A majority of Vermont high school students feel like they matter to their communities. But they're much less likely to feel this way if they are LGBT, according to the 2017 Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
"That concerns me," said Maryann Morris, executive director of the Collaborative, a substance use prevention organization based in Londonderry. "We're perceived as being this state that's really open, and accepting — woke, to use the current term. But [these students are] still, at this young age, not feeling this connection."
The Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey is a national school-based survey that monitors health-risk behaviors among youth and young adults.
Only 39 percent of surveyed LGBT high school students reported feeling like they matter to people in their community, versus 64 percent of heterosexual or cisgender students — those whose gender identity corresponds with the sex they were assigned at birth.
The survey is conducted every two years. In Vermont, the Department of Health works with the Agency of Education and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct two separate surveys: one of high school students in grades 9 through 12, and one of middle school students in grades 6 through 8.
Overall, 20,653 high school students, representing 69 schools, and 13,887 Vermont middle school students, representing 122 schools, took the survey.
According to survey results, LGBT high school students are also significantly more likely than heterosexual or cisgender students to feel sad or hopeless, have safety concerns at school, experience bullying within the last month, or be forced to have sexual intercourse.
LGBT students were also four times more likely to have attempted suicide or hurt themselves on purpose in the past year.
These differences are also significant between heterosexual or cisgender and LGBT students at the middle school level.
"Youth who identify as something other than heterosexual or cisgender are, in many ways, falling through the cracks," said Dana Kaplan, executive director of Outright Vermont, an LGBT youth organization headquartered in Burlington. "Not feeling safe, not feeling seen. Or worse off, actively being targets of violence and hate."
There have been some improvements from previous surveys for LGBT youth — but that's far from enough, he said
"Youth are still struggling with being safe and supported in their environments," Kaplan said. "That's just not acceptable. That's got to shift."
LGBT students live in a world that isn't set up to be in line with their lived experience, he said. They handle overtly threatening behaviors — like hearing someone being called a slur — and dealing with default behaviors that threaten their identities.
A teacher separating a class into boys and girls could be an example of a default practice that doesn't accurately reflect the experience of some students, Kaplan said.
"It makes sense that, when you try to move through a world that is not set up to cater to your lived experience ... that would be a really challenging thing for anybody," he said. "Little things happen all day that work to to create an experience of either, 'there's something wrong with me,' 'I don't belong here.'"
Of course, then, there's disparities in the indicators seen in the survey, he said.
Data from the survey shows that LGBT high school students were more than three times as likely to have been forced to have sexual intercourse than heterosexual or cisgender students.
LGBT youth are not living in a culture where they have a lot of access to what it means to be in a healthy relationship, Kaplan said.
"If you don't have that information, it's hard to know," he said. "The need to be able to explore being in a relationship or explore sexual behaviors with other folks is there. And I think that can sometimes be compounded by again, not having a compass that is showing [a lot] of healthy options."
The world still assumes that, by default, a person will be heterosexual and cisgender, he said.
And when an LGBT person experiences sexual violence, it can be harder to access resources.
"It might not feel safe to access help," he said. "Help that is available might not be culturally current with what you need."
And the "overall lens" of transphobia, homophobia and racism is part of a context in which physical and sexual violence lives, he said.
The survey results also show an increase at the high school level in students who had ever tried electronic vapor products.
The percentage of high school students reporting having tried any of these products was 34 percent, up from 30 percent in 2015's survey.
These percentages also increased from 2015 for middle school students, from 7 percent to 9 percent.
Electronic vapor products include e-cigarettes, which are small, battery-powered cartridges designed to deliver vaporized liquid nicotine in lieu of tobacco smoke.
The percentage of high school students reporting using methamphetamines and cocaine also decreased from 2015 results, from 3 percent to 2 percent, 5 percent to 4 percent, respectively.
The percentage of high school students reporting having tried heroin stayed the same, at 2 percent overall.
Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at email@example.com, at @BE_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.