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
  • WATERSHED PROGRAMS COORDINATOR
    Are you looking for a positive and success oriented work environment, the opportunity to join a (small but) dynamic group of people supporting watershed activities...
  • BACKCOUNTRY FILM FESTIVAL MANAGER
    Boise-based Winter Wildlands Alliance is looking for an experienced and highly motivated individual to organize our annual Backcountry Film Festival and Tour and coordinate additional...
  • LAND CONSERVATION MANAGER
    SUMMARY Leads, administers and manages the land conservation, conservation easement stewardship, and property management activities of the City of Fort Collins Natural Areas Department within...
  • CLEAN ENERGY PROGRAM ATTORNEY, NEVADA
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking a Staff Attorney who is passionate about Western communities and the protection of the natural environment to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Deschutes River Conservancy in Bend, Oregon
  • WATER POLICY ANALYST WITH WRA (BOULDER)
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates seeks a passionate Water Policy Analyst with knowledge of western water issues to join our Healthy Rivers Team to strengthen...
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.