Credit: Seven Seas of Rhye on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 2.0).

(WOMENSENEWS)–The significance of sexuality can vary greatly among different cultural and ethnic groups. LGBT youth of color are likely to face different challenges and stressors in consolidating their racial, ethnic and sexual identities than white, non-Hispanic LGBT youth.

Identity is influenced, in part, by such cultural factors as values and beliefs regarding sexuality, stereotypes about gender roles and expectations about childbearing, religious values and beliefs and the degree of acculturation or assimilation into mainstream society. The tight-knit family structures important to many immigrant communities and communities of color can make the coming-out process more difficult for some LGBT youth. As Trinity Ordona, a cofounder of Asian/Pacific Islander PFLAG in San Francisco notes:

“The families are the core of the culture. When a gay Asian comes out and gets kicked out of the family, it’s like being severed from the heart. But if you get the family on your side they will stand and protect you.”

For children, racial and ethnic identity is an important point of commonality with their families, which provide a vital support system for living in a society in which racism persists. Even when children experience hostility in the outside world because of their race or ethnicity, they come home to a supportive environment anchored by a shared culture.

In contrast, LGBT youth cannot expect to find similar support around sexuality or gender issues at home. In addition, conservative religious beliefs dominate some ethnic minority and immigrant communities. Two-thirds of the 2,700 Black Pride Survey respondents in the year 2000 said homophobia was a problem in the black community. Forty-three percent reported mostly negative experiences in black churches and mosques, while another 31 percent reported equally positive and negative experiences.

Varying Factors

The age at which youth become aware of same-sex attraction and the degree to which they are comfortable coming out to school friends may vary along racial and ethnic lines. Though not generalizable to all LGBT youth, a study of 139 gay men found that Latinos became aware of their same-sex attraction at a younger age compared to white and African American youth. White youth, however, were more likely to come out to their families.

The same study found that Asian American youth were more likely to have sex at an earlier age–three years earlier, on average–than other racial or ethnic groups. The majority of African American youth in the study engaged in sex before labeling their sexual identity, while Asian American youth overwhelmingly engaged in sex only after labeling themselves as gay or bisexual. A 1996 study reported that African American youth had more optimistic attitudes than whites about coming out to their friends, believing that their heterosexual peers would accept them. Most had already come out to their best friends with positive results.

Some researchers have proposed that there are differences in the coming-out process based on race and culture. In one study, Asian American, African American and Latino youth were less likely than white youth to disclose their sexual orientation to family members. Low levels of disclosure of sexual orientation to others were associated with higher levels of internalized homophobia among Latino and Asian American youth.

This dynamic was not the case for African American and white youth. White youth may be more likely to hide their sexual orientation in school, citing fears of harassment and violence. Some researchers suggest that white adolescent students feel less comfortable coming out because they are not accustomed to minority status and have not developed the same coping skills as minority youth.

Compounded By Racism

LGBT youth of color often experience racism in white-dominated LGBT communities, organizations and support networks, which may disproportionately be of service to white, suburban, middle-class LGBT youth. Such LGBT communities may offer fewer resources for urban youth, who are more likely to be black or Latino, and the institutions that do exist may be perceived as “white,” inaccessible or irrelevant to their experiences.

Although sizable and well-organized LGBT communities of color exist, particularly in large urban areas, LGBT youth of color may choose not to connect with them because they fear they will be harassed by their peers. Though these youth are stigmatized on the basis of both race and sexual orientation or gender identity, many find inadequate support as they navigate among three, often compartmentalized communities.

The few researchers and educators who have examined the relationship between sexuality, race and the harassment faced by LGBT youth of color often treat LGBT students’ race as an add-on to their sexuality or gender identity. Initiatives to make schools safer for LGBT students and to integrate LGBT issues into the curriculum sometimes lack an understanding of how the experiences of youth of color differ from those of white LGBT students.

The information that is available seems to assume that because of the stigma of being both a racial and sexual minority, LGBT youth of color have a more difficult school experience. However, that may not always be the case. One researcher found that African American youth who experience same-sex attraction actually had significantly higher self-esteem then their white, Asian or Hispanic peers. While these findings do not discount other studies that have documented the negative experiences of LGBT youth of color, they do highlight the need for more research on the different ways that white youth and youth of color cope with coming out at school.

Jason Cianciotto is an independent consultant specializing in applied research and public policy analysis. Sean Cahill is director of health policy research at the Fenway Institute in Boston and adjunct assistant professor of public administration at New York University.

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