The teenagers we're not helping

  • Tim Lydon

 

This winter, events in two Western states gave supporters of same-sex marriage reason to cheer. First, on Feb. 7, the 9th Circuit Court ruled that California Proposition Eight, the 2008 voter-approved ban on gay marriage, violates the U.S. Constitution. The court said the ban’s only purpose was “to lessen the status and human dignity of gay men and lesbians in California.” Then, a week later, Washington became the seventh state to legalize gay marriage.

While this was good news for equal marital rights, statistics from the West reveal tragic trends among gay youth, generally defined as in their teens and early 20s. Homeless services in Los Angeles, Seattle and Portland, Ore., recently estimated that 20 to 30 percent of their homeless youth are gay or bisexual. In Utah, Salt Lake City’s Homeless Youth Resource Center estimated that over 40 percent are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Arizona and Colorado report similar numbers. Some caution the numbers may be low, due to youth reticence about “coming out.”



These numbers match national trends. Research by the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce estimates that 30 to 40 percent of America’s homeless young people are gay, alarming when we consider that only 3 to 5 percent of the general population is.

For many gay youths, homelessness is just one more landmark on a tragic journey. Hidden in urban shadows, including in the generally friendly cities of the West, these kids are subject to all varieties of violence, from robbery to rape to murder. Even in shelters, they experience higher abuse rates than their contemporaries. According to the National Runaway Switchboard, gay homeless youths, often perceived as easy targets, are far more likely to be victimized than their heterosexual counterparts. That was one of the factors in the brutal 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyo., according to testimony from the killers’ girlfriends.



Homelessness aside, homosexual youths often struggle with depression, which can lead to substance abuse, unsafe sexual activity and, eventually, even suicide. In 2008, the Suicide Prevention Resource Center found that lesbian, gay and bisexual young people were up to seven times more likely to have attempted suicide than the rest of the population.

Family conflict is the root cause of most of the problems. Studies in Arizona, Colorado and elsewhere found half of gay youths experienced a negative reaction from their parents when they disclosed their sexual orientation, including verbal, physical and sexual abuse. 

The religious beliefs of parents are often involved and contribute to rejection of these young people from their homes. At the Urban Peak Youth Shelter in Denver, one gay teen reported that his mother showed him the grave where she had figuratively “buried” him, unable to reconcile her religion with his sexuality. For years, he bounced between Colorado foster homes, shelters and the streets, falling into drugs, unsafe sex and other risky behaviors.

Religious discrimination is more than a family matter. Gay and Lesbian Taskforce research shows it pervades shelters, too, especially faith-based ones, where otherwise compassionate staff may ignore gay youths on religious grounds. 
 
When it comes to religious discrimination against homosexuality, Utah again springs to mind. According to the documentary film, “8: The Mormon Proposition,” in 2008, Utah’s Mormon Church spent at least $22 million to support California Proposition 8. It substantially contributed to what became the most money ever spent on a state ballot initiative, anywhere in the country.

Much of the money came from personal donations from church members in Western states. Setting aside that this hefty resource could have provided real relief for the West’s under-funded homeless shelters, the
campaign’s widely aired and often fiercely anti-homosexual rhetoric was likely especially tough on this region’s already vulnerable gay and lesbian kids.

While it’s easy to fault the intolerance of some religious groups, I was intrigued by something less expected that recent research has revealed. It turns out that the national gay rights movement, which has raised awareness about the issue in general, winning many legal battles in recent years, garners only mixed results when it comes to homosexual youth.



On one hand, acceptance of homosexuality has increased, buoyed by characters on television shows, prominent entertainment figures, and school anti-bullying campaigns. This helps give many kids the courage to open up about their sexuality. But negative parental reaction is apparently still widespread and especially common in rural areas, like those that make up much of the West. As figures show, kids rejected at home often find their way to city streets and a lifetime of problems. In this sense, the adult debate on gay marriage inflicts collateral damage on non-traditional youth, who find themselves lost amid all the media hoopla. Scant resources exist to help these kids, and there never seems to be enough to go around.

As Westerners, we own our share of this national problem. It’s written across young faces in Denver, Seattle, Los Angeles, Missoula. We should be proud of our region’s recent contributions to equal marital rights, but more work against intolerance is needed in our communities and families.
 
Tim Lydon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News(hcn.org). He writes in Girdwood, Alaska.

 

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Carbondale based public lands advocate, Wilderness Workshop, seeks a Conservation Director to help direct and shape the future of public land conservation on the West...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR FOR WATER PLANNING WITH WRA'S HEALTHY RIVERS PROGRAM
    Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED BIGHORN RIVER BASIN PROJECT MANAGER
    The Bighorn River Basin Project Manager identifies and implements projects to improve streamflows, restore stream and riparian habitat, improve fish passage and rehabilitate or replace...
  • NON-PROFIT OPERATIONS MANAGER
    One of the most renowned community-based collaboratives in the country seeks full-time Operations Manager to oversee administrative, financial, fund development, and board development duties. BS/BA...
  • RUSTIC HORSE PROPERTY
    in NM. 23 acres, off the grid, rustic cabin, organic gardens, fruit trees, fenced, call 505-204-8432 evenings.
  • DIRECTOR OF VISITOR SERVICES & BOOKSTORE OPERATIONS
    The San Juan Mountains Association in Durango, CO is seeking a Director of Visitor Services & Bookstore Operations to lead our visitor information program &...
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Board of Diablo Trust is seeking applications for full-time Program Manager with duties of overseeing the coordination and administration of the Diablo Trusts ongoing...
  • SOLAR POWERED HOME NEAR CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK
    1800 sf home on 4.12 acres surrounded by Natl Forest and recreational opportunities in a beautiful area (Happy Valley) between Torrey and Boulder. [email protected], www.bouldermoutainreality/properties/grover/off-the-grid-in-happy-valley,...
  • SECLUDED TWO-STORY CUSTOM LOG HOME
    in 16-acre pinion pine forest with year-round stream, mountain views, wildlife. Garage, root cellar, wood shop, one-room cabin, RV shed, pasture, garden. [email protected]
  • BEAUTIFUL, CUSTOM RASTRA BLOCK ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME
    Mature, six-acre Ponderosa forest, open pasture. Spectacular Sangre de Cristo mountain & valley views. Well maintained, paved county road, easy drive to world-class skiing &...
  • OJO CALIENTE RIVERSIDE SECLUSION
    Private, 2bd/2bath green home on 2 acres on the Ojo Caliente River between the confluence of the Chama & Rio Grande Rivers. Close to hiking,...
  • CLASSIC NEW MEXICO MOUNTAIN VIEWS
    of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. 3.19 acre lot to build on to escape the crush of city/town life. Short distance to trails, skiing, fishing,...
  • 40 ACRE ORGANIC FARM
    potential fruit/hay with house, Hotchkiss, CO, Scott Ellis, 970-420-0472, [email protected]
  • ASSOCIATE OF PROGRAMS
    The Orton Family Foundation empowers people to shape the future of their communities by improving local decision-making, creating a shared sense of belonging, and ultimately...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 25-year legacy of success...
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one. 928-380-6570, www.testshop.com. More info at https://bit.ly/2Kgi340.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR MOJAVE DESERT LAND TRUST
    Organization Background: The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) is a non-profit 501(3)(c) organization, founded in 2006. Our mission is to protect the ecosystems of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...