Suicidal behaviour in gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth

BMJ 2000; 320 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.320.7250.1617 (Published 17 June 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;320:1617

It's an international problem that is associated with homophobic legislation

  1. Christopher Bagley, professor (cb5{at}socsci.soton.ac.uk),
  2. Anthony R D'Augelli, professor (ard{at}psu.edu)
  1. Department of Social Work Studies, University of Southampton, Southampton SO17 1BJ
  2. Department of Human Development and Family Studies, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16802, USA

    There is now a bitter debate in the United Kingdom over the repeal of Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which forbids the promotion of homosexuality. This debate should be enlightened by accumulating research on the development of sexual orientation in adolescence and the mental health consequences of growing up in a climate of homophobic intolerance.1 British research documenting the impact of homophobia has been corroborated by extensive research in the United States, Canada, and New Zealand.24

    Sexual orientation emerges strongly during early adolescence. Youths with emerging identities that are gay, lesbian, or bisexual, living in generally hostile climates, face particular dilemmas. They are well aware that in many secondary schools the words “fag” and “dyke” are terms of denigration and that anyone who is openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual is open to social exclusion and psychological and physical persecution.4 Some of their families too will express negative feelings about people who are gay, lesbian, or bisexual; youths in such families may be victimised if they disclose that they are not heterosexual.5 6

    Youths who feel that they are gay must either hide their feelings from others for many years or face the risk of “coming out” to family and peers. Either course is perilous, and for some, one consequence of the confusion over their identity in a climate of intense intolerance and victimisation may be suicidal behaviour.7 Epidemiological studies from North America and New Zealand show that gay and bisexual males are at least four times as likely to report a serious suicide attempt.3 4 811

    Many schools allow a climate of homophobia

    In the United States, more youths are disclosing their gay, lesbian, or bisexual orientation during high school, especially as more support services are being made available. However, many schools provide no assistance and allow a climate of homophobia to persist. For example, legislation in the state of Utah (now repealed) was enacted to eliminate after school clubs that supported gay, lesbian, and bisexual youths. Additionally, many families remain unable to respond positively to their gay, lesbian, and bisexual children and have little access to information and support; this in turn may contribute to the stresses in adolescents' lives—stresses that can lead to despair.12

    Thus, Section 28 must be seen as homophobic legislation that may contribute to the mental health problems—such as depression, substance misuse, and suicide—of gay, lesbian, and bisexual youths. The limbo into which these youths are assigned by Section 28 regulations must be ended.


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