Research Brief

The Health Related Behaviors Survey (HRBS) is the U.S. Department of Defense's (DoD's) flagship survey for understanding the health, health-related behaviors, and well-being of service members. Fielded periodically for more than 30 years, the HRBS includes content areas that might affect military readiness or the ability to meet the demands of military life. The Defense Health Agency asked the RAND Corporation to revise and field the 2018 HRBS among members of both the active component and the reserve component. This brief discusses findings for the reserve component.

This brief reviews results for sexual orientation and health. Some of the results are also compared with Healthy People 2020 (HP2020) objectives established by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for the general U.S. population. Because the military differs notably from the general population (for example, service members are more likely to be young and male than is the general population), these comparisons are offered only as a benchmark of interest.

Sexual Orientation

The health issues and needs of lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) individuals differ somewhat from those of their peers. In the general U.S. population, LGB adults are more likely than their heterosexual peers to smoke cigarettes, binge drink and drink heavily, use marijuana and other illicit drugs, misuse opioids, and suffer from a variety of chronic health conditions.[1] Sexual minorities are also more likely to have mental health issues[2] and more likely to access mental health services,[3] though they are less likely to access routine health care.[4] Such disparities among LGB individuals could affect military readiness.

The HRBS asked respondents about their sexual activity with same-sex partners in the past 12 months and their sexual identity. Overall, 2.8 percent (confidence interval [CI]: 2.3–3.3) of men and 9.8 percent (CI: 8.6–11.0) of women reported having one or more same-sex partners in the past 12 months. Furthermore, 1.7 percent (CI: 1.4–2.1) of men and 7.2 percent (CI: 6.2–8.2) of women in the HRBS identified as gay or lesbian, and 2.0 percent (CI: 1.6–2.5) of men and 8.2 percent (CI: 7.0–9.4) of women in the HRBS identified as bisexual.

Across all the services, 6.1 percent (CI: 5.6–6.7) of individuals describe themselves as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. There were few significant differences between the services in this percentage, but the difference between men and women was substantial: 3.8 percent (CI: 3.2–4.4) of men and 15.4 percent (CI: 13.9–16.9) of women were LGB.

LGB Health Promotion and Disease Prevention

Among LGB service members, 67.0 percent (CI: 62.3–71.8) reported a routine checkup in the past 12 months. This was significantly different from the 71.9 percent (CI: 70.7–73.1) of non-LGB service members who reported a routine checkup in the past 12 months. LGB service members were similar to non-LGB service members in their levels of moderate or vigorous physical activity in the past 30 days.

A significantly smaller percentage of LGB service members were classified as overweight or obese (54.6 percent, CI: 49.8–59.4) compared with non-LGB service members (66.1 percent, CI: 64.9–67.3). A significantly smaller percentage of LGB service members (68.8 percent, CI: 64.4–73.2) reported good or fairly good sleep quality in the past 30 days than did non-LGB service members (75.2 percent, CI: 74.1–76.2).

Substance Use

A significantly larger percentage of LGB personnel reported recent binge drinking (that is, consumption of at least five drinks for men or at least four drinks for women on the same occasion at least once in the past 30 days) and heavy drinking (that is, binge drinking at least once each week during the past 30 days) than non-LGB personnel (Table 1). Similarly, a significantly larger percentage of LGB personnel reported recent or current cigarette or e-cigarette use, but a significantly smaller percentage reported smokeless tobacco use. Significantly greater percentages of LGB personnel reported illicit drug use and use of prescription pain relievers.

