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Children's Voice Article, September/October 2002

To be Young and Gay in America

By Kelly Mack and Steve Boehm

Gay. Lesbian. Bisexual. These are emotionally charged words in our society. But as recently as a generation ago, little thought was given to whether gay and bisexual youth had needs and experienced difficulties that were unique to them. Indeed, many questioned whether sexual orientation and identity was even defined in children and youth.

But our awareness has grown. Today, for example, we know children as young as 10 can be clear about their orientation.1 We have become more aware that, compared with their heterosexual peers, sexual minority youth suffer higher rates of suicide, violent victimization, homelessness, and substance abuse, and are at higher risk for HIV infection.2

A whole new lexicon has grown too, making our language more accurate, inclusive, and sensitive--minority sexuality, transgendered and questioning youth, and the unpronounceable acronym GLBTQ (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and questioning). [See "GLBTQ," page 38.]

We may have more awareness about sexual minority youth and the challenges they face growing up in America than we did 20 years ago, but GLBTQ youth still encounter violence, discrimination, and exclusion by peers and adults in their lives. The reasons people are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered may be debatable, but, inarguably, sexual minority youth exist, and they encounter discrimination and harassment because of who they are. GLBTQ youth in crisis deserve to be treated with respect and supported in successful development.

Risk and Intervention

Researchers have been collecting data about sexual minority youth for more than 20 years, identifying challenges and experiences that put them at risk for harassment, victimization, and other problems. Stephen Russell, Director of the 4-H Center for Youth Development, University of California-Davis, has conducted research on sexual minority youth and has studied data from the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health, the first national study of adolescent sexuality.

Russell has examined the settings that are most influential in young people's development--family, schools, friendship and peer networks, and faith communities. Because individuals in these environments often don't have the knowledge or ability to cope with homosexuality, bisexuality, and transgendered issues, their reaction can be unsupportive and harmful. GLBTQ youth are either forced to bury their feelings and needs, or they must defend themselves from a barrage of misunderstandings and attacks during a tenuous time in their lives, when they need support and caring to negotiate new feelings and thoughts.

Some families and communities may be savvier or even excel at attending to the needs of sexual minority youth. But as a whole, these settings often fall short when it comes to providing basic safety, exposing GLBTQ youth to victimization without recourse.

Research, both quantitative and anecdotal, reveals that sexual minority youth are at greater risk for victimization than are other young people. They're especially more likely to experience harassment and violence in school. "Gay kids are at risk for the worst things that teenagers can be at risk for," Russell says.

The most commonly recognized threat to sexual minority youth is suicide. Rates of suicide among these teens are much higher than for their heterosexual peers. Gay and bisexual adolescent males, for example, are seven times more likely to attempt suicide.3 Although some may argue that identifying with a minority sexuality is itself the risk factor, Russell's research has found that when examined in the context of other teen suicide risk factors, the difference is minimal. Rather, the combination of suicide risks, including aspects of victimization, is what puts sexual minority youth in greater danger.

Sexual minority youth are also at increased risk for depression and substance abuse, both of which, along with victimization, are early indicators of suicide. Russell says the focus in working with GLBTQ youth should be toward preventing harassment, creating interventions accessible to them, and confronting problems within the settings in which they spend their time. He also believes discussions with young people about harassment and sexual orientation should be linked. "There are suicide and depression interventions and education that happens among young people, but rarely do we discuss with them the role that gender and sexuality play in those issues."

A Place to Go

Sexual minority youth may not find safety or friendship in family or school. Even heterosexual youth may be harassed because they dress or act differently than peers and are perceived as being gay. Constantly struggling to maintain a self-identity when one does not feel safe is exhausting. Youth who are targets of intolerance becomes so involved in surviving that learning and growing become impossible.

New York City's Hetrick-Martin Institute (HMI) provides a safe environment for all young people but specializes in helping GLBTQ youth. HMI's programs help sexual minority youth with challenges they may encounter, such as coming out and coping with harassment and discrimination. Above all, GLBTQ youth are facing the same changes and challenges that all adolescents encounter. By offering a safe place to hang out where young people can be themselves while making friends and having fun, HMI contributes to their healthy development.

HMI's programs--ranging from afterschool art classes to nutritious evening meals-are open to any youth who drops into the center. Individual, group, and family counseling is available to help youth who are struggling with questions about their sexuality, coping with unaccepting families and schools, or encountering other psychological and emotional problems.

Another priority for HMI is to educate youth, families, schools, and child welfare workers about the experiences of sexual minority youth and the challenges they face. Executive Director David Mensah says HMI would much rather that youth be able to stay and receive help in their communities so they don't have to be uprooted or separated from their peers and families. "We really believe in educating existing youth serving programs so that they can actually keep these kids and the kids can stay where they are and feel comfortable there."

