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LGBTQ+ Youth Need Our Help – Now

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

June is Pride Month.  You don’t have to look far to see rainbows popping up everywhere from social media to corporations brightening their logos. Parents and allies come out in support of their loved ones, while LGBTQ+ people celebrate together and fly flags. While it’s affirming to have a month where everyone celebrates us, we have so far to go. Lately, whenever I have a chance, I drop data on how hard the lives of LGBTQ+ people, especially young people, still are, particularly after a pandemic that threatened access to supports.  It is hard to hold on to “It Gets Better!” when it got worse. The good news is, we know what to do.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently released data from the Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey (ABES), which assessed the extent of challenges faced by high school students during the COVID-19 pandemic.  The findings showed that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and other/questioning (LGB+) students, and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) students, and especially those students who live at the intersection of those identities, experienced significant disparities compared to their peers.  Data is not available on transgender, gender non-conforming, and non-binary (TGNB) students. The following are key findings:

  • In 2021, 12 percent of female students, more than 25 percent of LGB students, and 17 percent of other or questioning students attempted suicide during the past year, compared to 5 percent of their male peers and 5 percent of their heterosexual peers, respectively.
  • Lesbian, gay, and bisexual students were far more likely to report physical abuse, with 20 percent reporting that they had been physically abused by a parent or other adult in their home, compared to 10 percent of heterosexual students.
  • They were also more likely than heterosexual peers to experience emotional abuse in their home (74 percent compared to 50 percent). For those who identified their orientation as other or questioning, a slightly higher percentage (76 percent) experienced emotional abuse.

What do we know about intersectionality (students who are BIPOC and LGB+)?

In addition to the unique nature of a student survey during a pandemic, this survey collected experiences of racism while at school.  More than one-third of all U.S. high school students felt they had been treated badly or unfairly at school because of their race or ethnicity.  While data on intersectional identities, in this case BIPOC and LGB+, is not yet available on the CDC ABES webpages, a recent Journal of Adolescent Health article focused on school connectedness and included intersectional ABES data.  One statistic jumped off the page for me:

  • Only 22 percent of Black female sexual minority students feel connected to someone at school. 

This is frankly shocking, that roughly one in five of a group of students connected by their racial and sexual orientation identities does not feel connected at school. I wondered about other data disparities I might find if I looked at race and sexual orientation. These are the ABES data points by race that got me thinking:

  • Black students were most likely to report hunger, with nearly one-third reporting that there was not enough food in their home during the pandemic.  What happens when you pair high rates of food insecurity with a lack of school connectedness?
  • Among American Indian/Alaska Native students across all orientations, 20 percent experienced one or more suicide attempts in the last 12 months.  What if those students were also LGB+ -- a group within which 26.3 percent had attempted suicide in the last year?
  • With more than one-third of BIPOC students experiencing racism, what happens when you add homophobia and biphobia?

If you are like nearly every single person with whom I have shared this data, you feel frustrated, confused, overwhelmed, angry, or maybe all of these emotions.  If you are an adult who is LGB+, a person of color, or both, you might have an intimate understanding of ways in which you experienced these challenges as a young person, and possibly into adulthood.

What can we do?

Good news:  We know what to do.  Three strategies keep rising to the top – connectedness at school, the presence of at least one supportive adult, and the use of requested name and pronouns.  While these strategies could make a huge difference, especially for LGBTQ+ students, important nuances between them are key to success and efforts to find more solutions.

First, the presence of at least one supportive adult is a particularly impactful strategy for LGBTQ+ students.  A 2019 Trevor Project survey of LGBTQ+ students found that the presence of at least one supportive adult reduced the chances of suicide attempts by 40 percent. That’s right - AT LEAST ONE.

School connectedness, which could include other students…not just teachers…does have positive effects on student mental health.  However, school connectedness was less effective for students who experienced racism. I don't know why this is the case, and we need to find out.

Finally, using the pronouns and names students request is suicide prevention. This is obviously a strategy that has the most impact on TGNB students, and data was not collected on these groups in the ABES.  However, it is critical to note that TGNB youth who did not have their pronouns respected attempted suicide twice as often as the kids who did have their pronouns respected.

I would like to add an important tip to these best practices: These strategies are not revolutionary. School staff use the name students request all the time. They use nicknames as long as the student agrees, middle names if the student wishes. When a students’ last name changes due to divorce or marriage in their family, staff make the change. If a student must use a different name to protect their safety, schools get on board.  Blocking school staff from using the pronouns and names requested by students contribute to poor mental health for some of our most vulnerable populations. And honestly, proposing these types of policies can add to the anxiety they feel, just from knowing there are adults in their communities who do not support them.

As a parent, I would be concerned for any student who did not have at least one supportive adult in their life.  Not having one supportive adult means the student has neither a caregiver, nor an adult at school, nor at a youth club. No wonder they feel awful.

We have an easy opportunity here. Support young people. Believe them when they tell us who they are. We have been believed -- when our parents enrolled us, teachers called us by that name. Unless you are a TGNB person, the school staff probably used the pronoun you wanted, too. Can you imagine if they hadn’t? Can you imagine if you experienced racism and homophobia and had NO adults to support you? Unfortunately, some of you can imagine that, because it happened to you. But, for the rest of us, let’s do all we can to make sure those students have at least one adult.

You can show support by using neutral language, such as using “students” instead of “boys and girls,” or using “they,” or a students’ name when pronouns have not been shared. I have often said that as much as LGBTQ+ folks hear exclusive language, the reality is that neutral language can stand as inclusive language. You can speak up when derogatory language is used about sexual orientation, gender identity, and race. You can abstain from the use of words like “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” and “ladies.” None of these require you to wrap yourself in a rainbow flag or march in a parade. We can include by believing youth when they tell us who they are and changing any habits that leave them out.

If you know an LGBTQ+ young person, whether you know of struggles they may be having or not, please be sure they know about the Trevor Project, a  24/7/365, free, confidential crisis support resource for LGBTQ+ young people.

Subscriber submission: Molly Herrmann, education consultant on the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s Student Services/Prevention and Wellness team