The teenagers we're not helping
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.