Feb. 23 2012

Lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) youths who live in supportive religious climates have lower rates of health risk behaviors, according to a new study by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. LGB youth who lived in counties with a religious atmosphere that was more supportive of homosexuality had significantly fewer alcohol abuse symptoms and a lower number of sexual partners, compared to LGB youth who lived in counties with less supportive religious climates.  

Study results showed that LGB youth were 42% less likely to abuse alcohol and were 23% less likely to have had sex in religious climates that were more supportive of homosexuality. The findings are published online in the American Journal of Public Health.

The investigators measured the degree of support for homosexuality using comprehensive data derived from 85 religious denominations across 34 Oregon counties. Researchers with expertise in religion and sexuality independently coded each of these religious denominations’ stances toward homosexuality. Denominations ranged from unsupportive (e.g., made explicit references to homosexuality as sinful in doctrinal position statements) to supportive of homosexuality (e.g., blessed same-sex unions).

Researchers then linked this variable on religion to data on individual health outcomes, which came from a sample of over 31,000 11th graders in Oregon, including 1,413 LGB students.

“LGB youths construct their identities within social climates that are shaped by religious influences,” said Mark L. Hatzenbuehler, a clinical psychologist and lead author of the study. “We wanted to examine whether the health of LGB youths are determined in part by the religious composition of the communities in which they live.”

Dr. Hatzenbuehler notes that the religious climate was associated with health risk behaviors for both heterosexual and LGB youth, but the religious climate was more strongly associated with health among the LGB youths. “Previous studies have shown that personal religiosity does not protect LGB youths against sexual risk behaviors as it consistently does for heterosexuals. By contrast, our results showed that LGB youths living in supportive religious counties exhibited fewer health risk behaviors, indicating that religion can exert a protective influence for LGB adolescents,” Dr. Hatzenbuehler said.

Read the study.