LGBT Youth Are More Likely To Come Out—But Also More Likely To Be Victimized For It

More equality also means more backlash. Here’s how to help.

In a lot of ways, today’s young LGBT Americans live in a world that offers them unprecedented acceptance. They only have to look as far as their smartphones to find community, no matter where they live. They know that should they fall in love with someone of the same gender, they’ll have the right to marry them. And they’re being presented with entirely new ways of figuring out their gender identities and sexual orientations with a fluid, rather than binary, range of options.

They can also see an ever-increasing number of positively represented queer, gender-fluid, and trans characters in popular culture across all mediums, and witness young celebrities deconstructing heteronormative boundaries left and right. See Jaden Smith making skirts on boys impossibly cool, Teen Vogue tackling advanced concepts in gender theory, Amandla Stenberg coming out as both gender- and sexually-fluid, and the YouTube stardom of out trans teen Jazz Jennings for just a few examples.

Exposure to all of this positive queer visibility, and access to all of these resources probably has something to do with the fact that less than 50% of Americans ages 12 to 20 identify as totally straight. It’s certainly difficult to imagine anyone growing up in today’s America so closeted that they could make it past middle age before coming out to themselves or others—a privilege that wasn’t afforded to older generations.

But while it’s inarguably easier for LGBT youth to figure out their own identities and decide how to present themselves to the world, that doesn’t mean the world is ready to accept them—and in fact, the data suggests that it isn’t.

For a recent study by RTI International, researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 20 years of data related to school bullying. They found that not only have the rates of victimization of queer teens not improved since 1990’s, but things actually appear to be getting worse. Widespread bullying of LGBT teens is currently at an all-time high.

Young people who are victimized by bullying are significantly more likely to engage in suicide-related behaviors. Another study recently found that the percentage of kids and teens hospitalized for suicidal thoughts or actions doubled over the last decade, and the rate of suicide attempts among LGB youth is four times higher than it is for their straight peers.

One potential reason for this is that greater visibility and demands for equality among minority groups inevitably generates more widespread and intensified backlash. In response to the Supreme Court’s 2015 marriage equality decision, anti-gay activists, newly emboldened by Trump, have proposed more than 100 anti-LGBT bills at the state level in 2017 so far. Since the election, hate crimes against minority groups, including the LGBT community, have also increased by 20%.

That kind of cultural backlash is often directed toward those at the margins of the community who are most vulnerable—like transgender Americans and young people—as exemplified by the Trump administration’s decision to rescind Obama’s protections for transgender students.

LGBT youth also continue to be victimized in their own homes with alarming regularity. Approximately 40% of America’s 1.6 million homeless youth identify as LGBT. A majority of those young people find themselves homeless as a result of being rejected or subjected to violence by their families. Half of all queer teens get negative reactions from their parents in response to coming out, and more than one in four are thrown out of their homes.

If all you see of LGBT youth is what’s being presented by popular culture, it would be easy to mistakenly assume that young queer people are all blissfully living out their youth in a world free of restrictive gender and sexuality norms. And for a very small portion of young LGBT Americans—mostly affluent ones who live in major metropolitan areas on the coasts—there may be some truth in that. But the vast majority of queer youth in America continue to face tremendous hurdles to basic survival.

That isn’t to say we haven’t made an astonishing amount of progress in a very short amount of time, or that all that this new queer visibility isn’t a good thing. We have, and it is. It’s nothing short of revolutionary that celebrities and culture-makers are using their platforms to provide the LGBT community with greater visibility. We’re less than a generation away from the days when coming out was considered a career-destroying move in Hollywood and in the music industry, so it’s incredible to see so many young people not only come out, but also passionately advocate for the community without hesitation.

But history makes it clear that those with privilege always achieve equality first. Poor white men, for example, won the right to vote long before black men in America, and white women were able to freely exercise their right to vote a full 30 years before black women could. We can’t let our accomplishments blind us to the very real challenges LGBT youth in America continue to face.

This Pride season, we should absolutely celebrate our progress. But not at the expense of continuing to fight tooth and nail for the most vulnerable members of our community. For many of them, there’s still a long, hard road ahead to full equality.

If you’d like to help, consider donating time or funds to the True Colors Fund, which works to end homelessness among LGBT youth; GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network), which works to end bullying of LGBT students throughout the country; or the Trevor Project, which provides critical suicide prevention services to LGBT youth.


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