Since Dan Cathy decided to open his mouth about marriage and what that means when it comes to us LGBTQ folks, a lot of people have given the issue a lot of talk-time. As a 20-year-old, (strongly) self-identified queer woman, it's time that I did the same. Why? Because no matter what side of the debate people are on, nearly everyone seems to be ignoring a rather important fact: Marriage isn't everything. In fact, with the challenges of bigotry, hatred, and violence facing LGBTQ youth today, marriage equality can feel like a nice idea, but not an immediate concern.
Yes, of course we'd like the option to be there should we choose that path, but we have to get there, first. Trust me, I'm not exactly planning my wedding when men harass me on the street, telling me that my sexual identity is a "waste" and that they can "fix" me. I wasn't hearing wedding bells when I weighed the consequences of coming out to my parents, not sure if I would have a stable home afterwards. Oh, and in high school? I certainly wasn't concerned
about marriage while the GSA posters were being stripped from the walls and deliberately torn to pieces.
Our voice is not being represented when issues such as bullying, youth homelessness, and abuse are overlooked in favor of the "victory" of marriage.
According to a study by the Center for American Progress, between 20 percent and 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBTQ, while only five percent to 10 percent of youth over all identify as LGBTQ. Even more disheartening is that 62 percent of homeless LGBTQ youth attempt suicide, compared to 29 percent of their heterosexual homeless peers. LGBTQ youth are still facing bullying and violence both at school and at home. So much so that they are four times as likely to commit suicide than their heterosexual peers, according to a 2011 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As if bullying isn't enough to deal with, the lack of sexual education for young queer people is a blaring example of what is wrong when young voices are silenced or go unheard. Seriously, if you think that today's level of inequality in the classroom is subtle, you are absolutely mistaken.
Years of sitting in a health classroom is enough to teach any queer kid that she's "different," right down to the way she has sex. Hell, more often than not, there isn't even a glimpse of same-sex intercourse and what it means to be safe.
Not every student is going to find the sperm + egg equation particularly useful and there are plenty of students wondering where the heck the condom goes when penises aren't in the picture. And you know what? They probably won't ever know until they either mess up by assuming safer-sex isn't necessary or until they do some research themselves. In fact, I never even heard of a dental dam until I was almost 19.
Both physical and emotional health is at risk here and what it comes down to is this: if my school doesn't even acknowledge the health aspects of my identity, how am I supposed to find any validation within the school system or local community? Mind you, I'm from "liberal New England," so no one can pin this as a regional issue. Feeling safe is still an obstacle for LGBTQ youth, even outside the Bible Belt.
Not everyone is ignoring these issues, of course, and there have been attempts to reach out to the youth community. However, while the intentions may be in the right place, the execution often leaves much to be desired.
As a recent example, we can look at the "It Gets Better" project. Although it certainly provides some level of relief and healing for the speaker, the project addresses the damage of bullying and harassment from a problematic angle. Instead of providing solutions, an "It Gets Better" video can unintentionally turn in to a request for blind hope, and a vague promise of better days to come.
It's not enough to simply tell a kid that it'll get better because it just so happened to get better for you. It's not enough to tell a kid to hang tight and deal with all the bull**** because one day they'll get out of high school, or college, or their hometown, or whatever, and everything will suddenly fix itself. No. That is not okay. That is not useful.
In order for circumstances to actually improve for queer youth, concrete steps need to be taken. Trainings for teachers have to happen. More resources for youth have to be available. Bullying and violence needs to decrease. Families need to be more educated on what being a queer youth actually means. As a young leader, I invite you to take these steps towards change with us, instead of taking them for us.
At the Boston Alliance of LGBTQ Youth (BAGLY), we are young leaders who are actively Making It Better. Making It Better for youth, as youth. Making it better today, instead of waiting for tomorrow. For more than 32 years, BAGLY has been listening to youth voices and accomplishing great things because of it.
As someone who not only works closely with LGBTQ youth but is one, I know that there are bigger problems for us other than our right to marry in the distant future and better ways to solve them. After all, in order to have a healthy, stable marriage, we first need to grow up in healthy, stable environments. The only way to accomplish this is to allow youth to tell you what they need, rather than the
other way around.