The best way to do this, Mensah says, is to ensure that schools and programs available to youth are GLBTQ inclusive. Sexual minority youth must feel safe at school, free from harassment and hatred. And they must be able to access supports from their social workers without seeking outside assistance from organizations like HMI.

But, Mensah adds, "we also believe that every city, on some level, needs some equivalent of our program model. It will be the case for some time that kids will need a place to run. They're still getting kicked out of their homes. They're still running away because they don't feel accepted. They're still dropping out of school."

Although programs like HMI support sexual minority youth and educate schools and child-serving agencies about their concerns, work elsewhere is providing information in places where even fewer options exist for GLBTQ youth.

Online Organizing

The Internet is host to countless refuges for sexual minority youth. Online GLBTQ organizations, many of which support youth, are making themselves known through education, advocacy, and support.

The nonprofit Advocates for Youth (AFY) helps young people make responsible, safe decisions about their reproductive and sexual health, focusing on such issues as HIV and pregnancy prevention. Through its Internet Interventions program, AFY has created a series of online communities for HIV-positive youth, Latino youth, young women of color, sexual minority youth, and youth activists.

Program Manager Jesse Gilliam oversees Youth Resource, a website where GLBTQ youth are able to ask peers questions, read stories, gain advice, and reduce their isolation by finding friends and support through the Internet. They can also find links to specific online communities for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered youth; deaf GLBTQ youth; and African American, Native American, and rural GLBTQ youth.

Gilliam says the program started in 1997 because "there's just a lot of young people who go online for support and information they aren't finding in mainstream organizations." About 80,000 youth access the website each month. The philosophy, Gilliam says, is that "while our organization focuses on sexual health, we believe that to give people information about sexual health, you really have to address the whole young person. You really have to give young people a reason why they would use safer sex methods or choose not to have sex at all."

Information and resources are vast and cover a variety of topics, including coming out, relationships, sexual assault, advocacy, starting gay-straight alliances at school (see "Gay-Straight Alliances," above right), and listings of local youth groups. Fifteen peer educators determine content, tell their own stories, supply referrals, and support youth accessing the website.

Gilliam says the primary reason GLBTQ youth seek AFY's web programs is because they are struggling with isolation. "A lot of these young people are accessing a website for information because they don't feel supported in their communities or because there isn't any support in their communities. [They] might be from rural areas or where there's not a GLBTQ youth center, or they aren't comfortable or able to access resources in their area due to a homophobic environment. A lot of [them]…are really just looking for someone to talk to."

By accessing Youth Resources, they find friends and information to help them cope and stay safe and healthy. "Once they become more comfortable with themselves, they feel more empowered to access resources and talk to trusted adults or other friends about being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered," Gilliam says.

The best estimates are that 1 in 10 people are GLBTQ.4 Nevertheless, "a lot of mainstream youth service providers don't believe or understand they might have gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered youth in the people they're supporting," Gilliam says. "It's at least heterosexist, if not homophobic at times, in the way they address young people. Young people get the illusion there are no gay people out there, there's no queer people they can talk to about their situation." AFY also provides advice and tools for teachers to make their classrooms and schools safer for sexual minority youth.

Inside Out

GLBTQ youth advocates agree that often the work must begin from within youth workers. UC-Davis's Russell notes that harassment doesn't just come from youth peers, but also from adults.

School personnel, youth workers, and others who work with young people can inflict harm on sexual minority youth by assuming they are heterosexual, thereby denying the true identities of these youth; abusing them physically, mentally, or emotionally; excluding them from activities; letting coworkers or other youth openly harass them; not keeping dialogue open and inclusive; and not building a safe space where anyone is free to be who they are.

"I would like to encourage youth workers to clarify for themselves the ways they can be supportive of all young people and recognize that people feel very differently on these issues," Russell says. He calls on workers to educate themselves and be aware of personal biases, experiences, and discomfort. Left unexamined, these feelings may leak into their work with young people.

Another major step toward creating safety for sexual minority youth is being aware that not all young people are heterosexual. "There are gay kids everywhere, and we may not know it because we haven't created a setting that allows them to express themselves in that way," Russell says. We can eradicate heterosexism by using open language and not making assumptions. Using the terms gay, lesbian, and GLBTQ are important so youth do not see them as scandalous or embarrassing.

Winding Up

Research and resources for GLBTQ youth are growing, allowing them to seek help and increasing opportunities for communities to be educated about sexual minority issues. Child-serving agencies can call on many organizations to gain advice and strategize how they can best help these young people. For youth in crisis, changing systems to include GLBTQ concerns and working to recognize the problems that sexual minority youth encounter is critical to improving and saving the lives of many invisible children.

