Helping LGBTQ2 youth through research

Dr. Elizabeth Saewyc
University of British Columbia
Stigma and Resilience among Vulnerable Youth Centre
McCreary Centre Society
Photo courtesy of the Stigma and Resilience among Vulnerable Youth Centre at UBC School of Nursing.

CIHR-funded researchers are using their research to help improve the lives of LGBTQ2 youth across Canada

January 5, 2017

What does the phrase “LGBTQ2 youth” mean?

LGBTQ2 youth, also referred to as sexual minority and gender diverse youth, are youth whose gender identity or sexual orientations are not cisgender (a person whose gender identity matches with their biological sex) or heterosexual (a person who is attracted to people of the opposite sex). LGBTQ2 is an acronym representing some well-known orientations in this group including:

  • Lesbian: Girls/women who are attracted to girls/women.
  • Gay: A person who is homosexual (being attracted to a person of the same sex or gender identity).
  • Bisexual: A person who experiences attraction to more than one gender.
  • Transgender: An umbrella term that refers to someone who identifies as a different gender than what is typically associated with the sex that they were assigned at birth.
  • Queer: An umbrella term for sexual minorities that can include other labels, such as pansexual.
  • Two-Spirited: An Indigenous term referring to people with both male and female spirits within them.

There are also a number of other sexual orientations and gender identities existing within the LGBTQ2 spectrum, including but not limited to asexual (the lack of sexual attraction to anyone), pansexual (attraction to people regardless of gender), gender queer (people who do not identify as exclusively male or female) and questioning (the questioning of one’s gender, sexual identity, sexual orientation, or all three as a process of exploration by people who may be unsure, still exploring, and/or concerned about applying a social label to themselves for various reasons).

Source: OK2BME

Many sexual minority and gender diverse youth are victims of societal prejudice, intolerance and violence on a daily basis. As a diverse minority group, they face various forms of discrimination that affect them in many facets of their lives, such as reduced access to health care, a greater likelihood of becoming homeless and a high risk of being bullied or physically assaulted. For many LGBTQ2 youth, these inequities also put them at a higher risk of mental health problems, substance abuse, early pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

The health inequities suffered by LGBTQ2 youth are a major issue both in Canada and worldwide. CIHR-funded researchers are doing valuable research in order to better understand and to combat the health inequities experienced by LGBTQ2 youth. Dr. Elizabeth Saewyc is one such researcher. She joined us to discuss the work that her teams at the Stigma and Resilience for Vulnerable Youth Centre and the McCreary Centre Society are doing to help sexual minority and gender diverse youth.

Audio – Interview with Dr. Elizabeth Saewyc


Mr. David Coulombe: This is David Coulombe for CIHR’s Health Research in Action news. Sexual minority youth suffer unique challenges and obstacles as a result of society’s prejudice. Stigma, discrimination and violence are constant threats in their everyday lives.

Dr. Elizabeth Saewyc, Executive Director of the Stigma and Resilience Among Vulnerable Youth Centre and Research Director of the McCreary Centre Society joins us today to discuss her research on how living with stigma impacts LGBTQ youth and how she and her team are working to help them.

Dr. Saewyc, welcome to the interview.

Dr. Elizabeth Saewyc: Hello.

Mr. David Coulombe: So maybe a first question for you, sexual minority youth face many challenges?

Dr. Elizabeth Saewyc: Yes. Our research has shown over the years that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning teens experience what I’ll call health inequities. That is, they are more than likely to report that they’re missing needed healthcare. They’re more likely to report depression and suicidal thoughts and attempts, as well as a variety of different health-compromising behaviours such as smoking and drinking and substance use and unprotected sex. They’re even at high risk of teen pregnancy involvement. And much of the research that we’ve done over the years has also documented that these higher rates of health inequities are linked to experiencing violence.

Mr. David Coulombe: Could we say that they are more at risk of having mental health problems?

Dr. Elizabeth Saewyc: They are. And this is again primarily due to sort of a combination of both higher risk exposures; that is, they’re much more likely to experience physical and sexual abuse, to experience bullying in school and community violence often because of their sexual orientation or their gender identity. That is, people are targeting them because of their discrimination and stigma.

On the other hand, there are also heterosexual youths who are facing the same kinds of experiences, because people think they’re gay and, as a result, they experience that same bullying.

And what we know is that young people who are being bullied or facing a lot of discrimination have higher levels of health problems, especially mental health problems, because of that stigma and discrimination.

Mr. David Coulombe: So as a CIHR-funded researcher, how can you or your team help them?

Dr. Elizabeth Saewyc: The research that we’re doing actually helps look at not just documenting that there are these health inequities and saying, you know, “Hey world, this is a problem and these young people are experiencing challenges because they are not being accepted in society.” But also, we are able to identify sort of the social forces that actually help foster resilience. So we do know that not every lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer teen experiences the negative health outcomes, and so understanding what is different for those who are doing okay helps give us cues to how we can intervene.

Some of our research has actually looked at policies and programs and ways that schools, for example, can make a difference and some of the research we’ve done in B.C. has documented that when schools have inclusive policies that really support LGBTQ youth presence in the school environment and address bullying, they do better and are far less likely to be suicidal or to have suicidal thoughts or attempts.

Likewise, when there are gay/straight alliances or gender sexuality alliances in schools, both LGBTQ youths and heterosexual youths are at less risk for problems of substance use, for binge drinking, for suicidal thoughts and for discrimination.

Mr. David Coulombe: Last point, Dr. Saewyc. What message would you have for these youth, their friends, or even their parents?

Dr. Elizabeth Saewyc: I would say that in Canada, our Human Rights Code actually specifically addresses discrimination and the interpretation of the Human Rights Code has documented that you should not be discriminated against because of your sexual orientation. There are plans to add gender identity and expression to the Code. Therefore, it’s important to actually work with schools and to work in the wider community to foster not just acceptance but inclusion of LGBTQ youths in the wider society. Bullying, and violence and discrimination are not acceptable and they have health consequences.

To parents, it’s really important that you show your young person how much you love them and care about them, and if you’re having difficulty understanding what they’re going through, the Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) is a great organization of parents and other caring adults who can help you understand how to support your teen in better ways.

Mr. David Coulombe: Very interesting. Thanks so much for this, Dr. Saewyc.

Dr. Elizabeth Saewyc: You’re very welcome.

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