There is, perhaps, no experience that unifies lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people more than the act of coming out. Most of us remember clearly the first time we uttered those fateful words — “I am…” — to a parent or sibling, coach or teacher, best friend or teammate. And even more vividly, we remember how they responded.
That response can have a profound impact on a young person who is just coming out. It can even put their health, well-being, and safety at risk.
Here’s what we know: today, LGBTQ young people interact with the juvenile justice and foster care systems, and experience homelessness, depression, and suicidal ideation at disproportionately higher rates than their non-LGBTQ peers. Up to 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ, and LGBTQ youth represent at least 13 percent of the total detained population in the juvenile justice system.
It can be easy to blame the political environment and, in particular, an administration which uses its bully pulpit as just that — and yes, that’s part of the cause. For example, consider the fact that two of the days with the highest call volume to the Trevor Project’s suicide hotline were the day after the 2016 election and the day the nation awoke to a tweet about banning transgender patriots from serving in the military.
But one of the root causes of these risky outcomes for our young people goes even deeper than political rhetoric. In fact, in many instances, the difficulty starts at home. Research tells us that family rejection is one of the primary root causes of negative outcomes for LGBTQ youth.
It doesn’t have to be this way. No matter who you are, what you believe, or how — or if — you pray, we can all agree that we ought to live in a society where all our young people are supported and affirmed.
We can — and should — work to pass laws and implement policies that protect LGBTQ youth across the spectrum of their lives. But laws and policies are not enough. We must also change hearts and minds. We need to change the culture.
That’s why, today, the Biden Foundation launched “As You Are: A Family and Community Acceptance Campaign.” We will lift up the stories of young people and their families, allies, and others to inspire us to move towards a culture of acceptance, not rejection.
When most people think of family rejection, they assume it means that a parent has kicked a child out of the home or has otherwise “disowned” them. But rejecting behaviors take many forms, such as subjecting young people to “conversion therapy,” blocking access to LGBTQ friends and resources, blaming the harassment and bullying a young person is experiencing on their LGBTQ identity, pressuring youth to keep their LGBTQ identity a “secret,” or insisting they conform to “masculine” or “feminine” gender stereotypes.
Research also shows that healthy outcomes are much more likely when young people experience family and community acceptance and support. For example, lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth who come from accepting and supportive families are more than eight times less likely to have attempted suicide as LGB peers who reported high levels of family rejection.
Additionally, when schools implement LGBTQ-inclusive policies, procedures, and activities designed to promote a healthy environment, all students, including those who are LGBTQ, thrive. For example, in schools with gay-straight alliances (GSAs), not only does absenteeism among LGBTQ students diminish, but there is also a significant decrease in incidents of bullying and harassment. Schools with GSAs have also seen a reduction in the number of students contemplating and/or attempting suicide.
The “As You Are” campaign is for everyone. If you have a story, we want to hear from you. If you are an LGBTQ person who has experienced rejection — or acceptance — by your family of origin, your foster family, your chosen family, your co-workers, your school, your community, or others — we want to hear from you. If you are a parent who has struggled with accepting your LGBTQ child, if you are a parent who has completely accepted and affirmed your child, if you are a teacher, coach, friend, neighbor, co-worker, sibling, or ally who knows someone who has struggled with family or community rejection — we want to hear from you.
In this time of great division in our country, now more than ever, we must remember the progress we’ve made towards becoming a more just and equal society and reflect upon the laws we’ve passed and minds we’ve changed. Together, let’s change our culture to ensure that no young person is rejected by their family, their school, or their community simply because of who they are or who they love.
EMILY HECHT-MCGOWAN is the director of LGBTQ programming at the Biden Foundation.