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My Take: Queering the YRBS

My Take: Queering the YRBS

By John Shields, PhD, MSW | September 25, 2013

I’m the director of ETR’s portfolio of program evaluation projects with the San Francisco Unified School District’s Student, Family, and Community Support Department (SFUSD-SFCSD). ETR has been working in close partnership with SFUSD for over twenty years now—eleven during my tenure.


One of the most important components of our work with the SFUSD has been our bi-annual administration and analysis of the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS). The YRBS provides high-quality data on the health risk behavior of SFUSD’s middle and high school students. In partnership with SFUSD, we’ve taken steps to use the power of the YRBS to address the critical health and wellness needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth.


New Data, Incredible Impact

Back in 2001, SFUSD successfully petitioned the CDC to add an item on sexual orientation to the high school YRBS. Eleven years later, SFUSD sought and received CDC clearance to add an item on gender identity, to gather information on the health and wellness of transgender youth.

These data have had an incredible impact. They are instrumental in building awareness of LGBTQ youth issues and health disparities. They provide SFUSD with reliable information for program planning and demonstrate the need for additional services and supports for LGBTQ youth. The work has also allowed us to make meaningful contributions to the scientific literature.

Transformative Data Provides Evidence of Disparities

The District and its community-based agency partners have called these data “transformative” because they offer reliable quantitative evidence of the health and wellness disparities between heterosexual and LGBTQ youth. For example, lesbian, gay and bisexual youth are nearly four times more likely than heterosexual youth to report skipping school due to concerns for their safety. Transgender youth are over eight times more likely to report this compared to male or female youth.

And the list of disturbing disparities goes on, through just about every item on the YRBS, including bullying, harassment, other forms of violent victimization, substance use, suicide risk and more.

In the most recent round of YRBS administration, SFUSD—with ETR’s support—became the first district in the nation to include items on both sexual orientation and gender identity on their middle school and high school surveys, continuing their twenty-year legacy of leadership and advocacy on behalf of LGBTQ students.

Unfortunately, not many communities have followed suit. To date, only 17 of the 76 high school YRBS administration sites have included at least one item on sexual orientation or gender identity on their YRBS. To my knowledge, just 4 of the 15 sites that administer the YRBS at the middle school level have done this.

The Role of LGBTQ Allies

As an ally to the LGBTQ community, I believe it’s imperative that all middle and high school YRBS administration sites include these items, just as they would any other demographic item such as race/ethnicity, sex or age. So, to all YRBS stakeholders out there, consider adding these items on sexual orientation and gender identity to your own YRBS. It will allow you to reap the programmatic benefits of better understanding, and foster greater ability to respond to the needs of this underserved population. CDC is even offering a $5,000 incentive if you do!

John Shields directs research and evaluation projects that focus on improving the health and wellness of all adolescents. Contact him at .

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