The results of the CDC’s new Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) are in, and they show a major social crisis affecting America’s young people. Based on surveys of tens of thousands of high school students, the YRBS shows that “mental health among students overall continues to worsen, with more than 40% of high school students feeling so sad or hopeless that they could not engage in their regular activities for at least two weeks during the previous year.” There were also “significant increases in the percentage of youth who seriously considered suicide, made a suicide plan, and attempted suicide.”
Not all demographics are equally affected. Female and LGBQ+1 students are the worst affected by the “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.” While fewer than one-third of male students experienced such feelings, 57 percent of female students did, and the numbers have been getting worse for a long time (meaning this is not just a pandemic problem):
Among LGBQ+ students, the number was even worse. A staggering 69 percent of these students were suffering these feelings. On many indicators, life for LGBQ+ teens in the U.S. was substantially worse than for heterosexual teens. They are more than twice as likely to have been electronically bullied, and four times as likely to have ever been forced to have sex, than heterosexual teens (20 percent of LGBQ+ students report a history of forced sexual encounters, compared with 5 percent of heterosexual students). 22 percent of LGBQ+ students report having experienced sexual violence of some kind in the past year, nearly half had seriously considered attempting suicide in the last year, and over 20 percent had actually attempted suicide in the last year.
This should properly be considered a national emergency. The YRBS is telling us that nearly 1 out of every 5 female teenagers has experienced sexual violence in the last year and that the overwhelming majority of LGBQ+ teens have been sad and hopeless. And the YRBS might not even be capturing the full scale of the catastrophe. As the Wall Street Journal notes, “hesitation to admit behaviors in a classroom survey means those behaviors would be more common than the survey captures.” Whatever the exact true numbers, we know that young people are suffering, and that female and LGBQ+ students are suffering worst of all.
These facts are a critical context for thinking about terms in American politics like “the culture war” and “identity politics.” Right-wing politicians like Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott have, like segregationist governors of ages past, manufactured a nonexistent threat from a minority group to justify new kinds of persecution and exclusion. The right goes into hysterics when a drag queen gives a reading at a library, and Florida has made sure the schools won’t be places where LGBT kids hear affirming messages in schools.
The right’s modus operandi is to present the weakest and most marginalized groups as powerful and menacing. They live in a mental topsy-turvy land where being trans in school is supposedly such a cool and fun thing that it becomes a “contagion.” In the real world, of course, being LGBT in an American school increases your risk of being bullied and wanting to commit suicide. The right, of course, does not care at all about this. Ron DeSantis doesn’t lose any sleep over the fact that queer students are depressed and suicidal. DeSantis does not reflect on whether his own rhetoric and policies might contribute to the hostile environment these kids face. He’s fine with it.
In fact, some on the right go so far as to argue that the problem for depressed teenagers is that we’ve been too tolerant of differences. Ross Douthat, in a despicable column for the New York Times, highlights the alarming findings of the YRBS but places a good portion of the blame on “social liberalism,” including “increasing social and sexual permissiveness.” (He also blames technology.) Douthat does not discuss the YRBS’ findings on LGBQ+ youth, probably because it would be difficult to argue that a world in which his own right-wing Catholic values were more common would be anything but even worse for LGBQ+ kids.
When I read columns like Douthat’s, or the ridiculous opinion piece they published recently arguing (falsely) that J.K. Rowling is not transphobic, my thoughts keep returning to the young people who actually have to live in the hostile world that bigots create. Whose fates are really being fought over in the “culture war”? What look like fights over whether rainbow flags can be flown in school are also fights over whether we are going to continue to foster an environment in which half of LGBQ+ kids contemplate suicide. Everyone who has an opinion on the place of Pride in schools should also be confronted directly with the question: Do you support maintaining the current intensely hostile homophobic, transphobic world that young people have to grow up in, or do you believe they have a right to be happy no matter what their gender identity and sexuality happens to be?
Despite the efforts of certain commentators to insist that there is no such thing as the patriarchy, it’s also clear that teenage girls are suffering vastly more than teen boys at the moment, at least judged by their subjective experiences of persistent hopelessness and their reported instances of sexual violence. Let’s stop indulging the fantastical inverted reality where “the woke” are somehow in charge. Those who are the worst off are women and queer people, same as it ever was. All of our conversations about sex, sexuality, and gender should at least begin with the straightforward recognition of the evidence that it is tougher in this country to be LGBT than it is to be straight. Our schools are clearly distinctly “unwoke” places, and it should be transparently clear from the data that we need to massively escalate LGBT acceptance in schools before we’ll create anything close to an environment where everyone gets to flourish equally regardless of gender or sexuality.
The survey asked only about sexuality, not gender identity, so there is no specific data on transgender students. ↩