Table 1. Substance Use by LGB Identity

Binge drinking, past 30 days 37.5% (CI: 32.7–42.2) 28.4% (CI: 27.3–29.5)
Heavy drinking, past 30 days 12.0% (CI: 8.4–15.6) 7.1% (CI: 6.5–7.8)
Cigarette smoking, past 30 days 21.5% (CI: 16.9–26.1) 12.8% (CI: 11.9–13.7)
E-cigarette use, past 30 days 19.2% (CI: 15.0–23.4) 9.3% (CI: 8.5–10.1)
Smokeless tobacco use, past 30 days 5.6% (CI: 3.0–8.2) 11.3% (CI: 10.5–12.2)
Any drug use, past 12 months 9.3% (CI: 5.9–12.6) 2.3% (CI: 1.8–2.8)
Used prescription pain relievers, past 12 months 11.0% (CI: 8.0–14.1) 8.1% (CI 7.5–8.7)

LGB Mental Health and Mental Health Services Use

The HRBS asked respondents about a variety of mental health indicators and indicators of mental health service use. All of the mental and emotional health problems examined were more common among LGB service members than among non-LGB personnel, although, for most indicators, only a small percentage of LGB personnel indicated a problem.

Use of all forms of mental health services tested was also more common among LGB personnel. Nonetheless, significantly more LGB personnel reported a perceived unmet need for mental health services in the past 12 months, as well as a belief that mental health treatment would damage one's military career. Table 2 presents more details on mental and emotional health indicators by LGB status.

Table 2. Mental and Emotional Health and Mental Health Services Use by LGB Identity

Serious psychological distress, past 12 months 23.7% (CI: 19.3–28.1) 9.9% (CI: 9.1–10.7)
Probable posttraumatic stress disorder 15.4% (CI: 11.7–19.1) 8.9% (CI: 8.2–9.5)
Suicidal thoughts, past 12 months 17.7% (CI: 13.6–21.8) 5.2% (CI: 4.6–5.8)
Suicide attempt, past 12 months 2.4% (CI: 0.4–4.4) 0.8% (CI: 0.5–1.1)
Any angry or aggressive behavior, past 30 days 52.7% (CI: 47.9–57.5) 46.5% (CI: 45.3–47.7)
Any mental health service use, past 12 months 36.9% (CI: 32.1–41.7) 20.0% (CI: 19.0–20.9)
Saw mental health care specialist, past 12 months 26.0% (CI: 21.5–30.5) 12.7% (CI: 11.9–13.4)
Saw general medical provider for a mental health problem, past 12 months 23.6% (CI: 19.1–28.1) 11.9% (CI: 11.2–12.7)
Used medication for a mental health problem, past 12 months 16.1% (CI: 12.0–20.3) 7.7% (CI: 7.1–8.2)
Perceived unmet need for mental health services, past 12 months 10.8% (CI: 7.6–14.1) 4.1% (CI: 3.7–4.6)
Believe mental health treatment would damage military career 39.0% (CI: 34.2–43.7) 29.3% (CI: 28.2–30.4)

LGB Physical Health

The HRBS asked whether respondents had been told by a physician or health professional during the past 12 months that they have high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, asthma, back pain, or musculoskeletal injury. For all of these but asthma, there were no significant differences between LGB personnel and non-LGB personnel. (For more information on the physical health characteristics of the overall reserve component, see the brief on physical health and functional limitations for the reserve component.)

LGB Unwanted Sexual Contact and Physical Abuse

In the general U.S. population, a larger percentage of LGB individuals than non-LGB individuals indicate that they have experienced past sexual and physical abuse.[5] This is also the case in the U.S. military.[6] In the reserve component, a larger percentage of LGB service members than non-LGB service members indicated experiencing unwanted sexual contact since joining the military and in the past 12 months. A larger percentage also indicated that they had been physically assaulted since joining the military and in the past 12 months (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Unwanted Sexual Contact and Physical Abuse, by LGB Identity

Unwanted sexual contact since joining the military 22.7% 6.8%
Unwanted sexual contact in past 12 months 7.2% 1.2%
Physically assaulted since joining the military 7.2% 3.6%
Physically assaulted in the past 12 months 1.8% 0.6%

NOTES: For unwanted sexual contact, the exact question wording in the 2018 HRBS is "The next question is about unwanted sexual contact, meaning times when someone has touched you in a sexual way, had sex with you, or attempted to have sex with you when you did not consent or could not consent. By sexual contact we mean any sexual touching as well as oral, anal or vaginal penetration. Since joining the military, have you ever experienced unwanted sexual contact?" and "Did this unwanted sexual contact occur in the past 12 months?" The HRBS items are not directly comparable with existing civilian or military surveys, including the Workplace and Gender Relations Survey of Active Duty Members and the Workplace and Gender Relations Survey of Reserve Component Members.

