In the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer/Questioning (LGBTQ) community, “coming out” is a milestone akin to a coming-of-age.
For many it’s like a second birthday; choosing to come out marks the point at which an individual is able to live authentically and without shame. It is a courageous and personal choice, which should be celebrated no matter when or how someone chooses to share who they are with the world.
This Pride Month, however, as we celebrate the LGBTQ community, we must also be honest about what happens to those who are not accepted or supported. For far too many, the journey “out of the closet” leads directly into the streets.
This is especially true of teenagers and young adults, who typically have little control over their direct environments. When youth are rejected by their families for being LGBTQ, they are left with very few options. The lucky ones may be taken in by another family member or close friend. Others enter into the foster care system. Too often, though, LGBTQ youth who are rejected by their families experience extreme trauma, such as homelessness and sexual exploitation.
LGBTQ youth make up about 7% of the overall youth population, but comprise an estimated 19-30% of youth in foster care. Tragically, many LGBTQ youth enter foster care in order to escape homes that were unwelcoming or unsafe because of their identity, only to experience the same intolerance and rejection in their foster care placements. These children experience a higher number of placements and are more likely to experience verbal harassment and physical violence than their heterosexual counterparts. One study found that as many as 78% of LGBTQ youth were removed or ran away from a foster placement as a direct result of hostility toward their sexual orientation or gender identity. Youth who do not feel safe or accepted in foster care rarely have another place to go. Those who run away typically become homeless and lose whatever support they had.
Consequently, LGBTQ youth are also overrepresented in the homeless youth population. As much as 20-40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ. Furthermore, LGBTQ teens tend to have worse experiences with homelessness, including a greater risk of physical and sexual violence, and are more vulnerable to recruitment into human trafficking.
It’s these risk factors, on top of the general threat of harassment and abuse, which discourage LGBTQ youth from coming out in the first place. But the solution is not to keep them “in the closet” longer; it’s to provide them with safe and welcoming alternatives.
The foster care system needs to take responsibility for the increased risk of mistreatment that LGBTQ youth face by educating foster parents on LGBTQ issues and evaluating their ability to care for LGBTQ youth. All services provided to youth in foster care, including therapy and medical care, must be sensitive to and accepting of LGBTQ identities to ensure all youth are comfortable seeking help. The same approach should be adopted by other youth support services, especially those serving homeless and housing insecure youth and youth survivors of trafficking. Shelters in particular must be accessible to transgender and gender-nonconforming youth. Trauma care services must be sensitive to LGBTQ identities and the specific trauma that LGBTQ youth encounter.
Parents and families of LGBTQ children should not be afraid to seek resources to learn more about their child’s identity and how to support them. In fact, all parents and families should take a proactive approach and begin educating themselves on how to support an LGBTQ child even before their child comes out. The best resource a family can provide LGBTQ youth with is unconditional love and patience. It is not the responsibility of LGBTQ youth to change or hide who they are, but the family’s job to nurture and protect them. And celebrate their milestones. Even if they are not the ones they expect.
If you or a young person you know identifies as LGBTQ and is in need of information and support, please go to The Trevor Project website (https://www.thetrevorproject.org) or call their hotline (1-866-488-7386). Additional resources for parents, families, and communities, can be found on the PFLAG website (https://pflag.org/).
Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by Dr. Bob Sanborn and Callen Lappin, of Children At Risk, a Texas based nonprofit focused on research and advocacy for children. Their commentary appears in The Rio Grande Guardian with the permission of the authors. For more information about the nonprofit, email: [email protected]
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