Maine high school students identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender at far higher rates than similarly aged students outside of Maine, and the number of students who identify as LGB or T has increased sharply since 2017, according to data from Maine Department of Education (MDOE).
It’s one of the most significant trends to emerge from the Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey (MIYHS), a biennial survey of Maine public school students MDOE conducts in partnership with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
But very few Maine school officials or policy makers are asking why the trend exists, or what might be causing it.
According to MIYHS data, 29.3 percent of Maine high school students identified as non-heterosexual or transgender in 2021. That includes 12.3 percent who say they are bisexual, 4.6 percent described as “questioning,” 4.9 percent who have a sexual orientation not offered on the survey, 3.9 percent who are gay or lesbian, and 3.6 percent who say they are transgender.
If those numbers from the MDOE survey are accurate, then the findings suggest Maine’s high school population is a significant outlier.
A poll by the respected non-partisan firm Gallup found in 2021 that just 7.1 percent of American adults identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or something other than straight or heterosexual.
That’s the highest finding Gallup has measured since it started asking questions about sexuality and gender in 2012. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, but it’s still far short of what the MDOE survey measured among Maine’s high school students.
Like the Gallup data for adults, MIYHS data show the number of LGBT-identifying students has increased since 2009, but especially since 2017.
According to MIYHS data, 5.5 percent of high schoolers identified as LG or B in 2009, 5.8 percent in 2011, 5.9 percent in 2013, and 7.9 percent in 2015. In 2017, the MIYHS added gender identity to the survey. That year, just 1.5 percent of students said they were transgender, 8.2 percent said they were bisexual, and 2.6 percent said they were gay or lesbian. In other words, the population of students who said they were LGB or T has quintupled since 2009 and doubled from 2017 to 2021.
What explains those trends?
Part of the explanation might be the survey itself. The methodology for measuring student sexuality and gender has changed overtime, and it might be that even asking the question creates the results. But even when compared to other states, Maine stands apart. Policymakers and school officials haven’t really asked why this is, but it’s an area worth exploring, because the implications for the future health and well-being of Maine students is on the line.
COMPARING MAINE TO OTHER STATES
How does Maine’s 29.3 percent LGBT student population compare to the most recent data available from other states?
In Massachusetts, the data is presented somewhat differently, but the 2021 survey concludes 25.4 percent of high schools are not heterosexual or cisgender. Students who responded to questions about sexual orientation and gender that they were “not sure,” a number that was not given in the report, were added to the LGBT answers.
In Vermont’s 2019 survey of high school students, 13 percent of students said they were gay, lesbian, or bisexual, and just 2 percent said they were transgender, for a total of 15 percent. If you include those who answered “unsure” or “don’t know” to questions about sexual orientation and gender, then 22 percent of Vermont high schools fall into the LGBT categories.
In New Hampshire’s 2019 survey, 16 percent of students identified as non-heterosexual.
The 2019 survey in Connecticut did not ask about gender, but found 2.9 percent of students said they were gay or lesbian and 9.9 said they were bisexual.
It’s not an exhaustive survey of the data on American high school students’ self-proclaimed sexuality and gender identity, but this cursory examination suggests Maine high school students are more likely than their New England peers to self-identify as non-heterosexual and/or transgender.
Outside of America, rates of LGBT identification are much lower than the rate the MDOE survey shows for Maine.
In the United Kingdom, the Office for National Statistics found in 2020 that 8 percent of those aged 16-24 identify as LG or B. In Australia, 2021 government estimates suggest 1.2 percent of school children identify as a gender different from their biological sex — that’s one-third of the rate measured in Maine’s high schools. According to the Canadian government, 1 percent of residents aged 15-34 identify as transgender or “non-binary,” and 6.4 percent identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual — significantly less than both categories in the Maine survey.
Young people in all three countries show much lower rates of LGBT self-identification than Maine’s high schoolers.
SO WHAT EXPLAINS THESE TRENDS?
So what’s going on? What could explain the gap? Why is the number of kids who say they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender higher than similarly aged students elsewhere in the world? And why are state officials and educational professionals not more curious about these data?
One explanation is that increasing social acceptance of LGBT identities has allowed students to feel comfortable expressing themselves honestly in the MIYHS questionnaire. This is probably the explanation advocates for teaching gender ideology in public schools, like MDOE Commissioner Pender Makin, would put forth.
According to this theory, nearly 30 percent of Maine students have always been non-heterosexual and non-cisgender, but they were simply repressed by a cisnormative, heteronormative school system that failed to provide an inclusive, tolerant learning environment.
