Nina Packebush: Does Teen Pregnancy Make You Gay? Or is it The Other Way Around?

I used to joke that teenage motherhood made girls gay. Turns out I wasn’t so far off track.

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I recently stumbled upon a study that came out in May 2015 that showed LGB (lesbian, gay, and bisexual) teenagers are more likely to become pregnant, or to get someone pregnant, than straight teenagers. The research by George Mason University, which appeared in the American Journal of Public Health, used data from nearly 10,000 ethnically and racially diverse New York City high school students from 2005, 2007 and 2009. The research showed that nearly 13 percent of heterosexual girls became pregnant, compared to 23 percent of lesbian or bisexual girls. This trend held true when the researchers compared actual sexual activity as opposed to identity, with 14 percent of young women who only had sex with male partners becoming pregnant compared to 20 percent of girls who reported sexual encounters with male and female partners.

The study also looked at how likely male students were to father a child. Around ten percent of heterosexual boys who only reported sex with women had a sexual encounter that resulted in a pregnancy compared to 29 percent of self-identifying gay or bisexual males, and 38 percent among boys who reported having sex with male and female partners.

Many have hypothesized possible factors that could be causing such a large difference in the pregnancy rates of LGB teens as compared to straight teens; factors such as inadequate sex education, substance abuse, threat of discrimination causing kids to date members of the opposite gender in an attempt to fit in, lack of support in the teenagers’ families and schools, becoming sexually active at earlier ages than straight peers, situations of homelessness that force kids to trade sex for shelter or money, and a history of abuse, but the reasons that these kids get pregnant can’t be boiled down to such easy answers. Teenagers get pregnant for reasons as individual as they are, and that’s true for both straight and queer teens.

The survey did not include measures to identify transgender, genderqueer, or gender-nonconforming students, which in my opinion was a huge oversight. Gender variant youth may be less likely to think about the need for birth control because of the fact they don’t identify with the gender assigned at birth. In addition, trans and gender variant youth are just as likely, if not more so, as gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens to face issues of abuse, homelessness, and discrimination. I feel that if this study had included trans and gender variant youth the numbers would be even higher.

But even without including gender variant and trans kids these numbers are staggering. We all talk about the disproportionate numbers of queer kids committing suicide as compared to straight kids, so why aren’t we doing the same for teenage pregnancy?

“When I got pregnant, I didn’t have any clue that I was queer. I knew I didn’t fit in. I knew I didn’t like the things that most of the other girls my age liked. I knew I was never “boy crazy.” I knew that wearing dresses and lipstick and nail polish made me feel like I was in drag, but I didn’t know that I was gay.”

It has also been my personal experience that many of those straight identified teens may actually turn out to be not so straight after all. I got pregnant almost immediately after becoming sexually active at seventeen–and seventeen years later I came out. When I got pregnant, I didn’t have any clue that I was queer. I knew I didn’t fit in. I knew I didn’t like the things that most of the other girls my age liked. I knew I was never “boy crazy.” I knew that wearing dresses and lipstick and nail polish made me feel like I was in drag, but I didn’t know that I was gay. I did know that I felt like a freak because at seventeen I hadn’t had a boyfriend yet, so when I did get one I was eager to prove that I was lovable. A couple months after turning eighteen I was pregnant and at that point, although I felt crush feelings for girls, it never crossed my mind that I might actually be a queer. That took many years to discover and in the meantime I felt some strange and misguided sense of pride that I had only one sexual partner for my entire adult life. I hid in my role as “mother.”

After the birth of my third child things changed for me. I discovered the Hip Mama message boards and a whole new world was opened up. I was thirty years old when I found my pack of grown-up teen mom friends. As I got to know these women I found out that most of them identified as lesbian, queer, trans, or bisexual and of the tiny handful that had identified as straight when I met them, many later came out. I used to joke that teenage motherhood made girls gay. Turns out I wasn’t so far off track.

About a decade ago I wrote an article for LoudMouth magazine about teen parenthood and mentioned a study from the Guttmacher Institute that showed that lesbian teens were more likely to get pregnant than straight girls. I mentioned this as an aside and didn’t really delve into it much, however I did file it away in my brain and thought about it often. In my own life and in the lives of my friends this did seem to prove true, so this week when I came upon this latest study I was excited to see that more research had been done to validate the previous study and to expand on it.

The study talked a lot about the need for prevention programs that focused on LGB teenagers, but  there was no mention of programs aimed at LGB teenage parents, so I decided to do some research to see what kinds of programs that were out there for pregnant and parenting queer teens. I found none. Next I tried to find programs aimed at pregnant and parenting teens that were actively inclusive of queer kids. I found none. It was surprising to me that in 2015 with so much focus on, and acceptance of, queer youth there was still a deafening silence around this topic. When I did google searches such as “lesbian teen moms” or “pregnant lesbian teens” I got nothing but porn sites. Searching things like “queer teen parents” and the like brought up articles directed at parents of queer teenagers.

Nobody can argue that prevention programs aimed at queer teenagers that address issues of abuse, inadequate sex education, discrimination, and that encourage teens to delay sex are important, but what about the kids that are already pregnant and parenting? No prevention program in the world is ever going to be 100 percent effective. Kids get pregnant, that’s a fact that will never go away and to be honest I don’t think it should go away. Teenage parents are not an evil that needs to be eradicated.

Young parents are a fact of life and what they need most is to see that they aren’t alone. They need to have specific parenting programs aimed at the unique needs of the pregnant and parenting queer teenager. They need to have grown-up, queer teen parent mentors. They need to see themselves and their lives reflected in the media, books, movies, and society in general. They need to be able to google “lesbian (or queer) teen mom support” and not find endless pages of porn sites.

When even the best organizations focused on supporting queer teenagers have virtually nothing on pregnant and parenting LGB teenagers we have a problem. And forget about finding any programs that focus on trans or genderqueer teen parents. They don’t exist. As a matter of fact most people don’t even think trans and genderqueer teen parents can exist. Programs that are supporting teenage parents are dropping the ball and programs that support queer teenagers are dropping the ball. This has to change.

Programs that are aimed at teenage parents need to stop assuming that the pregnant kids they encounter are straight. They need to develop programs specific to queer teenagers. Programs aimed at queer teens need to incorporate pregnancy prevention curriculums AND need to have resources available for kids that may find themselves pregnant. Those of us who are queer and gave birth as teenagers need to be allies and advocates for LGBTQ inclusive teen parent programs, but most importantly we need to tell our stories. We need to speak out. We need to write articles, essays, and books about our experiences. We need to make podcasts and art that reflect our lives. We need to share our stories with the teenage parents and queer youth in our lives. Together we can change the lives of queer teen parents and their children. Let’s do this.

Nina Packebush is a queer, a grown up teen mom, a granny, a radio producer, and writer for many indie publications. In addition to launching the teen mom project wehaveraisedpresidents.org (please contact her if you have a story to tell), she is also looking for a publisher for her young adult novel, Girls Like Me, about a queer teenage mom. If you have any leads please let her know. You can contact her at: npackebush@gmail.com

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