Voices of 10,000 LGBT Youth Paint Portrait of Communities, Schools, and Families

The front of the Stonewall Inn in 1969, the flash point of the Stonewall Riots.

The front of the Stonewall Inn in 1969, the flash point of the Stonewall Riots. – Photo by Diana Davies, copyright owned by New York Public Library

President Obama declared this month to be Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Pride Month. June had been celebrated in the LGBT community long before President Clinton officially declared the first month in June 2000. This month is significant to the LGBT community because June 28 marks the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City. The riots have come to be synonymous with the blossoming of the contemporary LGBT civil rights movement in the U.S. and elsewhere. President Obama commemorated this month with these words:

From generation to generation, ordinary Americans have led a proud and inexorable march toward freedom, fairness, and full equality under the law ‑‑ not just for some, but for all. Ours is a heritage forged by those who organized, agitated, and advocated for change; who wielded love stronger than hate and hope more powerful than insult or injury; who fought to build for themselves and their families a Nation where no one is a second-class citizen, no one is denied basic rights, and all of us are free to live and love as we see fit.

The lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community has written a proud chapter in this fundamentally American story. From brave men and women who came out and spoke out, to union and faith leaders who rallied for equality, to activists and advocates who challenged unjust laws and marched on Washington, LGBT Americans and allies have achieved what once seemed inconceivable. This month, we reflect on their enduring legacy, celebrate the movement that has made progress possible, and recommit to securing the fullest blessings of freedom for all Americans.

A teen boy sits against a brick wall with his head between his knees next to his backpack with a rainbow sticker.In order to secure the fullest blessings of freedom for all Americans, we must focus on the younger members of the LGBT American community. As LGBT youth are coming out younger and younger in high school and middle school they face challenges and opportunities previous generations did not experience.

Every youth program and school has LGBT youth (and staff), even if they are not visible. People who are LGBT—much like people with disabilities—exist in every race and ethnicity, geographic area, and economic class. And people with disabilities may be LGBT too. Given this fact, all youth service professionals need to be aware of what LGBT youth may need in addition to what all youth need.

In the wake of several years of highly publicized LGBT youth suicides and anti-LGBT rhetoric, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest U.S. LGBT civil rights organization, released “Growing Up LGBT in America,” a report highlighting HRC’s key findings from its survey of over 10,000 LGBT youth ages 13 to 17 from urban, suburban, and rural communities all over the country. The survey examined the lives of LGBT and non-LGBT youth in the areas of home, school, and community. The report found that “LGBT youth are profoundly disconnected from their communities…” but that they express “a sense of optimism about tomorrow’s possibilities.”

Human Rights Campaign Report Cover: "Growing Up LGBT in America: Home, School, Community"Of youth surveyed, nine in ten LGBT youth were “out” to their close friends, two-thirds were out to their classmates, just over half were out to their immediate families, nearly four in ten were out to their teachers, and hardly any were out to their clergy. Further, the survey indicates that LGBT youth’s biggest fears, worries, and problems center on family and community acceptance, intolerance and bullying in school, and unstable living situations. In contrast, non-LGBT youth’s primary concerns are about debt and finances, appearance and weight, classes and grades, and college and career. So while many non-LGBT youth are worrying about their schoolwork and getting into and paying for college, many LGBT youth are worried about whether their parents will kick them out for being LGBT and being verbally and physically harassed at school or elsewhere.

One surveyed youth had this to say about her experiences at school: “I want to be able to go to school without being called a faggot or a dyke b!$@#. I don’t want to hide in the shadows about my sexuality because my safety is on the line.” LGBT youth surveyed were more than twice as likely as their non-LGBT peers to have been verbally or physically harassed at school. A separate study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reaffirms this finding and adds that LGB youth are about three times more likely than their non-LGB peers to be injured in a physical fight and require medical attention overall (“LGB” is used here rather than “LGBT” because the surveys the CDC used did not identify transgender youth).

Many youth are out only to their friends, and even those youth who are out may not be accepted. Even though more than half of LGBT youth are out to their families, only one in three feels their families are accepting of them. One surveyed LGBT youth stated, “I have been graciously received by my peers, but the biggest issue I face is my parents. I have been called sick and perverted by them.” Further, the report indicated that “Nearly half of LGBT youth say they do not ‘fit in’ in their community, while only 16% of non-LGBT youth feel that way.” Many LGBT youth feel they have no caring adults to turn to about their problems.

Safe Zone Sign: Pink Triangle on Black Circles indicating "this is a safe space to talk about..." Click through for PDF.

A Safe Zone Sign can be posted in an office, classroom, or other area to indicate to all youth that the adult present will create a safe space to discuss a variety of issues. Click through to download a PDF of this sign.

The Guideposts for Success—NCWD/Youth’s framework for what all youth, including youth with disabilities, need to successfully transition to adulthood—outlines opportunities and experiences that all youth need, many of which LGBT youth may not be getting according to these reports. Youth who are disconnected from and unsafe in their schools, families, and communities are at risk for not making the transition to adulthood successfully, or in some cases, at all.

But thankfully this portrait is not all gloom and doom. The HRC report states that “Three-quarters of LGBT youth say that most of their peers do not have a problem with their identity as LGBT.” And even though 92% of LGBT report hearing negative messages about being LGBT, 78% of these youth say they also hear positive messages. According to HRC, “LGBT youth often report resilience in facing today’s challenges and a sense of optimism about tomorrow’s possibilities.”

It is our job as a community to support the unique needs of LGBT youth, and there are many helpful resources and strategies to tap into. In June 2011, NCWD/Youth posted a blog on this subject, so please check it out for some excellent ideas and resources on working with LGBT youth.

Happy LGBT Pride Month!!!

Related Resources:

By Eric Cline, Program Coordinator, National Collaborative on Workforce & Disability for Youth at the Institute for Educational Leadership’s Center for Workforce Development.

About NCWD Youth

NCWD/Youth works to ensure that transition age youth are provided full access to high quality services in integrated settings to gain education, employment, and independent living.
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