It's not easy being a teenager. And it's not easy being an ethnic minority teen. But what about being a gay ethnic minority teen?
A new study reveals that Asian Canadian gay, lesbian, or bisexual teens are a whopping 30 times more likely to be discriminated against than their Asian Canadian straight peers. And in dealing with that stress, Asian Canadian sexual minority youth were 10 times more likely to resort to alcohol or drugs than their heterosexual Asian Canadian classmates.
Enacted Stigma, Problem Substance Abuse, and Protective Factors Among Asian Sexual Minority Youth in British Columbia is the first North American study to shed light upon the connection between Asian LGB teens and substance abuse, and how social support can mitigate health risk factors, possibly even saving lives.
UBC School of Nursing professor and McCreary Centre Society research director Elizabeth Saewyc led the study, which was conducted with McCreary Centre Society research associate Colleen Poon and former UBC School of Nursing post-doctoral research fellow Weihong Chen.
She told the Straight by phone that the study was funded initially by the National Institutes of Health in the U.S. and is part of a much larger international study designed to explore stigma and harassment in the U.S., Canada, and New Zealand in indigenous, Asian, and European youth populations. The results of the Asian Canadian study in B.C. were published in a special edition of the Canadian Journal of Community Mental Health devoted to the psychosocial health of queer Canadians.
"We know very little about East Asian and Southeast Asian sexual minority youth in Canada," Saewyc said. "With the B.C. Adolescent Health Survey being one of the largest surveys of adolescents that's regularly repeated in Canada, and because in B.C. we have such a large portion of our population who are Asian or Southeast Asian, we actually have a large enough sample from this population study to be able to have stable results focused on Asian youth."
Data was drawn from 6,325 Asian Canadian public school students in grades 7 to 12 who completed the 2003 BC Adolescent Youth Survey. (The study focussed on East and Southeast Asian Canadian youth, which included students who were Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Filipino, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Cambodian, and more). According to Saewyc, South Asian Canadian youth were not included due to notable cultural differences, and a lack of significant South Asian populations in the other regions—Minnesota and New Zealand—being studied.)
The study examined a range of victimization experiences. The researchers discovered that Asian LGB male youth were twice as likely to be verbally harassed or excluded than their straight Asian classmates while Asian LGB female youth reported being involved in physical fights or assaults, or receiving verbal harassment 1.5 times more than their straight Asian counterparts.
What's more, sexual orientation discrimination was reported 17 times more by Asian LGB boys and four times more by Asian LGB girls than peers who did not experience racial discrimination.
However, the study went beyond merely pointing out problems to reveal what effectively worked to counteract these problems.
Saewyc noted that past research has proven that protective factors, such as strong familial bonds or involvement in extracurricular activities such as sports, music, art, or drama, are important in healthy adolescent development in general. In the study of B.C.'s Asian LGB youth, Saewyc said they discovered that a high level of protective factors chopped the risk of substance abuse problems by more than half.
"What we found was that in fact with sexual minority Asian teens, it's still a really important protective factor in terms of even when you're experiencing bullying or harassment, having teachers who care about you and feeling like you belong at school and are a part of that school can really help offset the stress that comes from being bullied," she said. "It really can make a difference in helping to reduce the chance that you're going to end up using alcohol and drugs to cope with that stress and end up with problems because of that."
Accordingly, Saewyc pointed out that sensitivity to cultural diversity also needs to be considered when implementing antihomophobic strategies in order to make schools more inclusive and safe. She observed that dealing with Asian cultural taboos and overcoming potential linguistic challenges, particularly for newcomers to Canada, are issues that must be faced.
"Clearly when schools are focussing on creating supportive environments for lesbian, gay, bisexual teens, they need to pay attention to racism that might also be part of the environment. These two things are so interlinked," she said. "Sexism is also part of the challenge. So it really is important for schools to pay attention to all the –isms and to make sure that they're creating environments where all students feel safe, supported, and feel like they belong."
Most importantly, Saewyc emphasized that the results of the study prove that the effects of such discrimination should not be written off or ignored.
"Kids who are harassed because they're gay, lesbian, or bisexual, or because people think they're gay, do face definite health issues that can be as severe as suicide…but even when that's not the case, long-term challenges to success in school and to long-term health issues. So it's important that people realize that this is still happening and that it's not benign. It has hard consequences, and nobody should be experiencing that."