Sunday, November 17, 2013

Homelessness Awareness Week: Queer Youth

Queer Homeless Youth
This week is Homelessness Awareness Week.  We all know that LGBT youth are at higher risk of being bullied, harassed, and attacked.  LGBT youth are more likely than their straight and cis-gender peers to suffer from depression or attempt suicide.  LGBT youth and young adults, and particularly trans adults are more likely to be unemployed, impoverished, and unable to access stable housing.  These aren't uplifting facts, but they're important facts to remember this week and every week because LGBT youth are also at higher risk of experiencing homelessness than their straight and cis peers.  When we're talking about homelessness, it's easy to forget about the kids.  We think of the homeless military vets, and we know disability plays a big role in homelessness.  We think of homeless families struggling with unemployment or lack of affordable housing.  We forget, or at least I do, that there are kids who are homeless and all on their own.  As many as 40 percent of those homeless youth identify as LGBT.  40 percent.  

There are a lot of reasons that young people find themselves homeless.  For queer youth, the reasons often tie back to bigotry.  It's not uncommon that kids who come out to their friends, families, or churches are either kicked out or made to feel so miserable about themselves that leaving seems like the only option.  All LGBT youth, homeless or not, have a challenging road to travel.  They might experience teasing and harassment from classmates at school.  They might experience exclusion, both purposeful and inadvertent, from activities and social events that are easy and welcoming to straight and cis kids.  If they come from a religious family, they might be made to think that who they are and what they feel is an affront to god.  Worst of all, they might be told by a frustrated, angry, or fearful parent that if they are gay or lesbian or trans or queer that they aren't welcome at home anymore.

Here are the facts:*

  • As many as 40% of homeless youth are LGBT.
  • 62% of homeless LGBT youth have attempted suicide.
  • 58% of queer homeless young people report being sexually assaulted.   
  • 63% of homeless queer youth cite conflict at home as the reason they are homeless.

That last stat is the most frustrating because it's the most preventable problem and often the most heartbreaking.  There was a story in the Huffington Post several months back written by a woman whose gay son had struggled with drug addiction in his teens, got clean, but then had a relapse as a young adult.  He overdosed and died.  His mother describes how for years after her son came out (he told her he was gay when he was 12), she and his father tried to make him change.  They were sure he could be straight, or at least not be gay.  They were a Christian family and she admits that she and her husband used their son's faith to manipulate him into trying to "overcome" his sexuality.  They told him, essentially, that he would have to choose between Jesus and being gay.  Their son loved Jesus and his mother now acknowledges the agony that this false dichotomy must have caused him.  In telling her story, the thing she says that is most important, I think, is that at the time, she and her husband believed they were acting out of love for their son.  They did not physically threaten or hurt him.  They didn't ask him to leave the house.  They told him they would always love him.  But they quietly, carefully wore him down until he came to the conclusion that because he could not be himself and practice his faith simultaneously, god must not want him.  He turned to drugs.  Much time passed when his family didn't know where he was.  Though they later reconciled and his parents came to embrace him - everything about him - with open arms, unfortunately, we know the story has a tragic ending.    

There are some problems that families can't always solve for their LGBT kids - being bullied at school, or making sure that school officials are sensitive and accepting to LGBT youth, or ensuring that there are education policies in place that reflect the experience of all kids - queer, trans, gay, straight, cis, and everything else.  Families can work to make those things better, but there's no immediate fix.  There is an immediate fix for feeling unloved, unwanted, or uncertain at home.  When children come out, families must make their homes a haven of safety, peace, and love.  It doesn't mean the topic can't be discussed, or parents can't ask questions, but parents can approach the situation respectfully and lovingly.  Don't bully or manipulate.  If you're having a difficult time, share that with your partner, or a friend, or adult relative.  If your child is a teen, you might be able to say something like, "I feel a little scared about this because it is new to me and I have a lot to learn, but I'm sure everything is going to be fine and we can do this together."  Anything else is probably a conversation you should have with another adult and not your child.  

Fake it 'Til You Make It
The research shows that LGBT youth who feel their families accept them are much less likely to experience negative outcomes like homelessness, drug abuse, suicide, and HIV infection.  The following stats reflect the experiences of transgender folks, but the trend holds true for those across the LGBT community:*
  •  Among trans people who have experienced family rejection, 26% have also been homeless.  
  • 48% of transgender folks who have experienced domestic violence report having been homeless.
  • Among those who experienced family acceptance, only 9% reported experiencing homelessness.

This will be hard for some parents, especially those who hold religious beliefs that homosexuality is a sin, for instance.  In this case, fake it 'til you make it.  Seriously.  Fake it.  Because eventually, you probably will start to change your mind about things.  At the very least, you'll want to be part of your child's life as they become an adult.  You'll see that being happy for your child makes them happy.  You'll see that LGBT folks aren't really that scary.  You'll see that your child is the same amazing person they always were.  And you'll want your child to be around for that, I'm pretty sure.  

Center for American Progress, "3 Barriers that Stand Between LGBT Youth and Healthier Futures."

"Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey."

Upworthy, "INFOGRAPHIC: One of the Biggest Challenges Facing Gay People Isn't Marriage Equality."

Linda Robertson, "Just Because He Breathes: Learning to Truly Love Our Gay Son." 

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