A Comparison of Sexual Minority Youth Who Attend Religiously Affiliated Schools and Their Nonreligious-School-Attending Counterparts

Author(s): Brandon T. Stewart, Nicholas C. Heck, and Bryan N. Cochran

Source: Stewart, Brandon T., Nicholas C. Heck, and Bryan N. Cochran. 2015. "A Comparison of Sexual Minority Youth Who Attend Religiously Affiliated Schools and Their Nonreligious-School-Attending Counterparts." Journal of LGBT Youth,12(2): 170-188.

Link: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/19361653.2014.969864#.VjY9hberTIU

Previous studies have shown that non-heterosexual sexual minorities are at a higher risk for negative health outcomes than their heterosexual peers.  Separate studies have shown that highly religious contexts have an insulating effect in terms of binge drinking and marijuana use.  Stewart, Heck, and Cochran examine whether the protective nature of religiously-affiliated schools extends to sexual minority students.  The authors find that sexual minority youth attending religiously-affiliated schools are less likely to be "out" and more likely to have alcohol-related problems than their counterparts at non-religious schools.

The authors designed and fielded an online survey of 475 participants aged 16 – 20 who identified as sexual minorities.  Respondents were recruited through convenience sampling by contacting youth groups that were likely to have high numbers of non-heterosexual adolescent members (such as PFLAG and sexual minority groups at schools).  Twenty-five students were attending religious institutions while the other 450 attended non-religious schools.  The authors utilized the full sample of 475 participants to analyze out-ness, and then generated a sub-sample of 50 students the public school group to calculate differences in alcohol related problems between public and religious school students.

The authors found that sexual minorities from non-religious schools are twice as likely to be out (67%) than those attending religious institutions (33%), a highly significant difference between groups (χ2 = 9.99 p=0.002).  They also found that non-religious school attendees had a significantly lower (t=2.46 p=0.019) Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT) scores (M=2.28) than their religious school counterparts (M=7.78), indicating lower alcohol use, both in terms of amount and frequency (a score of 8 indicates a high likelihood of hazardous alcoholic consumption).  Given this, Stewart, Heck, and Cochran conclude that the protective qualities of religious schools for heterosexual students do not extend to sexual minorities.

Unlike many other stigmatized characteristics, sexual identity is concealable.  Therefore, these findings suggest that sexual minorities may be more likely to disguise their non-heterosexual dispositions within the public spaces in which they can be disenfranchised, such as highly religious contexts.  This social pressure to either conform to heterosexual standards or to be perceived as "other" may be what is leading sexual minorities to have higher risk of alcohol abuse than their public school counterparts.

However, these conclusions should be read with a note of caution given the limitations of the study, many of which were noted by the authors themselves.  They explain that the small size of the religiously-affiliated group makes it difficult to generalize to a larger population of students.  More problematic was the use of convenience sampling methods, which utilized gay-straight alliance groups as well as heavily relying on Facebook pages to distribute the online survey, which could have led to a biased sample.  

In addition, the small sample size limited the analytical tools available to the researchers, who relied only on bivariate tests of group differences, leaving many potentially important explanatory variables (such as SES, race, or home life) unexamined, likely resulting in biased results.  Overall, in spite of the limited generalizability of the authors’ conclusions, they introduce the important topic of the experience of sexual minorities in religious schools, an understudied and potentially fruitful area for future research.


Keywords: Stigmatization, Sexual Minority Youth, Alcohol Use

Sector: Catholic,  Evangelical Protestant,  Jewish,  Muslim,  Other Protestant,  Private,  Public

Outcomes: Peers and Social Networks

Date Posted: 2015-01-12