Now, however, open-minded progressives are in charge, and they teach Social-Emotional Learning practices which have allowed students to really blossom, and LGBT clubs are available in schools, so these students are finally expressing their sex and sexuality in an honest way.
Under this understanding, the higher the rate of student identification with LGBT categories, the more successful the school system has been at creating a progressive, inclusive environment. The more LGBT students, the better the school, and the better the teachers.
As comfortable as that explanation would make Maine school officials, does it really explain the significant trends observed in the data? And is it really an intellectually honest way to interpret the data?
It is true that some high school students a decade ago, or even three years ago, may have been reluctant for a number of reasons to express their true sexualities. And it’s absolutely true that there has been an outpouring of support for non-heterosexual non-cisgender students across the country. But this can only explain the increase in LGBT identifications over the past 15 years, not Maine’s sharply higher numbers. Considering that trends in social acceptance have been similar throughout New England, it doesn’t explain why Maine students are so much more likely to identify as LGB or T than peers in New England and other English speaking countries.
Examining these issues requires asking questions that are very dangerous for any one remotely connected to Maine’s public schools to ask.
At a minimum, the significantly higher rates of LGBT identification in Maine schools beg for closer examination of survey methodologies and other factors which may be contributing to the trend. However, examining these issues requires asking questions that are very dangerous for any one remotely connected to Maine’s public schools to ask.
Yet, if Maine is going to continue spending considerable resources conducting the MIYHS, and if lawmakers and public policy organizations are going to use these data to make decisions, then these are precisely the kinds of questions school administrators and parents ought to be asking. Because if the methodology is flawed, then we would want to fix it so the data are accurate. But if the difference between Maine high school students and other similar populations is real, then we would want to understand why that is.
Let’s assume the survey methodology isn’t flawed, that the questions are not leading, and the data is honestly compiled: What might explain Maine’s outlier data, other than the convenient explanation just described?
One theory that might explain why LGBT identification in Maine high schools is increasing, and increasing at a rate higher than peer schools, is that something the school is doing is causing more students to identify as LGB or T.
This is not a value judgment about policies or pedagogy but rather a theory about cause and effect.
It could be the case that promoting left-wing gender ideology in Maine classrooms, rather than revealing latent or repressed identities and attitudes, is actually causing an increasing number of students to say, in response to this survey or similar inquiries, that they identify as something other than heterosexual or cisgender. In this view, MDOE’s approach to issues of sex and sexuality may be leading some students to adopt a non-heterosexual, non-cisgendered identity who might not otherwise have identified in such a way.
Advocates for gender ideology will scoff at this notion, or perhaps say that even considering it is homophobic or transphobic or bigoted.
The effect on student gender and sexuality of the very recent push for hyper-sexualized public school content has not been seriously studied by MDOE or school administrators. How could it be? This experiment in blanket, no-questions-asked “gender affirmation” is very young. It’s entirely reasonable to wonder whether flooding schools with LGBT posters, books, clubs, and lessons under the banner of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) is affecting expressions of LGBT identification.
Indeed, the more preposterous theory would be that the coordinated, well-funded, and systemic push for gender identity education is not impacting student identities and attitudes at all.
The impact of educational trends on student sexuality may not be limited merely to faddish posters, books, and clubs related to gender, either. The rise in LGBT identifications in Maine, particularly the rise in females identifying as bisexual or transgender, may be related to the phenomenon “social contagion,” as well as of other aspects of the push for DEI.
Social contagion theory explains these trends not as the revealing of underlying identities, but as the spread of a behavior through a group or network motivated by the desire of individuals for social acceptance. In other words, a student may claim a gender diverse identity in order to fit in with their friend group. The idea is wildly controversial, because it suggests students may be “faking” a gender identity for social reasons rather than for medical reasons and reasons tied to their “gender identity.”
David C. Geary, a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri, has written at length on the subject of social contagion and gender identity, and he addresses this controversial aspect of the issue. “The argument is not that gender dysphoria and transgender identities are unreal, but that the almost obsessive fixation on transgender issues is increasing the risk of false positives (e.g., misattributing emotional distress to gender identity when the underlying cause is something else) among adolescents and young adults,” Geary writes.
However, if social contagion, rather than broad trends related to increasing acceptance of underlying identities, was driving these trends, then you would expect to see broad variation across similarly aged cohorts. For example, you would expect to see some states having very high numbers of LGBT-identifying students (i.e. social contagion present) and some states with comparably lower numbers of LGBT-identifying students. And that’s exactly what we see.
