On one hand, advocates of LGBT rights have had much to celebrate in recent years. Not only did gay marriage become legal in every state of the U.S. in 2015, but the country’s public support for that notion has ballooned over the past decade: A Gallup poll found that in 2015, 58 percent of Americans thought that same-sex couples should be allowed to legally marry, compared to only 37 percent in 2007. There’s no doubt that this is a trend to cheer. However, other problems facing the LGBT population have proven more intractable, and it’s time now that we turn our attention to them.
Not enough is being said about the disturbing overrepresentation of LGBT youth among the homeless population in this country. According to The Williams Institute, 40 percent of homeless youth served by agencies identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. This striking figure betrays a dark side to the hopeful Gallup numbers cited above: We still live in a dangerously repressive society.
While many people feel increasingly willing to support the nuptials between their LGBT friends and coworkers, they often withhold that budding acceptance when the gay individual in question is their son or daughter. Many teens who come out to their parents — or find themselves outed against their will — are still kicked out of their homes, cut off from their parents’ resources, and left to fend for themselves. Even more worryingly, homelessness in LGBT youth too often leads to drug addiction, prostitution, and increased rates of suicide — a deadly correlation I’m willing to bet most parents aren’t aware of when they take a stand against their gay children.
Thankfully, good programs do exist to help make the streets slightly safer for those teens who do end up homeless – shelters, drop-in centers, outreach programs. But we need to do more. I believe that in order to proactively pull back on the prevalence of LGBT homeless youth, a nationwide campaign is needed to help educate parents about the dangers that came with their lack of support. Through my advocacy and teaching in the University of San Francisco’s School of Management, I’m working to launch a dialogue that will fight this problem.
The depressingly common narrative — teen comes out to a parent (or parent breaches teen’s privacy and outs him or her); parent cuts teen off — crosses racial and social lines. The risks that come with being young and homeless don’t discriminate, either. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, about 80 percent of homeless youth use drugs or alcohol to deal with the trauma they too often experience. A New York Times article reports that one-third of homeless youth engage in prostitution. And the National Network for Youth finds that suicide is the leading cause of death among this group — 32 percent of homeless young people have attempted it.
Homelessness is hard for anyone to bounce back from — especially when it’s a condition that afflicts a person when he or she is not fully developed. Interrupted schooling can impede a person’s ability to find the work that’s required to live independently. Available jobs often don’t come with livable wages. Because of these long-lasting setbacks, it’s crucial that we address this problem before LGBT youth are cast off onto the streets.
I’m advocating for a widespread dialogue around LGBT youth homelessness to make parents fully aware of the full range of risks that are likely to come with the decision to shun their gay and transgender children. As part of my work in this realm, I’m working on a journal symposium around the topic of homelessness and LGBT youth in a peer-reviewed journal, which will be published in 2016. The symposium will gather together minds engaged on this topic, which is a good start, but we need to go further. As a country, we need targeted public service announcements, op-eds, and human rights workers to draw the problem of LGBT youth homelessness out of the closet, and into the light.
As we continue to celebrate the victory of same-sex marriage having been declared the law of the land, we need to concertedly shift our collective gaze to other, darker areas where there is still work to do. We need to ask ourselves: What are the problems within this population that people aren’t talking about? What have we been too ashamed to address? LGBT youth homelessness is one glaring problem where families, teens, and advocates have been too quiet. Let’s start talking.
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