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Southern LGBTQ+ Youth Growing Up in 'Hostile Social Climate': Study

Teenager with angry parents
Image by Juanmonino/Getty Images

LGBTQ+ youth in the South face difficulties at home and school as well as attacks from lawmakers, says a report from the Campaign for Southern Equality and Campus Pride.

Young LGBTQ+ people in the American South are "coming of age amid a hostile social climate," with political attacks and, often, a lack of support from their families and peers, says a new report.

Those are the findings in "Coming of Age as an LGBTQ Southerner: Family, Faith, Education & Health: Report of the 2021 Survey of Southern LGBTQ Experiences." Just released, it was produced by the Campaign for Southern Equality and Campus Pride.

It's based on a self-administered online survey completed by 4,146 LGBTQ+ Southerners between August 3 and December 20, 2021. There were at least 100 participants from each of the 13 Southern states, and the survey group is diverse in terms of race, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

It's estimated that one-third of LGBTQ+ Americans live in the South, "where they are likely to have fewer legal protections and face more anti-LGBTQ policies than their peers in other parts of the country," the report says.

2021 saw a record number of anti-LGBTQ+ bills proposed in state legislatures, with many becoming law, and the trend has continued into 2022. The trend has been particularly pronounced in the South, the report notes.

"Lawmakers across the South have attempted to block, and in some cases criminalize, the provision of health care for transgender youth," it states. Arkansas and Alabama, for instance, have passed laws banning gender-affirming care for minors, with the latter assigning criminal penalties for providing it; both laws are blocked temporarily due to court challenges. Meanwhile, Texas state officials have decreed that parents who allow their children to access this care be investigated for child abuse.

There have also been laws enacted in numerous Southern states to bar trans youth from competing in school sports under their gender identity as well as attempts to bar trans youth and, in some cases, adults, from using the restrooms and changing rooms of their choice.

In addition, the region has seen pushes for "religious exemptions" laws that would allow the denial of goods and services to LGBTQ+ people; efforts to keep cities and counties from adopting LGBTQ-inclusive antidiscrimination laws; and attempts to keep LGBTQ+ content out of public schools.

"Heroically, Southern LGBTQ organizers defeated much of this onslaught of discrimination in

many cases during the 2021 legislative sessions," the report says, although some bills came back and were passed in 2022. It further notes, "Even when anti-LGBTQ bills are defeated, the mere proposal of such discriminatory policies contributes to internalized stigma, poor mental health, and expectations of poor treatment, thus creating a hostile social climate for LGBTQ people."

Survey participants reported a diversity of experiences in their homes, faith communities, and schools. "Participants rated their parents' or caregivers' support for their sexual orientation and gender identity, from 0 (Not At All Supportive) to 100 (Incredibly Supportive)," the report says. The average score for parents' or caregivers' support of the respondent's sexual orientation was 56.37; for gender identity, it was 51.80. Transgender participants reported much less support than cisgender ones.

Just over one-quarter of respondents reported receiving support or resources related to their LGBTQ+ identity from parents or caregivers, while almost half said they received no such support. Fifty-eight percent said they felt pressure from parents or caregivers to change their sexual orientation or gender identity, with, again, trans respondents reporting pressure more frequently than cis ones.

"I was often told that people in the LGBTQ+ [community] will go to hell and all," one participant remarked. "They even [refer to] LGBTQ+ [people as] propaganda currently at church. I'm obligated to go due to my family. My dad often brags about how he 'saved a woman from lesbianism.' I know I will never come out to my parents because of that."

Fewer than 5 percent of respondents said they received support from a spiritual or faith leader, and more than 30 percent said they were outright denied this support. Of those who identified as spiritual or religious, 69 percent "reported being alienated or discouraged from participating in their religious or faith community due to their actual or perceived LGBTQ identity," according to the study. More than a third of all respondents said they encountered pressure in religious settings to change or repress their identity.

"Religious experiences growing up (I was raised in a Christian cult) are the reason I did not know or understand my sexual orientation until I was 26 years old," one participant wrote. "It was never an option for me. I resent the entire institution for what it did to me and my friends."

In schools, about a quarter of respondents said they received support or resources related to their LGBTQ+ identity, while slightly more than that reported denial. Denial was more common among trans participants.

"The higher levels of denied support than received support suggest that many LGBTQ students may not have allied staff members who are affirming and supportive in their identities, or that they may not have access to affirming and supportive school clubs," the report notes.

Nearly half reported missing school because they felt unsafe, with, again, more reporting that they felt unsafe due to their gender identity. Nearly a quarter of all respondents said they had experienced physical violence due to their LGBTQ+ identity, and more than half of those said the violence occurred at school.

Most respondents described their physical health as either "fair" or "good," but a majority characterized their mental health as either "fair" or "poor." More than half reported having suicidal thoughts, while nearly 14 percent said their had attempted suicide at least once.

Much of the solution to the marginalization of young LGBTQ+ Southerners lies with schools, according to the report. It recommends that schools take a proactive approach to LGBTQ+ inclusion. "It is time for schools across the South to protect the rights and wellbeing of the young students they agreed to serve," it says.

"Regardless of the political and cultural attacks in the South, and the lack of protections from the institutions we rely on as Southerners, the LBGTQ community in the South is truly that -- a community, one with an overwhelming amount of love, acceptance, joy, and beauty," the document concludes. "Our strength, as LGBTQ Southerners and our allies, is and has always been found in the support we show for one another. In these times of uncertainty and varying amounts of hostility, our community will continue to rely on each other's love and support. Until then, we ask the world to do the same."

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