National Survey Seeks Experiences of 17,000 Sexual and Gender Diverse Teens

'The spirit of the project is to better understand who among a very heterogenous group may need the most attention in reducing health disparities'

Findings of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation and UConn survey suggest that LGBTQ youth need support in the face of political attacks on LGBTQ equality. (Photo courtesy of the Human Rights Campaign)

UConn's Ryan Watson is working with the Human Rights Campaign on an ambitious national survey of sexual and gender diverse teens. (Photo courtesy of the Human Rights Campaign)

UConn researchers and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) have launched a national survey to reach 17,000 sexual and gender diverse teens, asking them questions about their health experiences, HIV prevention strategies, whether they’re called by the pronouns and names they want to be, and whether they feel safe playing sports, among many other things.

The survey is similar to one conducted in 2017 that led to more than 30 peer-reviewed papers and many HRC conferences and community events, UConn human development and family sciences associate professor Ryan J. Watson says.

But this effort differs from its predecessor in that participants will be paid in the form of a gift card, and they will have the option of being contacted over the years as part of future research.

“The spirit of the project is to better understand who among a very heterogenous group may need the most attention in reducing health disparities,” says Watson, who’s leading this survey and partnered with HRC.

The project builds on the 2017 survey for which Watson paired with Rebecca Puhl, human development and family sciences professor and deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Health at UConn, and the HRC.

“I was very surprised that we had so many teens respond in 2017. I was thrilled to learn that some of the teens were thankful for having the opportunity to tell us their experiences — some teens responded, ‘Thank you for listening to me,’” Watson says. “I think these teens wanted to be heard and hadn’t shared their experiences ever before. It was very heartwarming to know that many of them wanted to have their voices heard.”

The 2022 survey asks different questions compared to 2017, focusing on more timely issues including chest binding and the availability of bathrooms for transgender teens. This survey also asks about HIV testing experiences and thoughts on HIV prevention drugs such as pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP. In the 2017 survey, there were questions on weight-related behaviors, disordered eating, and school experiences.

Watson says the results of this survey cannot be directly compared to 2017 because this won’t be the same group of teens, the sampling strategy is different, and the political climate of the world has changed. However, there will be utility in determining whether overall patterns of health behaviors are changing over time.

“I was surprised five years ago by the results. We found 25 percent of our sample identified as pansexual. Some of my colleagues said they’d never heard of this term, yet thousands of kids in our sample identified with this label. The idea of pansexual isn’t new, but the term is becoming more mainstream,” says Watson. “This year, I will not be surprised if we see more youth with emerging identity terms and labels. In the not-so-distant past we would have seen mostly lesbian, gay, and bisexual labels. But today we’re seeing fewer traditional identities.”

The 2022 survey will be open for around six months. It will take about a half hour to complete; in 2017 teens spent an average of 42 minutes in one sitting filling out the questionnaire.

As it did with the previous survey, HRC will release an overall report on the results, which is expected later this year.

“We are thrilled to partner again with our colleagues at the University of Connecticut on this national survey,” says Ellen Kahn, senior director of programs and partnerships for HRC. “This research will spotlight the current landscape for queer and trans teens across the country, from all backgrounds, and will point our HRC Foundation programs in the best direction for addressing the most pressing needs and concerns of our youngest community members.”

Watson says he and other UConn researchers are planning several follow-up projects based on the results and the ability to contact participants directly in the future.

“Some of the most rigorous research is longitudinal,” he says. “The gold standard is for us to have multiple points of data collection over time. To be able to keep up with some of the participants’ transition into adulthood and see how their childhood experiences might predict later experiences will be remarkable.”

Sexual and gender diverse teens, aged 13 to 17, seeking to participate in the survey will need to verify their age using a school email address, school ID or driver’s license, or video call. Funding for the project comes from a grant from the National Institutes of Health.