Watching the joyous responses to the Supreme Court’s Friday decision to make marriage equality the law of the land has been deeply moving for many. It’s easy to be swept up in the belief that the battle is now near the end. Yet even as laws become more inclusive and public figures like Ellen DeGeneres, Laverne Cox, and Tim Cook are embraced by the mainstream, many LGBTQ folks in our communities still live as permanent pariahs, forever cast out of the mainstream.
Just last Wednesday we watched as Jennicet Gutiérrez interrupted President Obama’s Pride Month reception address because she felt that as an undocumented trans woman, she couldn’t rejoice while LGBTQ detainees are being abused and living in deplorable conditions in U.S. detention centers. In a room full of LGBTQ supporters and advocates, she was met with a chorus of boos and derision. “This is not for you,” one onlooker called out. “This is for all of us.” That moment demonstrated, with startling clarity, who gets to choose those who are allowed to gather under the umbrella of “us.”
At the homeless youth service agency where I work we get to see who society deems unworthy of its support. We know that more than a million youth in the U.S. are homeless; 40 percent of them are LGBTQ-identified, and a disproportionately high number of those are youth of color. There is a paucity of services for these youth, and of the LGBTQ youth services that do exist, few work in homelessness prevention.
The causes of LGBTQ youth homelessness are varied, ranging from economic hardship to mental health issues, but the most prominent cause is family conflict. These youth are unquestionably vulnerable. Leaving home because of family rejection is the greatest predictor of future involvement with the juvenile justice system for LGBTQ youth.
The statistics for transgender youth are especially devastating, with 1 in 5 having experienced homelessness at some time in their lives because of discrimination and family rejection. Transgender people facing housing instability also face discrimination from agencies designed to help young people. Nearly 1 in 3 trans youth have reported being turned away from a shelter due to their gender identity.
Even more marginalized, LGBTQ youth of color experience oppression on numerous levels. A nationwide study of homophobia in schools found that the majority of LGBTQ youth of color had experienced victimization in school because of either race or sexual identity in the last year, while half reported being victimized because of both race and sexual identity. More than a third of LGBTQ youth of color had experienced physical violence because of their orientation.
Of all the research done about the heightened risks involving LGBTQ youth, none stands out as harshly as that of suicide. The studies indicate that gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth are three times as likely to attempt suicide as their straight peers. Study after study has shown that gay youth find the struggle to live as themselves to be more painful than it’s worth. In one study that looked at suicide by gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, researchers found that 1 in 4 gay youth said they’d attempted suicide by the time they turned 16. One in 10 had done so in the past year, and a third of those made serious enough attempts that they needed emergency care. The statistics for transgender youth are even grimmer, with more than 50 percent having had at least one suicide attempt by their 20th birthday.
Consider the story of AJ Betts. When he came out to his mother, Sheryl, she was concerned for the 16-year-old's safety, she explained to me. She asked him not to share that he was gay with his classmates. She told him the story of Matthew Shepard. AJ responded, “Mom, you don’t understand. For the first time in my life I feel free.”
Sheryl said her son instantly became a different person, full of confidence and self-acceptance. But life at his Iowa school took a bleak turn. He’d always been teased for his cleft lip and for being biracial, but after he came out, the taunts became relentless. He was bullied, and called "Gay-J" and the f and n words daily. Students told AJ he was going to hell; he was beaten up. A short while later AJ took his own life. He was one of many youth to commit suicide in his small community over the span of a few years.
Sheryl has been tirelessly trying to keep her son’s memory alive, and trying to evoke change in how bullying is addressed in communities. As a result, she’s found herself ostracized. Her response on Facebook to pictures and stories being shared about the Supreme Court ruling was bittersweet: “If you are a bigot and being negative about today's events — let me challenge your beliefs. This is a picture of my son. He was gay. He was bullied by people like you. He killed himself as a result. He deserved to live. He was the kindest human being I have ever known. He deserved to be in pictures like these.”
Despite the shifting tides of political and social acceptance, LGBTQ youth continue to suffer the burden of social stigma and are continually denied dignity while little is done to address their pain. As a community, when we fall silent to these issues, we fail our young people in our complicity.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage is significant and will positively impact the lives of many Americans. We should take pause and rejoice in this watershed moment. But we can’t look upon it as the closing triumph on LGBTQ rights. The tight focus on marriage equality over the past decade has allowed us to overlook other pressing issues that face members of our communities; to forget that fight has many fronts. Those causes now need to be given the attention they deserve.
We must now dedicate to fight for our youth experiencing homelessness and suffering from suicidal ideation; our transgender siblings targeted with violence; our brothers and sisters of color who face discrimination daily; and our undocumented, impoverished, or incarcerated brothers and sisters living in deplorable conditions. We must fight with the same ingenuity and tenacity that brought us the right to marry. We must build on the momentum this victory has afforded us and learn to care for each other across differences within our communities.
We need to mobilize in solidarity even when the person we’re fighting for doesn’t mirror back our own experience or reflection. Even when — no, especially when — their cries for help seem in conflict with our joy.