(CNN) — When I was 8, I joined the Boy Scouts. I lasted three weeks–couldn’t get the hang of all that knot tying, and no one was interested in singing show tunes around the campfire. I was gay and I knew it. At that time, revealing my sexual identity would have resulted in my exclusion from Scouting. Until the Boy Scouts of America’s historic May 23 vote — which allows gay youth to join the scouts, but upholds the ban on gay adult leaders — thousands of boys across the country faced similar discrimination from the Scouts, who actively and vocally banned gays.
The Scouts’ decision to include gay youth is part of the sea change sweeping across the United States on the issue of gay equality, an issue that has long centered on equal rights for all. But discrimination, in the Boy Scouts as in every walk of life, brings with it another effect that is left out of the conversation on rights: poorer health.
Hiding one’s sexual identity and being excluded from activities and social groups causes stress, and research shows this can have a significant impact on health. In her review of the health of gay youth, Tumaini Coker notes that gay youth are three times more likely to partake in substance abuse, and that adolescents who said they felt stigmatized — for example, in the form of family rejection — are five times more likely to experience depression.
Still, this is an area that, unfortunately, has not been well studied. On the rare occasions that this link is discussed, the academic community has tended to focus on adults. But the health effects on young people who are stigmatized is surely as significant.
My own recent research, published in the American Journal of Men’s Health, drew on a sample of 1,000 gay men from Atlanta, and showed that gay men who reported that they heard statements such as "being gay is not normal" in their youth were more likely as adults to have unprotected sex and to have sex while intoxicated or high. The study is among the first to demonstrate associations between stigma induced stress in childhood and negative health behaviors as adults that put them at risk for HIV infection.
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