In addition to the aforementioned New England data, a broader look at student LGBT identifications in the U.S. shows tremendous variance. An exhaustive study from the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law found tremendous variance across all American high schools when examining survey data on the question of transgender identifications. In Wyoming, for example, just 0.56 percent of 13-17-year-olds identified as transgender in 2022. The number was 0.67 percent in New Jersey, and 0.84 percent in New Hampshire. On the other end of the spectrum, a full 3 percent of New York high schoolers identified as transgender — the highest rate in the country. At 1.59 percent, Maine had the 12th highest rate, according to the study. (Note: this rate is lower than the 2021 rate from the Maine survey data. This could be because the analysis drew from a different data set and played with the data to reach an estimate. The comparison with other states is more significant than the number itself.)
Data collected by schools are consistent with what you might expect to find if social contagion was driving the increase in LGBT identifications. Lisa Littman, a researcher from Brown University, studied a group of young women in 2018, and her research led her to theorize about Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria, which can be understood as the symptom or expression of social contagion. According to Litttman, some young women in her study who identified as trans presented as distinct from traditional trans-identified youth in that they showed no indication of dysphoria until puberty. In most cases, multiple friends within a friend group all announced that they were now transgender. Some students reported more popularity at school and other social benefits as a result of “coming out.”
As with Geary, Littman is clear that understanding social contagion and Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria does not erase or undermine the identities of young people suffering from dysphoria. It merely suggests that there are two categories of trans-identifying youth: those who have suffered gender dysphoria since birth, and those who have embraced a fad sweeping their school. Understanding that difference would seem to be important when crafting state and school policy, but right now the official position of school officials and policymakers is that there is no distinction to be made.
THE DEI CONNECTION
Schools across Maine have embraced with uncommon vigor the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) industry. This includes annual “equity audits,” which assess the extent to which a school is racist, sexist, transphobic, and homophobic, and “equity consultants,” who can train school workers on how to avoid being racist, sexist, transphobic, and homophobic. Often times, the company diagnosing the problem is also providing the medicine. But regardless of the individual players, Maine’s schools have elevated the ideas common to the DEI industry, and those ideas may be playing a role in Maine’s higher rates of LGBT identifications.
To understand the connection, we first have to understand the kinds of ideas the DEI industry teaches. One of those is that white people, by virtue of their skin color, are inherently privileged, while black and brown people, by virtue of their skin color, lack privilege. It doesn’t matter if a young white girl grew up in a trailer park in Exeter with a single, drug-addicted mom — she still has privilege. And it doesn’t matter if a black or Hispanic student was raised in a wealthy, intact nuclear family — she still is a victim of historical forces of oppression beyond her control. The DEI canon is more complex than that, but that’s a fair representation for the purposes of this analysis.
Leor Sapir of the Manhattan Institute and City Journal has written much on the connection between DEI lessons about privilege and trends in LGBT identifications. In his interviews, Sapir has found that identifying as a sexual or gender minority is one path some students, predominantly young white females, take in order to escape the odious connotations of their privilege. Simply saying they are bi or trans can lead to less social stigma and greater acceptance. Sapir’s theory is based only on anecdotes and so is easily written off, but is it not something worth studying, since we’re in the business of asking high schoolers deeply personal questions already?
Eric Kaufmann, a researcher whose work Sapir references, has performed an exhaustive study on the issue for the Center for the Study or Partisanship and Ideology. According to his findings, the percentage of LGBT identifications among Americans under 30 is roughly 20 percent, much lower than the number measured by the Maine school system, but much higher than previous studies have measured. His findings further highlight the urgent necessity of better understanding the recent surge in LGBT identification rates among American high schoolers, and especially among Maine high schoolers.
Kaufmann found that LGBT identification increased 11 percent in people under 30 from 2008 to 2021, and that only 4 percent of that shift was attributable to an increase in the number of gay men or lesbian women. He found that the increase is being driven primarily by young women who identify as bisexual but had not engaged in non-heterosexual behavior. “The majority of the increase in LGBT identity can be traced to how those who only engage in heterosexual behavior describe themselves,” he wrote. In other words, women who are sexually attracted to men are increasingly identifying as bisexual, increasing measures of LGBT identification across the board.
That trend is reflected in the MIYHS data, i.e. the high rates of LGBT identifications in Maine schools have been driven in large part by female students identifying as bisexual. In the 2017 survey, 15.3 percent of female students said they were bisexual compared to just 6.4 percent of male students. In the 2021 survey, just four years later, 30 percent of female students said they were bisexual compared to 10.8 percent of males. That’s an explosive increase in the number of bisexual high school-age females, and it’s what we would expect if social contagion dynamics were in play.
