You might think of me as having grown up privileged in Beverly Hills — someone who expresses my gay pride all on the outside, with bold fashions and a sassy comment for every occasion. Whether I’m talking about red carpet looks on TV or trading words with the paparazzi outside a club, I’m just me. I don’t worry too much about what others think.
But there’s a reason why I’m able to express myself with confidence. It’s because I feel safe. I grew up in a loving home, and long before I actually came out to my parents, they accepted and supported me for who I am.
According to the Center for American Progress, it’s common for LGBT kids to know they’re different when they’re as young as 5. So in that regard, I’m 100 percent normal. The idea that I might be gay didn’t even really resonate with me until I was 12 or 13. I was always playing with Barbies and walking in my mom’s heels and playing dress-up. I never wanted to play sports, and when I did, it was awkward. It didn’t make sense and I didn’t know why.
But I was never an outcast, I was always well-liked and in the mix, very much a part of all the activities. It was only later, when I went into middle school, that I started to think, This could be a thing. This could be who I am.
In all that time, nobody judged me or rejected me. I had no idea what a rare gift that was. I’m not saying it was always easy. When I came out to my parents, in 11th grade, I didn’t surprise anybody, but even so, it was something that they had to digest. It took them a little while to see that I was just the same old me, that I hadn’t changed at all. Once they got to see that I was fine, they were fine too.
For so many LGBT youth, the story is very different. While the news is full of civil rights victories like marriage equality, LGBT kids in the thousands are still being kicked out of their houses every day just for being themselves. At an age when they should be planning an exciting future, they lose everything: their homes, their families, and sometimes even their lives.
It’s shocking how many LGBT youth are living this nightmare. An estimated 320,000 to 400,000 LGBT youth face homelessness every year. And the streets are harder on us. According to one study, 58 percent of homeless LGBT youth are sexually assaulted, versus 33 percent of heterosexual youth. Forty-four percent of homeless LGBT youth report being asked on the street to trade sex for money, food, shelter, or drugs, compared to just 26 percent of heterosexual youth in the same position.
My hometown of Los Angeles is one of the most popular destinations for homeless youth. On any given day, 6,000 young people are trying to survive on our streets, and a staggering 40 percent of those young people are LGBT. And when I became a supporter of the Los Angeles LGBT Center, which provides a home for youth as well as meals, beds, clothing, medical care, counseling and many other services, I learned that nearly 80 percent of the homeless kids the center cares for are young people of color. Things seem to keep on getting better for our community as a whole, yet the center is caring for more homeless LGBT youth than ever.
I don’t know what it will take for parents to finally stop abandoning their kids just for being themselves. But until that happens, thank heaven there are places like the Los Angeles LGBT Center, the Ali Forney Center in New York, the Ruth Ellis Center in Michigan, and others around the country who are caring for LGBT young people.
Here in Los Angeles, I’m proud to support a pioneering campaign by our center. It’s raising $25 million to help construct a new building with 100 beds for homeless LGBT youth and 100 units of affordable housing, right across from the facility that’s home to its arts, educational, and cultural programs. Together, the buildings will form a unique campus that takes up more than a city block in Hollywood.
Aside from the size of it, what makes this project so special is that it’s not just for youth, it’s also for another part of our community that sometimes gets forgotten — seniors. Many of the affordable apartments will be for them, and with the youth they’ll share a kitchen as well as meeting and recreational space. And all those who live there and have lost their families will have the chance to build new ones.
In the past, I’ve been asked if young LGBT kids might see me as a role model. That’s flattering, but I really hope their parents look to my parents instead. When I get married and have kids myself someday, I’ll be trying to live up to what my parents taught me: It doesn’t matter who you are or how successful you are, loving your children comes first.
E.J. JOHNSON appeared in the premiere season of E! Entertainment’s reality series, Rich Kids of Beverly Hills. The son of NBA legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Cookie Johnson, is also a media fashionisto, and has appeared on The Wendy Williams Show, Bethenny, and was as an E! News fashion correspondent for NY Fashion Week. He is currently studying event planning and hospitality at New York University.