(LGBTQ Youth Article I Wrote for "the Triangle" Paper)
WHY WE’RE TALKING ABOUT THIS: AROUND OUR NATIONAL COMMUNITY
It’s hard to miss how LGBTQ youth have been in the news again lately. Sadly, this is due to several nationally publicized suicides by LGBTQ youth. The progress towards eliminating bigotry is a slow one. But I am reminded for every step in that direction, a half step back is taken as a result of reactivity and fear.
AN OVERVIEW OF WHERE WE ARE AND HOW WE GOT HERE
This article is not intended to make the case for any particular sexual identity or orientation, or even to take on issues of homophobia. Instead, it is meant to highlight how the lack of acceptance and the persistence of homophobia are, quite literally, an issue of life and death for young people. LGBT youth, those assumed to be LGBT youth by their peers, and even those who dare to question their feelings or orientation are more vulnerable to substance abuse, depression, anxiety, suicide, physical abuse, and sexual victimization. This is not because of any fundamental dysfunction associated with their feelings or behaviors (homosexual or heterosexual), but because of a culture that still struggles with issues of homophobia and the consequences of this societal reaction.
With the sexual revolution of the 1960’s and 70’s, technological advances and the gay rights movement, the lives of young people today have changed dramatically. Young people have mostly benefited from the changes that have occurred during these years, but these benefits have not been without some added stressors With the unfettered access we have to the intimate details of many people’s lives we no longer have to wait for Oprah or Phil to show us people like ourselves. We can just go on YouTube to help us feel less alone. We can post things on such sites, so that people can join us in what feels like global connection. But how does this help young people in their day to day struggles at school and home, where their lives really are? And how do they handle the use of the possibly only resource that makes them feel less alone, when it can also be used against them in a very public way through cyber bullying?
Kids are also faced with sexual decisions earlier and earlier, with middle schoolers being pressured to make decisions about sexual feelings and behavior. This pushes them to questions of sexual attraction, orientation and identity much sooner than they are equipped to, especially given the few resources of support that exist for people that young. Similarly, being gay or bisexual is no longer “in the closet”, with the media and the gay right’s movement making lgbt people more visible. This is certainly a positive thing, since exposure is an important step to acceptance. However, young people don’t have access to the same resources and freedoms as adults. Kids are essentially stuck within their families and schools. So, while the larger culture and media have changed the national landscape, local schools, churches and households may be much slower to change.
Schools are often distilled, exaggerated and the least progressive versions of the society at large with very rigid guidelines and few avenues of recourse. This reflects people’s protective nature about children, leading institutions geared to children to be the most cautious, conservative and resistant to change. Even the gay community has often been ambivalent when it comes to children (e.g., rights of adoption/parenting and benefits to children), because gay or straight, we are all raised with the same homophobic messages. Within this school environment are the developmental issues of young people. As all young people struggle through issues of belonging, there are some that can be very aggressive about the threat they feel regarding “difference” and exploiting the vulnerabilities of other kids. This is not unique to youth, as adults can sometimes be similarly aggressive to those who violate “rules of the pack.” However, kids are left at the mercy of school systems that miss the mark on how to protect kids; the technological adeptness of their peers in attacking them outside of school; and their families, where coming out to them and their being supportive are required prerequisites for parental intervention in school problems (such as harassment, bullying and violence).
As with adults, issues of coming out and what this will mean to their lives, are pivotal questions for young people. Young people are sensitive to our implicit and explicit messages about the feelings, thoughts and choices they have, and these messages are critical to whether they feel safe being open. So, if our messages clearly marginalize LGBT people and/or communicate disapproval and judgement kids are left alone, leaving them vulnerable to depression, addictions and suicide. Kids are paying attention to the messages they are getting from peers, family, school staff and the community at large. These messages shape their self perception and whether and where they think they fit in the world. These messages come through loud and clear, whether the young person out or not. However, if they are not out, they may be fearful of seeking help, which leaves them all alone to deal with the internal and external struggles without support.
If kids come out they potentially risk their parent’s rejection, abuse and abandonment. This is not a small thing when kids are emotionally and practically/financially dependent on their families. These kids are at risk of physical abuse, exacting emotional abuse (including psychological and religious) and/or becoming homeless (which has its own set of dire consequences). At school they may risk harassment, bullying and sexual and physical violence. And again, because of technology, this peer harassment can go well beyond the child’s immediate school environment.
We are essentially pack animals. Belonging is not only fundamental to our psychological well being as humans, but it is also fundamental to our very survival. As such, the enormous benefits of coming out cannot be overlooked. First, kids may [eventually] get vital love and support from their parents. The importance of parental involvement and acceptance cannot be emphasized enough. So, rather than hide in silence for years, fearing parental rejection and disapproval, they may have the support they need at this very critical stage of their development/lives. Second, they may be able to experience the developmentally appropriate experiences of adolescence, i.e., friendships and relationships/dating. This means, instead of hiding and feeling like they are keeping a potentially deal breaking secret and keeping people at a distance out of fear that people will find out (i.e., opting out, rather than being found out), they are able to practice being themselves the same as their peers. This is critical to social development and self-esteem, and therefore significant to reducing risks of suicide.
