Schools with anti-homophobia policies and clubs are safer schools, and safer schools mean students are less likely to abuse alcohol, regardless of their sexual orientation, researchers at the University of British Columbia have found.
Senior author Dr. Elizabeth Saewyc said the study also indicates parents and school districts need not be worried about the harmful effects of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer programs on straight students.
There are "some schools, some boards of trustees or even parents (that) are concerned about whether or not we should have these kinds of policies," Saewyc said.
"I would think that the research that we've just done and the evidence it provides should help alleviate some of those concerns around whether or not this has an impact, or at least is linked to better outcomes for not just lesbian, gay and bisexual teens but also for teens in general."
The study, published recently in the Journal of Preventative Medicine, showed students at schools with anti-homophobia policies and gay-straight alliances tended to abuse alcohol less, regardless of sexual orientation.
"Nobody's actually proposed using gay-straight alliances as an anti-drug strategy, or to reduce problem substance use in schools," Saewyc said in an interview Tuesday.
But "this study suggest(s) that both the anti-homophobia policies and gay-straight alliances may be important tools to include in the tool-kit ... that schools use to prevent problem drinking and other harms from alcohol and drug use."
Anti-homophobia policies may include anti-bullying codes that specifically mention harassment based on sexual orientation. Gay-straight alliances tend to be student-led organizations that provide a supportive environment for LGBTQ youth and their straight allies.
The study looked at alliances and anti-homophobia policies at 280 B.C. high schools. Of those schools, 23 had long-established groups, while 37 had long-established anti-homophobia policies.
Researchers analyzed data from nearly 22,000 high school students who participated in the 2008 B.C. Adolescent Health Survey, which asked questions about sexual orientation, drinking and marijuana use.
What Saewyc and her team found was that girls of all sexual orientations, as well as straight boys, were less likely to participate in risky alcohol use if their school had introduced anti-homophobia policies or a gay-straight alliance more than three years earlier. The study also showed that amongst those students, there was a lower rate of other problems associated with alcohol, including black-outs, problems at school, family arguments about using alcohol, and even car accidents.
"For the lesbian and bisexual girls, it seems fairly likely that having a gay-straight alliance in your school, even if you're not participating in it, is creating a safer space for you," she said. "Now for heterosexual students, that's not what you expect ... but people forget that when it comes to anti-gay bullying, heterosexual students can be targeted too."
Saewyc noted that as many as two-thirds of youth who have faced discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation "actually identify as straight."
"They're perceived as gay, or students are actually just using anti-gay terms because it's the meanest thing they know that they think they can still get away with," she said. But "when you have anti-homophobia policies in place (and) gay-straight alliances in place, that appears to change the environment in the school and that also will influence the health outcomes for straight kids."
There were no significant effects for gay or bisexual boys.
In the wake of the study's findings, counsellor Nancy Kartsonas said school districts across B.C. need to take note.
"There are many school districts that do not have anti-homophobia or discrimination policies, or they are not being fully enforced by the code-of-conduct in the schools," Kartsonas, who has counselled students at Vancouver high schools for more than 20 years, said in an interview Tuesday.
Kartsonas said there are still far too many news reports about tragic incidents involving youth who felt ostracized because of their sexual orientation.
"Within the schools I think we need to capitalize on the current research that's occurring at the university level and look at that for best practice," she said.
Dara Parker is the executive director of Vancouver-based resource centre Qmunity. She said the UBC study "is a concrete example of what we know to be true — homophobia doesn't only affect LGBTQ youth, it affects all youth."
Parker said the study affirms the need for funding for anti-homophobia work by B.C. school boards, as currently "only 22 of 60 have LGBTQ policies, and only one has a dedicated anti-homophobia co-ordinator."
Kartsonas temporarily served as a sponsor for a gay-straight alliance and has also sponsored anti-homophobia initiatives within schools and the community. She said she has seen up close the impact these programs can have on youth.
"Many students are very fearful of identifying themselves or outing themselves publicly in the school, and as a counsellor ... sometimes they will confide privately about their personal issues," she said.
"But these clubs provide safety for the kids, and there are students who have been in life-threatening situations prior to joining these types of groups and then they find the support of peers and are able to overcome obstacles."