I can't even imagine coming out at 18, 16, or, God forbid (pun intended), at 14. But today many GLBT youth are coming to their sexuality and gender relationship as teenagers. We take for granted now that we have Ellen and Rosie and Will & Grace on TV with Queer Eye that it should be a much easier environment for the young of our community to feel confident and safe. But when many of us were coming up, the president was not declaring a constitutional amendment against our relationships and we were not a weekly topic of debate. Maybe we were invisible and that is worse, right? But how is it to navigate in this new-found visibility and controversy for our young GLBT friends? John Hobbs has experience working with displaced youth.
With lesbian and gay characters visible on prime-time TV and same-sex couples having legal marriage ceremonies, one has to ask the question: are GLBT youth better equipped today to embrace their sexual orientation? While one can say that a gay presence in our culture has significantly increased over the past five years, growing up GLBT continues to be a serious challenge. The increasing presence of open GLBT people has fueled the negative rhetoric of religious and political conservatives desperate to neutralize GLBT civil-rights gains. GLBT youth are actually growing up in a climate of renewed religious and political terrorism. During the recent election, even candidates who privately supported GLBT civil rights were hesitant to declare their public support for fear of being attacked and losing votes. Not only does this create a chilling atmosphere for civil rights, but it is emotionally and spiritually damaging to GLBT youth who are struggling to form their identity and hoping for affirmation.
Within the Judeo-Christian tradition there is a core mandate to protect and advocate for those who are marginalized and oppressed. It is a scandal to this tradition that the so-called 'religious right' not only ignores this mandate but contributes to the negative climate.
Even if GLBT youth are emotionally mature enough to be self-affirming and spiritually grounded, they cannot always hold at bay all of the negativism. Thus imagine the impact this has on those youth who are still struggling with their sexual orientation. GLBT youth are greatly affected by this bombardment of negative messages concerning a basic aspect of their identity. The result is often isolation and self-hatred which have grave consequences on self identity and the ability to bond with others.
How pervasive is the anti-gay environment? In a recent PFLAG study, 97% of GLBT youth reported regularly hearing homophobic remarks at school. A typical high school student hears 25.5 anti-gay slurs each day. Furthermore, 31.2% are threatened or injured with weapons at school. This negative environment puts GLBT students at a much higher risk for skipping class, dropping out of school and even committing suicide.
Additionally, many GLBT youth flee negative situations at home. According to Paul Gibson of the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, 26% of GLBT youth are forced to leave home because of their sexual orientation. As high as 42% of homeless youth identify themselves as GLBT; 1.5 million GLBT youth are homeless nationwide. Few cities have adequate social services and existing youth shelters often have the same hostile environments that youth are fleeing in the first place. Chicago has only 24 shelter beds for minors, and none of these are designated specifically for GLBT youth. If rejected by their families and unable to access support services, many GLBT homeless youth are likely to be at risk for prostitution, alcohol and drug abuse, violence, suicide, and HIV and other STDs.
It is time to end this political and religious assault and to affirm the value of every human being. We can do this by supporting candidates who will work toward an inclusive, affirming society, and by challenging office holders to end discrimination. And we can work with our faith communities to provide places of sanctuary, compassion and affirmation.
Hobbs, ordained in 1987, is a member of St. Pauls United Church of Christ. He serves as Executive Dir. of Interfaith Council and Interim Pastor of the Church of Three Crosses. A member of the Commission on Human Relations - Homeless Sub-Committee, Chicago's Continuum of Care's Governing Board and the Board for the Partnership to End Homelessness, John has served as adjunct faculty at McCormick Theological Seminary and the Luther School of Theology. He holds Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry degrees from Columbia Theological Seminary.