LGB Sexual and Reproductive Health

Sexual and reproductive health are influenced by key behaviors, such as numbers of sexual partners and use of other contraception. RAND researchers looked at how sexual and reproductive health indicators varied by LGB status, as well as by outcomes such as diagnoses of sexually transmitted infection (STI), regular testing for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection, and unintended pregnancies, which can affect individual health and readiness. Table 3 presents these findings. A significantly larger percentage of LGB service members reported having had multiple sex partners in the past 12 months, as well as having had sex with a new partner without condom use. Also, a significantly larger percentage of LGB service members reported having an STI in the past 12 months and having had an HIV test in the past six months. No significant differences were found for HIV testing in the past 12 months, no use of birth control at last vaginal sex in the past 12 months, and unintended pregnancy in the past 12 months.

Table 3. Sexual and Reproductive Health by LGB Identity

New partner without condom use, past 12 months 39.4% (CI: 34.6–44.2) 32.7% (CI: 31.6–33.9)
Two or more sex partners, past 12 months 33.5% (CI: 28.8–38.3) 14.7% (CI: 13.7–15.7)
STI, past 12 months 6.2% (CI: 3.9–8.5) 1.6% (CI: 1.3–1.8)
HIV test, past 6 months 45.5% (CI: 40.7–50.3) 38.0% (CI: 36.8–39.2)

Comparisons with the Active Component

To compare HRBS results for the active and reserve components, RAND researchers constructed regression models that controlled for demographic characteristics of the respondents. Significant differences that they identified for LGB reservists relative to LGB active component members included

  • lower likelihood of moderate and vigorous physical activity
  • greater likelihood of at least seven hours of sleep daily and higher sleep quality
  • greater likelihood of past-year illicit drug use
  • lower likelihood of seeing a mental health care specialist in the past 12 months
  • lower likelihood of unwanted sexual contact since joining the military
  • lower likelihood of multiple sex partners and of an STI in the past 12 months.

Conclusions and Policy Implications

LGB personnel make up about 6 percent of reserve component service members. LGB service members more commonly indicated substance use, risky sex behaviors, unwanted sexual contact, and physical assault than did their non-LGB peers.

Broadly targeted health promotion efforts by DoD, the services, and Coast Guard should include LGB-specific considerations, as appropriate, recognizing that LGB individuals are part of the service. Addressing LGB health disparities is unlikely to require the development of programs or policies targeted specifically to this group, with only a few exceptions. However, overemphasis on the higher rates of mental and sexual health issues among LGB personnel could increase the stigma associated with LGB status, exacerbating these disparities and marginalizing those affected.

Education of health care providers in the Military Health System (MHS) could help reduce sexual health disparities between LGB and non-LGB personnel. For example, it is unclear whether MHS personnel are aware that most LGB reservists are bisexual. Incorrect assumptions about service member sexual orientation based on the sex of their current sexual partners could lead to incomplete or incorrect counseling regarding use of condoms and other contraceptives and for STI testing. Providers should be aware that nearly one in six servicewomen identify as LGB. Adaptation of patient screening and counseling protocols and clinic forms might also be appropriate to recognize the presence of LGB personnel among MHS patients.


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  • [7] CIs provide a range in which the true population value is expected to fall. They account for sampling variability when calculating point estimates but do not account for problems with question wording, response bias, or other methodological issues that, if present in the HRBS, might bias point estimates.

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