Religion has been shown to be a protective factor against many negative behaviors. For adolescents who are at increased risk for engaging in destructive coping mechanisms, such as drug and alcohol use, risky sexual activity, and self-harm, strong religious affiliation can serve as a shield against such pressures. But for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) teens, religion can increase the risk for hazardous behaviors. According to a new study conducted by Mark L. Hatzenbuehler of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University in New York, teens that live in communities that practice sexual minority intolerance due to religious beliefs are more likely to experience prejudice and discrimination than heterosexual teens.
Although acceptance of LGBTQ lifestyles has gained increased acceptance throughout the United States over the past decade, nearly half of religious people still believe that homosexuality is a sin. This can lead to feelings of demoralization, low self-worth, isolation, and fear for teens that are part of sexual minority groups. Even those not directly affiliated with religiously intolerant sects can still experience the negative consequences of being part of a community or social environment that holds these religious beliefs.
To determine how religious climates affect homosexual adolescents compared to heterosexual adolescents, Hatzenbuehler and his colleagues evaluated data from over 31,000 high school students from Oregon. Of the participants, over 1,400 reported being LGBTQ. Hatzenbuehler evaluated how religiosity and the acceptance or rejection of homosexuality influenced their behaviors. He found that for the LGBTQ teens, an intolerant religious atmosphere increased the risk of alcohol misuse, tobacco use, and unsafe sexual practices. The results clearly demonstrate that religiosity, a condition that often insulates heterosexual teens from dangerous behaviors, serves as a predictor of these same behaviors in sexual minority teens. However, teens who were part of communities where the religious group accepted sexual minorities were less likely to actively participate in these negative activities. Hatzenbuehler believes the findings of this study underscore the importance of addressing social and personal attitudes when working with LGBTQ youth. He added, “Developing interventions that diminish the negative psychosocial consequences of living in social environments that stigmatize homosexuality remains an important public health priority.”
Hatzenbuehler, M. L., Pachankis, J. E., Wolff, J. (2012). Religious climate and health risk behaviors in sexual minority youths: A population-based study. American Journal of Public Health 102.4, 657-663.
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