How to Save Your Gay Kid

Don't raise him in Red Country, a new study says

There was an odd, poignant convergence of stories in the New York Times and the journal Pediatrics this week. The Times had a page-one piece on students at highly religious colleges—Baylor, Belmont, Abilene Christian—who are coming out as gay despite the teachings of their, well, teachers. They’re not having gay sex, mind you, since intercourse of any sort is strictly forbidden at evangelical institutions. But they are forming gay student groups, wearing rainbow bracelets, writing about their sexual orientation in campus publications, and quitting courses in “reparative therapy.”

At Baylor, the country’s biggest Baptist university, more than 50 students attend weekly meetings of the Sexual Identity Forum even though the school refuses to afford the group formal status, as it does the College Republicans, the fencing club and Asians for Christ. “The student body at large is ready for this,” one lesbian student told the Times. “But not the administration and the Regents.”

You might wonder why gay kids would choose to attend Christian colleges in the first place. The students say they start out hoping the environment will “turn them straight”—and that they’re raised by parents who expect them to go to those kinds of schools.

That leads nicely into the Pediatrics study, by Columbia University psychologist Mark Hatzenbuehler. His examination of some 32,000 Oregon 11th-graders used a social index to assess how supportive vs. unsupportive social environments impact teens’ suicidal tendencies—especially gay teens, since they kill themselves at a disproportionately high rate. Counties were rated as supportive or unsupportive according to how many same-sex couples lived there, how many of their voters were registered as Democrats, whether their schools had gay-straight student alliances, and whether their schools had policies that protected gay students from bullying and the like. Gay kids in the counties with the lowest scores—indicating conservative values—were 20 percent more likely to have tried suicide than those in more liberal areas. (Straight teen suicide rates were also higher in Red counties. Of the 1,584 11th-graders who said they’d attempted suicide, 304 were gay.) Even when the gay kids in the study weren’t bullied or victimized because of their sexuality, they were more likely to try to kill themselves when they were brought up in politically conservative regions.

Being a teenager is so hard—trying to figure out who you are in the mad push of competing messages from your parents, the outside world, your friends, your school, your soul. After any child’s suicide, parents are bound to wonder: What could I have done differently? Hatzenbuehler’s study shows more tolerance might go a long way.