• Marriage equality and the abuse of gay, lesbian, and bisexual children

    The following is a guest post from Bill Gardner, a psychologist who studies the mental health service system for children. Bill is an American living in Canada and a professor of pediatrics at Dalhousie University (Nova Scotia) and the Ohio State University. Bill blogs at Inequalities, and you can follow him on Twitter at @Bill_Gardner.

    America is talking about marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples. Let’s talk about why it really matters. I think it has a lot to do with culture and how culture matters for health. This matters particularly for children, but give me a second to get there.

    The discussion about marriage equality has been, first, about legal rights for gay couples and, second, about whether being raised by same sex parents could be harmful for children. These are important questions, although in my view they have straightforward answers. My answer to the first question is that gay couples do have these rights, although they have historically been denied in law. On the second question, I see little evidence that children are harmed by being raised by gay parents. In the absence of convincing evidence of such harm I see no reason why the rights of gay couples to raise children should be abridged.

    However, I don’t think that is why America is debating marriage equality. Marriage equality is being championed because its enactment will symbolize a cultural change: the rejection of the animus against persons with same-sex sexual preferences. Why are civil unions for gays and lesbians insufficient? Because, historically, it was the (false) moral stigmatization of same sex preference that disqualified them from being married. In the same way, no morally sane 21st century American would view civil unions for inter-racial couples as an adequate substitute for the right to marry. Even if civil unions provided identical rights, laws forbidding inter-racial marriage would be offensive because they would give succour to racism.

    And why is campaigning against the animus against GLBT people so important? It isn’t a matter of an abstract desire for a culture of equality or concern for the hurt feelings of a minority. The animus against GLBT people has motivated their abuse, and suppressed public acknowledgment of such abuse, since time out of mind. The consequences have been particularly abhorrent in the case of children.

    Mark Friedman and his colleagues have published a meta-analysis in the American Journal of Public Health that looked at whether sexual minority adolescents were more likely to experience childhood sexual abuse, parental physical abuse, and peer victimization. Again, these abuses are not matters of hurt feelings: they are often crimes, and even where they do not result in direct physical harm they are powerful risk factors for educational failure, mental illness, and physical illness.

    I do not believe I have ever read a meta-analysis in which the results were so clear cut: Gay, lesbian, and bisexual kids are far more likely to be the targets of abuse than their straight peers. A meta-analyses seeks to evaluate the strength of a pattern of data by looking for consistency of results across the published literature. Friedman et al. found that 19 of 19 published results showed that sexual minority children were more likely to be the victims of parental physical abuse. 65 of 65 studies found that sexual minority children were more likely to be the victims of sexual abuse. Peer victimization was, by comparison, a bit less clear cut. Only 79 out of 81 results showed that sexual minority children are more likely than to be bullied than their straight peers.

    Moreover, these are not uncommon problems. The first graph shows the prevalence of parental physical abuse (the percentage of youth who report that they have suffered such abuse) depending on the child’s gender and sexual orientation. The prevalences are estimated based on data pooled across all available studies. The second and third graphs show the prevalences for sexual abuse and peer victimization.




    The graphs are disturbing first in that they reveal how commonly even the heterosexuals are abused. But the levels of abuse in sexual minority kids are staggering: see, for example, the levels of sexual abuse reported by lesbian and bisexual girls.

    So, we want to rid the culture of animus against gays and lesbians because these people have been unprotected targets of abuse as children (among many other reasons). This doesn’t mean that I think that people who believe that there are moral objections to same sexual behaviour necessarily condone the abuse of children. Neither do I believe that their sincere beliefs should mocked or dismissed. Everyone deserves to be treated with civility and respect. But let’s keep what is really at stake here in perspective. We are trying to reverse the history of abuse of gays and lesbians, including children.

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    • I’m not current on this issue, but homelessness is also an issue among LGBT youth (due to rejection from parents). See below for one study.


    • I understand the intent of the charts shown; however, they appear to presume a causal relationship (i.e. abuse is a function of child gender and sexual orientation). I don’t think this presumption was explained adequately, thought it may have been in the original study.

      Given that the factors influencing sexual orientation are not completely understood, these charts could just as easily show that sexual orientation is a function of abuse (i.e. sexually abused children may have a higher tendency toward homosexual or bisexual orientations). I’m not saying this is the case. But the charts don’t convince me that children are necessarily abused more or less *as a result* of their sexual orientation.

      The argument that GLBT children are abused more than heterosexual children seems to depend heavily on why adults/peers abuse or victimize them. Are they abused because of their GLBT status? That appears to be the main point here, but I need more data for the argument to be compelling.

      • I agree with Mitch, the causal relationship is not established in these papers. What’s particularly interesting is the fact that the highest correlation is between childhood abuse and adult bisexual, not homosexual, orientation too.

    • The full paper is available here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3134495/

      The most astonishing thing for me was the opening sentences: “The number of substantiated annual cases of childhood (i.e., > 18 years) physical abuse in the United States declined 52% between 1992 and 2007, and cases of childhood sexual abuse declined 53% during the same period. Criminal victimization of students in school declined 60% between 1995 and 2005.” I assume this is not just an artefact of measurement, policy changes, etc. Happy news indeed.

      The reported odds ratios for parental abuse, peer abuse, and school avoidance are 1.2, 1.7, and 2.4 (non-hetero comp to hetero). However the ratio for sexual abuse is 3.8.

      One sincere empirical question (which may generate outrage): there is some research on the relationship between past sexual abuse and self-reported sexual orientation. To what extent is the higher ratio for sexual abuse a function of past victims reporting higher confusion in orientation? Or does the analysis imply that non-hetero children are somehow targeted more than hetero children? I find the second option hard to accept.

      Just to get the obvious out of the way: I’m not saying minority orientation is caused by sexual abuse.

      • I don’t know if there is any “orientation confusion effect” but if we restrict the data to only sexual abuse that occurs after someone “comes out,” we still see greatly elevated levels of sexual abuse against out LGBT people than straight people.

        • Interesting, is there a good source for data on sexual abuse prior to self-identification of same sex attraction rather than ‘coming out’?
          Is coming out to family associated with a risk of sexual abuse vs not coming out till leaving home?
          I was frankly unaware that there was such a high correlation between bisexual adult orientation a child sex abuse, I’d always heard that dismissed as a myth so a ratio as high as we see here is astonishing

    • The causality question is always relevant and the article does not make an explicit claim.

      I think, however, that the answer to the question of whether non-hetero children are targeted for peer victimization is nearly self-evident. It was just a fact that being perceived as gay made you a legitimate target for bullying. It also seems to me that as a matter of everyday observation that parents were harshly punitive of children they perceived to be sexual deviants. The sexual abuse story is not so clear to me. I’m not gay or bisexual; perhaps someone in that community can explain it.

      • Thanks Bill (I assume you were replying to my earlier comment). I agree the non-sexual abuse rate is self-evident. The sexual abuse ratio was a puzzle because it was so much higher, and because a significant amount of that abuse would be taking place prior to many kids having obviously (or presumed) non-hetero orientation. It’s also puzzling because that sort of violence is not punitive in origin. However I don’t think that can be uncovered in a meta-analysis.