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Youth Issues and Youth Involvement: A Glaring Gap in the LGBT Movement

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Recently, Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, addressed the relationship between the LGBT movement and other issues including race, class, and reproductive issues, connections that often dominate the national LGBT policy priorities. She also included a piece that rarely reaches national discussion in her list of some of the most vulnerable members of our community: "homeless LGBT youth being subjected to humiliation by the police."

LGBT advocacy organizations and, as a result, the media, regularly convey issues facing LGBT youth through individual stories about teen suicide or as an isolated issue of "youth in schools." In actuality, LGBT youth face social stigma far beyond their school environments and police harassment.

In fact, an entire pipeline resulting from various "feeders" -- such as family rejection, lack of social services, and substance abuse -- causes youth dealing with issues related to sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression (SOGI/E) to be disproportionately represented on the streets and in the juvenile justice system; 40 percent of homeless youth and 15 percent of incarcerated youth identify as LGBT, even though "gay and transgender youth represent just 5 to 7 percent of the nation's overall youth population." Higher rates of family rejection, bullying, and victimization in the community contributes to this alarming overrepresentation. To put it bluntly, our society pushes young people struggling with their SOGI/E into confinement due to social stigma and rejection, often for much longer than their heterosexual peers due to a whole host of injustices in the juvenile justice system. For example, research indicates that LGBT youth are most commonly arrested for survival crimes, such as shoplifting or prostitution. This same pipeline deprives youth of their rights of nondiscriminatory, equitable policies and due process, leading to harsher treatment by juvenile courts and unfair conditions of confinement. Administrators and detention center staff are often either oblivious to the specific needs of LGBT youth or perpetuate their harassment by trying to change their sexuality or using isolation.

The significant overrepresentation of this population demonstrates that, as a community, we are failing. As an increasing amount of young people openly identify as LGBT and at younger ages (first becoming aware, on average, of sexual attraction at around the age of 10), the movement must actively engage families, child welfare systems, juvenile justice stakeholders and the affected youth themselves, to prevent them from slipping through the cracks in the system. The way the LGBT community has gone about addressing this institutional bias is lacking. Major policy organizations have generally not put LGBT youth on their main policy agenda. The New Beginnings Initiative, a collaboration of LGBT policy groups, lacks an individual youth focus, instead opting for tangentially related focus areas or leaving the youth work to family, school or child welfare-focused organizations. This is not unique to the LGBT-related advocacy community. Further, existing LGBT youth programs tend to be paternalistic in that they look out for what they perceive to be the "best interests of the child," rather than try to understand the perspectives of the affected youth. Not only does the movement need to find an integrative approach to include youth issues, but also must incorporate young activists' unique experience and voice into every level of their organization. The narrative about youth in society focuses on what social problems they create as opposed to their potential to solve the issues they face and bridge the intergenerational gap.

In reality, young people crave opportunities to change their communities. Young activists not only possess superior knowledge of new media than their adult peers, but also can articulate the systems of oppression in a way that mobilizes other affected young people. Youth are inserting themselves into the very public center of policy debates today. BreakOUT!, a LGBT youth center in New Orleans, won a fight to include LGBT policy in a groundbreaking consent decree between the Department of Justice and the New Orleans Police Department, which prohibits police from stopping people based on SOGI/E and strengthens the training of officers. The center's young members accomplished this feat through grassroots organizing. Their victory demonstrates that young people understand firsthand the gaps or inequities in state and federal policies, so their insight is critical at each step of the process. The great work at BreakOUT! and youth-led organizations proves that solving widespread social problems demands moving past stereotypes of young people and moving these sources of creativity into the center of civic activity.

The victimization I described limits the ability of youth to contribute their voice and experience. As biased policies and practices in schools and courtrooms push LGBT youth out of their communities and into the juvenile justice system, fewer opportunities exist for them to participate in the movement. Youth and youth-focused organizations may not be able to penetrate an often-resistant policymaking process at the state and local levels on their own. But if the larger advocacy community can incorporate their critical voice and experience, a more influential coalition can instigate a much needed paradigm shift. Providing a seat at the table may not be enough in every instance. Governors will question why state board positions reserved for youth exist when young people do not show up, without considering these barriers. How could you create a successful intergenerational space without first having an open conversation about systems of oppression and expectations going forward? Adults have a responsibility in this regard to contribute to youth movements rather than just use their time and passion to fill a seat or check off a box.

We need more adult internal champions to bridge the divide between the adult and child worlds, champions who can communicate that youth advocacy is a practice and value that matters. The leaders of our movement should be breaking down the barriers -- both structural and cultural -- that cause youth to be deemed too "disruptive" or "disinterested" and tap into these powerful agents of change. The youth of this country are ultimately the only catalyst for sustained and meaningful change.