s very counterintuitive,” said Judith Kahn, executive director of Teenwise Minnesota, the organization that discovered the trend.
People who work with this community — which includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youths — suggest that many factors are driving the trend. Struggles with mental health, homelessness, substance abuse and sexual violence were described by pregnant youths interviewed by researchers for Rainbow Health Initiative.
The environment in schools or at home also can play a significant role, said John Azbill-Salisbury, director of programs at Minneapolis-based Rainbow Health Initiative.
“You know, if you’re being told all day long that how you think about yourself is wrong, or that it doesn’t fit into the environment that you’re in, that has a negative effect on all of those things, including risk behaviors that would lead to pregnancy,” he said.
Teenwise Minnesota, a statewide organization that promotes the sexual health of young people, uncovered the trend in teen pregnancies while correlating the data from the latest statewide survey of student health. It was the first time the survey, which was first done in 1992, asked 9th- and 11th-grade students about their sexual orientation.
Among the revelatory findings: Bisexual females were five times more likely to have been pregnant than straight females. And questioning and gay males were four times more likely than straight males to report getting someone pregnant.
They also were more sexually active than their straight peers, with about 51 percent of lesbian females reporting that they have had sex compared with 23.5 percent of straight females.
For males, the difference was similar. About 49 percent of gay males surveyed said they’ve had sex, while 26 percent of straight males reported having had sex.
That finding runs counter to a much-ballyhooed study of teen sexual activity nationwide published in July. That study found that today’s youths are having less sex than previous generations. Less than half of teens older than 14 reported they’ve had intercourse, and the majority who were sexually active used some form of protection, according to the research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Much more than expected
That LGBTQ youths are more likely to have had sex and to have experienced pregnancy than other teens didn’t surprise Kahn, with Teenwise Minnesota, but the extent of risk-taking behavior compared with straight teens came as a shock.
“We know young people are struggling, as they are thinking about and trying to figure out about their own sexual orientation,” she said.
Azbill-Salisbury said risk-taking behavior is a reflection of broader disparities that exist.
“What we find generally is that if you look at almost any indicator, and if it is a ‘protective factor’ that promotes health and wellness, you’ll see much lower rates for the lesbian/gay/bisexual and questioning kids,” he said. “If it’s a risk factor, you see it higher.”
Others point to a general lack of sexual health education for LGBTQ youth.
“For queer youth who are out, the information about pregnancy prevention is being overlooked for them because the adults in their lives think they don’t need it,” said Erin Wilkins, director of clinical programs at Family Tree Clinic, a community sexual health clinic in St. Paul. “Unintended pregnancy is huge in the LGBT youth world.”
To better address the problem, the federal government just issued an $18 million grant to Planned Parenthood in nine states — including Minnesota — to support programs aimed at reducing teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases in the LGBTQ population.
Not cut and dried
Teen pregnancy among LGBTQ youths can be difficult for many to grasp, Wilkins said, because sexual identity is complex and more fluid than most people realize.
“People’s sense of sexuality tends to be black or white, gay or straight. There isn’t as much of an understanding of the middle ground, where many people live,” she said.
Sexual violence came up repeatedly in interviews of pregnant LGBTQ youths by researchers for Rainbow Health Initiative. Childhood sexual abuse was experienced by at least 5 of the 18 teens interviewed. In some cases, the sexual abuse led to their pregnancies.
Lack of acceptance also was a common theme among teens who were interviewed. “When I got to 7th grade I started dressing more boyish,” one female participant said in the report. “So I would never admit to it, so on purpose I would go out with a boy just because I didn’t like being teased.”
Another girl spoke of being high while having sex with men. “I was with this, like, drug dealer guy when I shot up meth, so me, like, sleeping with men actually ties in with my drug addiction,” she said in the report. “Because, like, whenever I get high or need drugs, because my addiction was really bad, I would sleep with guys. Which is really bad. It was just gross and disgusting.”
The use of alcohol or drugs during sex was more common among LGBTQ youths, according to the Teenwise Minnesota report. Questioning and gay males had the highest rates of alcohol or drug use during their last sexual encounter, while straight males and females had the lowest rates, the report found.
“This may be a contributing factor to higher rates of pregnancy among LGBQ youth,” the authors wrote.
The key to preventing unintended teen pregnancies in the LGBTQ community is the same for all youth, said Azbill-Salisbury. It’s about helping them feel more engaged at home and at school, he said.
“We know that if you’re doing well in school and you feel connected to your school work, you’re not going to be as likely to engage in risky behaviors,” he said.