Forward Thinking: Addressing Threats to LGBTQ Youth Safety and Security

Thanks to the steadfast efforts of advocates, lawmakers, social service providers, and individuals able to live openly and proudly, the LGBTQ struggle for social equality in the United States has seen a dramatic improvement over the past decade. Issues such as marriage equality and the open service of LGBTQ men and women in the armed forces have support from the majority of Americans. The increased visibility of the trans community has encouraged many activists, communities and businesses to push back against discriminatory laws targeting trans people. However, the overall LGBTQ rights movement has many miles to go to achieve full equality. LGBTQ people still encounter consistent threats to their safety and security beginning at a young age. Compared to the general youth population, LGBTQ youth are more likely to struggle with depression, develop suicidal thoughts, contract HIV, become homeless and experience physical violence.

As we recognize Pride Month this June, let’s reflect on critical issues that young LGBTQ people continue to face as they navigate one of the most challenging times in their lives.

Risk of Depression, Suicide and Substance Abuse

LGBTQ youth are much more likely to struggle with depression and to attempt suicide than the rest of the population. Family, community and public support are all important early intervention factors in ensuring that LGBTQ youth can live happy, healthy and complete lives.

Risk of HIV and AIDS

There are more than 1 million Americans currently living with HIV. Gay and bisexual men, who represent about 2 percent of the U.S. population, account for about 62 percent of the 50,000 new infections every year. For this group, early intervention in the form of early testing, education and consistent treatment is critical.

Threat of Violence, Physical Assault and Bullying

Institutional, cultural and interpersonal discrimination are the root causes of violence toward LGBTQ individuals. Although discrimination and violence against LGBTQ people is unacceptable, members of this community remain at higher risk of being victims of these crimes. Workplaces, schools and public services such as banking, renting or buying a home, and going to a shopping mall can be sources of discrimination and threats to the LGBTQ community. The best early intervention methods are policy changes and clear stances by elected officials that can curb widespread discrimination and violence faced by LGBTQ individuals in almost every facet of their lives.

Risk of Homelessness

According to various sources, an estimated 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBTQ. Many of these young people enter a downward spiral that often begins with rejection by their families, followed by couch surfing and transitory living, and ultimately homelessness. Homelessness can be particularly difficult for LGBTQ people, who often experience discrimination or abuse in shelters. This is particularly true for transgender people, who are often denied housing or evicted from their homes because of their gender identity.

Compounding Risks for Transgender Youth

The LGBTQ community is often depicted as a single group with a shared communal experience. However, transgender individuals face unique challenges. Much of the research conducted on the overall LGBTQ community focuses on LGB data and does not accurately reflect the realities that transgender people face. In fact, trans people are often at much higher risk of encountering violence, becoming homeless, experiencing mental health issues and being exposed to HIV.

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Addressing and Eliminating Threats

Effectively addressing systemic problems related to LGBTQ youth will require buy-in from lawmakers at the local, state and federal levels. Many lawmakers throughout the country are fighting to pass legislation that would protect the LGBTQ community. U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, of Colorado, lists initiatives on his website that are significant to LGBTQ rights, including bills that have been introduced. Unfortunately, most bills that would make a difference in the lives of LGBTQ people are not tied to a popular issue like marriage equality and die during the legislative process without much press. Backlash to major victories for the LGBTQ rights movement also presents dilemmas. Some legislators have recently introduced bills at the state and federal levels that would deny basic protections to LGBTQ people and legally allow discrimination against members of this community. Most recently, legislation designed to prevent transgender individuals from using bathrooms that correspond to their gender have been introduced throughout the country, with the clash spilling over into federal courts. The cases highlight the need for non-discrimination laws to protect this communities’ rights in public accommodations, as well as in employment, education, health care and housing, where they continue to face insecurity.    

Constituent pressure on elected officials can help push back against anti-LGBTQ bills and create momentum for pieces of legislation that would positively affect LGBTQ people. However, the LGBTQ community and LGBTQ youth cannot wait for lawmakers to act. Social workers, social service providers, health practitioners, schools and shelters will need to be forward thinking as they continue to develop new interventions specifically designed to address the unique needs of young LGBTQ people.

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