CWLA Cultural Competence Director Jorge Velázquez likens the issue of serving GLBTQ youth to an African proverb about two elephants fighting and trampling the grass beneath them: The needs of sexual minority youth are forgotten in the debate. All children, regardless of labels, deserve equal access and fair treatment. CWLA's priority is to see that youth "have the access and opportunity to services that everybody else does," Velázquez says. Services should be thoughtful and well planned, considering the best interests of youth and not getting caught in the struggles or prejudices of adults. Sexual minority youth need the help and expertise of child welfare workers to navigate the complicated landmines of adolescence.

References

  1. Gerald P. Mallon. (2001). Lesbian and Gay Youth Issues: A Practical Guide for Youth Workers. (p. 2). Washington, DC: CWLA Press.
  2. Advocates for Youth. (1998). The Facts-Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered Youth: At Risk and Underserved. Fact sheet available online at www.advocatesforyouth.org/glbtq.htm. Washington, DC: Author.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Lesbian and Gay Youth Issues: A Pratical Guide for Youth Workers. (p.4)
Kelly Mack is an Associate Editor with CWLA. Steve Boehm is Editor in Chief of Children's Voice and Assistant Director of Publications for CWLA.

Gay refers to a man who is homosexual or to men and women collectively who are homosexual.

Lesbian refers to a woman who is homosexual. In general, the terms gay and lesbian are preferred over homosexual; incorrectly used, homosexual can be taken to indicate that sexual orientation is the sole basis of personal or group identity.

Bisexual refers to a person whose sexual attraction is directed toward people of both genders.

Transgendered refers to a person whose gender identity is different from his or her biological gender. Transgendered individuals identify themselves psychologically with, and see themselves as a person of, the opposite biological gender. Most transgendered people do not identify themselves as gay or lesbian. Some report feeling trapped in the wrong body and may opt for hormone therapy and sexual reassignment surgery (a sex change operation). It is appropriate to use the gender pronouns of an individual's self-identified gender when referring to a person who is transgendered.

Questioning refers to young people who are exploring their sexual orientation. Some will ultimately identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual; others will identify as heterosexual.

[Source: Gerald P. Mallon. (2001). Lesbian and Gay Youth Issues: A Practical Guide for Youth Workers. Washington, DC: CWLA Press.]

Gay-Straight Alliances

Depending on the school environment, for sexual minority youth, the many hours spent at school can be dangerous and destructive. Increasingly, research shows that GLBTQ youth endure verbal and physical torment in school hallways from peers and even teachers and other school staff. When a place of learning is so unsafe, these youth are at risk for violence, dropping out, and other problems.

Many schools are forming gay-straight alliances, organized by students and facilitated by teachers. These groups seek to educate students and school employees about the intolerance sexual minority youth endure, work to resolve these conflicts, and create safer schools for GLBTQ youth.

Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) Network is an online resource for gay-straight alliances to combat homophobia. Youth can learn how to start a gay-straight alliance in their school, provide supportive places for sexual minority youth, and educate school communities about these issues. Suggestions for reading materials, surveys, trainings, and other resources are available online. GSA Network keeps a list of gay-straight alliances so students can connect with other groups, share ideas, and gain support in their activities.

For more information, contact:

Gay-Straight Alliance Network
160 14th Street
San Francisco CA 94103
415/552-4229
Fax 415/552-4729
info@gsanetwork.org
www.gsanetwork.org

Other Resources

Advocates for Youth
1025 Vermont Avenue NW, Suite 200
Washington DC 20005
202/347-5700, Fax 202/347-2263
info@advocatesforyouth.org
www.advocatesforyouth.org

4-H Center for Youth Development
Department of Human and Community Development
University of California
One Shields Avenue
Davis CA 95616-8523
530/752-7069, Fax 530/752-5660
cyddirector@ucdavis.edu
http://fourhcyd.ucdavis.edu

Hetrick-Martin Institute
2 Astor Place
New York NY 10003
212/674-2400, TTY 212/674-8695
Fax 212/674-8650
info@hmi.org
www.hmi.org

[Source: Gerald P. Mallon. (2001). Lesbian and Gay Youth Issues: A Practical Guide for Youth Workers. Washington, DC: CWLA Press]

From CWLA Press

Lesbian and Gay Youth Issues: A Practical Guide for Youth Workers
By Gerald P. Mallon (2001)
0-87868-778-5/$14.95
Designed to help youth care providers increase their knowledge and skills in working with GLBTQ youth and their families in residential, school, health, and mental health settings, this book focuses on important issues surrounding the "coming out" process, family relations, discrimination and antigay violence, healthy social environments, relationships and dating, and an array of specific and unique issues for GLBTQ youth and youth workers.
       Order this Publication

Serving Gay & Lesbian Youths: The Role of Child Welfare Agencies
Recommendations from a CWLA Colloquium (1991)
0-87868-495-6/$4.95
This report offers a review of research, a discussion of the barriers to providing quality services, issue agencies may encounter, and recommendations for advancing administrative policy, practice, and advocacy.
       Order this Publication

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