The Agony of Youth
UConn researchers hope a groundbreaking study will lead to progress
By Cara McDonough / Photography By Allegra Anderson
When it comes to the challenges and disparities faced by today’s LGBTQ youth, University of Connecticut Professor Ryan J. Watson has done his homework – he has studied the numbers, produced hard data and drawn conclusions.
And the enterprising researcher, who is an assistant professor in the Human Development and Family Sciences Department, notes that the reality is … alarming.
Yes, same-sex marriage is now the law of the land, and life is theoretically “better” for queer and transgender teens. Yet there are still major hurdles faced by the population.
But Dr. Watson hopes that by studying our most vulnerable populations, we’ll be much better equipped to address the problems they face.
In a landmark 2017 survey of more than 12,000 LGBTQ youth aged 13 to 17, produced by Dr. Watson in partnership with the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), participants reported experiencing various challenges at jarringly high numbers – 95 percent reported that they have trouble getting to sleep at night; 77 percent reported receiving unwanted sexual comments, jokes, and gestures in the year prior; and only 26 percent said that they always felt safe in the classroom. Seventy percent said they have been bullied at school because of their sexual orientation.
LGBTQ teens of color faced additional issues. The report found that some encounter racism on a daily basis, making expressing their LBGTQ identity that much more difficult. Only 11 percent of LGBTQ youth of color believed their racial/ethnic group is regarded positively in the United States.
Transgender youth also faced complicated challenges, the study found, with 51 percent saying they couldn’t use the bathrooms or locker rooms that match their gender identity. Some said they didn’t feel safe doing so, others said they aren’t sure if it’s allowed, and 17 percent said teachers or other administrators told them not to.
The study, undertaken in 2017, was conducted with co-investigator Dr. Rebecca Puhl, professor of human development and family studies and deputy director of UConn’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. The report – importantly – came out after President Donald Trump’s administration announced that the government would not collect data on the LGBTQ community as part of the 2020 Census. Through a series of questions, the study examined the lives of more than 12,000 LGBTQ youth ages 13 to 17, living all over the country.
According to a report on the study issued by the HRC, these various stressors mean that LGBTQ youth report higher rates of depression, anxiety, and alcohol and drug use.
“I’m still surprised by the statistics and super alarmed by these high rates of disparities,” says Dr. Watson. “Yes, we’ve had a lot of progress. We’ve quickly legalized same-sex marriage, and trans folks have non-discrimination laws, and we expect that those things will impact the broader climate. But despite this, we still see 50 percent of trans kids who feel unsafe – they don’t feel that they can be who they are.”
Dr. Watson hopes, however, that the more we know about these issues, the better equipped we’ll be to solve them.
That drive has inspired his research, which largely focuses on studying at-risk populations, and particularly youth. His graduate work at the University of Arizona began in a lab that studied bullying among ethno-racial lines. And in addition to the LBGTQ youth study, his work at UConn yielded another major study published in the Journal of Research on Adolescence in February 2019, which found that a large proportion of sexual and gender minority youth do not identify with traditional sexual identity labels, but instead use emerging labels including “nonbinary” or “asexual.” His current research focuses on preventing health disparities – such as HIV transmission – through prevention and intervention strategies in various populations.
“We are at an interesting time where kids are more empowered and able to use complex terms and feel comfortable with that,” he says of the sexual identity study.
And yes, those terms might be difficult for older people to grasp at first. But Dr. Watson advises that being honest can be the best path forward in a time when culture and norms are so rapidly changing.
“I think that [it’s beneficial] if people can be up-front and say, ‘I just want to celebrate who you are, work with me while I work through this,’ and just be open-minded,” he says.
As for the 2018 youth study, Dr. Watson believes the numbers probably would have been even higher had the study been done several years earlier. But there is no question that many difficult issues persist within this population.
“We still have the pervasive negativity and discrimination towards LGBTQ people in general and can see it impacting youth in really negative ways,” he says, adding that some of the negative messages come from politicians in positions of power and increased visibility.
His partners at HRC agree, both about the severity of the findings and the hope that these statistics will yield something better.
“The harrowing statistics show the devastating toll that rejection by family and peers, bullying and harassment, and apathy on the part of too many adults is having on America’s young people,” says Ellen Kahn, senior director of programs and partnerships at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. “Ryan Watson has been an invaluable partner, and through our work, these findings are helping to inform policy and practice change to improve the lives of these young people.”
Dr. Watson’s research is critically important to understanding an understudied population, says Dr. Eva S. Lefkowitz, professor and department head of the UConn Human Development and Family Sciences department. She believes his work is essential in helping to develop prevention programs and policies to support the well-being of these young people.
“Scholars – and the general public – are just catching up to this new generation of young people, who tend to have much more flexible beliefs about gender and sexuality, and Dr. Watson’s work is helping us to gain a basic understanding of fundamental questions such as what labels youth use to describe themselves,” she says.
And Dr. Puhl, Dr. Watson’s research collaborator, says it has been particularly important for her to study the experiences of weight-based victimization in sexual and gender minority youth, another understudied issue that has concerning implications for victims’ emotional and physical health.
“Our national study found that SGM [sexual gender minority] youth face substantial weight-based teasing from both peers and family members, regardless of their body size. Moreover, this weight-based teasing is linked with their poorer mental health, higher likelihood of substance use, and unhealthy eating behaviors,” Dr. Puhl says.
“So, this tells us that efforts to support LGBTQ youth need to be more comprehensive; many LGBTQ youth are victimized for having multiple stigmatized identities (e.g., both sexual orientation and body weight), and so programs or initiatives aiming to support LGBTQ youth need to address these vulnerabilities and health consequences stemming from different types of stigma. This important work wouldn’t have been possible without our collaboration, and it’s been a productive and successful research project for us both to work on together.”
The data, researchers agree, indicate a heavy truth about today’s LGBTQ youth: things may be getting better, but there are still unruly, complicated challenges that young people face.
Dr. Watson doesn’t sugarcoat the numbers. But he does plan to continue doing the research that keeps these struggling populations in the public eye. He’s seen former mentors conduct research that has yielded change in the form of new laws and regulations.
Plus, he notes what seems a small, but important detail in the LGBTQ youth survey: participants took an average of 45 minutes to complete the questions. That’s a long time, and may indicate that simply asking the questions, and giving these individuals the chance to share, is a meaningful experience in itself.
“Things like that make it exciting to do the work because you know that it’s helping people,” Dr. Watson says. “When you can see that impact, it makes me want to keep doing the work.”