If young people don’t come out until early adulthood or later, they miss out on all that is possible with regard to acceptance, authenticity, trust and intimacy. They prevent friends and family from really knowing and accepting them, and discovering who they want to be, just as their peers are doing. They may also participate in other avoidance behaviors, such as substance abuse, hyper heterosexuality (to prove to others and themselves that they’re not gay) and social and familial withdrawal, leaving them feeling alone and isolated. Because they are anticipating rejection, being ostracized or worse, they are left with this belief or perceived reality, even if it is wrong. This is such a major loss of life experience based on a possibility, and not on a certainty. The impact of this is major on development and lends itself to depression and suicide. And of course, sometimes coming out is not voluntary. Kids may be called “gay” and harassed even if they aren’t, and those who are gay may be outed without their consent. When kids make this choice proactively, they have control over how this is done. However, since no one can guarantee what the outcome of coming out will be, it is certainly much safer to not.
WE’RE NOT STUCK HERE
This feels complicated because it involves change on the cultural level nationally, locally, in households and in schools. Schools are often a reflection, or sometimes exaggerated version, of the community at large. They need to begin to reflect a society that is more accepting and that expects kids to be safe at school, at home and in their communities. When parents, administrators, community leaders and school personnel, at best, turn a blind eye to the issues that face kids and the community, they send a clear message about what they will tacitly allow kids to do. Schools cannot remain silent on issues of acceptance, must have anti-bullying policies and enforce these policies, or they are creating a culture that targets and harshly condemns select groups. In its inaction, schools are saying certain kids are unacceptable and putting a bullseye on those kids for their peers to victimize if they choose. They are also depriving LGBTQ kids access to an education, because kids who are fearful or victimized at school are not able to concentrate and therefore benefit from the school’s education and may even drop out. Let’s face it, even local and federal laws now acknowledge LGBT people in hate crimes and yet schools fail to adopt and enforce such policies in their schools to protect kids under their care.
There are many ways caring people can help young people so that all young people survive childhood and have the access to the same resources helpful in becoming productive members of our world community. In general, we can volunteer, donate money to programs that help the lives of LGBTQ kids or be actively involved in advocating to change things. Here are the broad strokes of what is needed:
- Parents need to create a home environment that consistently tells their children that being LGBT is okay, that they will be loved, and they will be supported. This message needs to start early and be provided proactively (way before their child has these questions). This is the single most impactful behavior in helping LGBTQ kids. It is vital to kids developing self-esteem, it helps mitigate lack of acceptance by peers, and allows them access to their parents for help with school and peer issues.
- Parents need to demonstrate this acceptance in every day activities.
- Schools need to have harassment and anti-bullying policies. Just as importantly, they need to enforce them.
- Schools need to allow kids and school personnel to be involved in GSAs (gay straight alliances).
- Community members can actively advocate for LGBTQ youth at school, including policies that include sexual orientation as part of their discrimination policies.
- We can let school administrators and local leaders know that we care about LGBTQ youth and expect them to be protected and safe at school so that they can get an education without fear and abuse.
- We can be involved or create programs/organizations that promote acceptance and safety for kids and the LGBT community at large, since both are vital to young people. go to http://www.lgbtcenterofraleigh.com/ & http://www.tcworks.org/ for some options to do this.
- Help restart ASPYN (A Safer Place Youth Network). This is one of the few community based out of school youth support programs in the area (ASPYRE is a program for lgbtqa youth to help them become leaders for GSAs etc..). Young people need support and they need out of school options where they may have more anonymity. This program has been in need of adult volunteers and leadership for some time. go to http://www.lgbtcenterofraleigh.com/ & http://www.tcworks.org/ for more information.
Written by Michelle Topal MSW, LCSW
Owner Change for Living Counseling PLLC
Former ASPYN coordinator
Some of the Youth Resources and Links (most are national, not local):
- ASPYN (A Safer Place Youth Network) LGBTQ Community-Based Youth Support Program-needs to be restarted. http://www.tcworks.org/youth-and-family.html
- ASPYRE: LGBTQA Youth Leadership Program http://www.tcworks.org/youth-and-family.html
- GSA’s (Gay Straight Alliance): School based LGBTQ group http://www.tcworks.org/gsa.html
- LGBT Center Resource Helpline: 919-747-4123 Sun-Thu 6:30p-9:30p
- LGBT Center & TCW: http://www.lgbtcenterofraleigh.com/ & http://www.tcworks.org
- PFLAG (Parents, Friends & Families of Lesbians & Gays):http://www.pflagtriangle.org
- GLSEN http://www.glsen.org/cgi-bin/iowa/all/home/index.html
- Trevor Project thetrevorproject.org. -866-4-U-TREVOR (1-866-488-7386)
- Pacer Center: National Center for Bullying Prevention: http://www.pacer.org/bullying/ and http://www.kidsagainstbullying.org/