Sometimes the social contagion is even more obvious, such as the Nova School in Seattle, where 80 percent of students identify as LGBT. Skeptics of the connection between DEI and gender identity trends would have us believe that it’s just a coincidence that the school’s mission statement says it is committed to “decentering whiteness, patriarchy, hetero- and cis-normativity…”
Kaufmann’s analysis is worth reading for parents, educators, and policymakers, particularly the connections he draws between increasing LGBT identifications, political ideologies, and student mental health. He theorizes that the trend is best explained by the advance of “more sexually liberal and modernist culture.” But rather than being driven by increasing levels of tolerance for sexual minorities, the increase is driven instead by distinct sociopolitical factors unrelated to gender dysphoria or sexuality.
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
At this point, the obvious question is: Who cares? Why even bother writing this. Let kids be kids, right? Who cares how they describe themselves.
That laissez faire attitude toward the trends we see in the MIYHS survey would be appropriate but for the impact on student mental health, the rise and empowerment of social workers in schools, and the increasing encroachment on parental rights driven, in part, by gender ideology.
There is evidence to suggest that the push for social-emotional learning, DEI, and gender ideology is having an adverse impact on student mental health. If you’re concerned about the health of students, then you ought to be curious about the data. Advocates for gender ideology in Maine schools invoke a common argument when anyone expresses criticism of the overwhelming push for gender identity policies and curriculum content in Maine schools. They claim that students who are not positively affirmed by adults are more likely to commit suicide.
This is emotional blackmail, pure and simple.
And it’s also false.
No published, peer-reviewed study has supported the argument that the recent push for gender identity policies and curriculum content decreases youth suicide. This is true for the simple reason that the trend is too new to be studied at all. We simply do not know what the result will be 10, 15, or 20 years from now of this experiment we’re running on school children.
Further, the data shows that suicide rates for teens have remained around 10 percent since 2012. If the gender ideology movement was really reducing suicide rates, we would see that manifested in the data. But we do not. Indeed, if trans-identified students were so much more likely to commit suicide without positive affirmation from parents and schools, then you would have expected youth suicides to be far more common in the decades before Caitlyn Jenner arrived on the scene. But that’s just not the case.
The available data simply do not support the most common argument advocates make in favor of the gender ideology program. Nonetheless, it’s an argument advocates use to promote extreme policies that undermine parents’ rights and seek to deprive parents of information about their children. More than that, the argument is used to prevent parents from even questioning whether or not blanket affirmation is the wisest policy.
Whatever the schools are doing to promote youth mental health appears to be failing. Interestingly, the data suggest youth mental health has gotten considerably worse at the same time the gender ideology program has become celebrated and ubiquitous in Maine schools. Derek Thompson, writing for The Atlantic magazine, raised valid points last April about the rise in rates of depression and anxiety among American teens. “The United States is experiencing an extreme teenage mental-health crisis. From 2009 to 2021, the share of American high-school students who say they feel “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” rose from 26 percent to 44 percent, according to a new CDC study,” he wrote. “This is the highest level of teenage sadness ever recorded.” This trend held true for all categories in the survey he cites, but it was particularly acute for LGBT teens.
Examining those same CDC data, Kaufmann finds a significant connection between young people who identify as politically liberal, LGBT, and are often anxious/depressed. Put differently, a liberal teen is more likely to feel depressed and identify as LGBT. That’s not a causal relationship, just a correlation. Looking deeper into the data, Kaufmann found the following: “It therefore appears that the rise in LGBT young people did not cause a rise in mental health issues but, as with liberalism, the LGBT share disproportionately expanded within a subset of the young population – in this case those with anxiety and depression.”
In other words, young people suffering depression or anxiety were more likely to embrace LGBT identities. More from Kaufmann: “[I]n 2010 and 2012, only 7% of unhappy young people were LGBT while 4% of very happy people were LGBT. However, by 2018-21, 21% of all unhappy young people and 27% of those with anxiety or depression identified as LGBT. By contrast, just 9% of very happy young people and 7% of those who rarely feel anxious or depressed were LGBT during 2018-21.”
The implications of Kaufmann’s analysis for Maine schools are broad and complex, but at a minimum the data suggest there is something more going on in Maine’s schools than merely students responding to newly tolerant teachers and staff. And the data also suggest that the dynamics at play here have significant connections to student mental health, and the protection of our most vulnerable students.
Regardless of what’s really behind the trends observed in the MIYHS data, school officials and policy makers should consider carefully what those trends mean about their DEI and gender ideology programs. There needs to be an honest conversation about the role those programs should play in Maine schools, but that conversation can’t happen if parents are afraid to ask questions. And it certainly can’t happen if good-faith inquiries are met with accusations that the questioner is racist, homophobic, transphobic, etc. The health of Maine students of all varieties depends on Maine’s leaders coming together and having an honest dialogue about what’s happening in Maine schools.