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With Hate Crimes Up, NYC Teens Tackle Homophobia

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Pride Month is about to begin. But as we commence the celebration of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) culture and equal rights, we find ourselves confronted by a spate of horrible crimes that point to vicious homophobia and ignorance that still exists, even in New York.

On the night of May 17, a young African-American gay man, Mark Carson, was gunned down in the West Village. Three days later, just hours after a rally against LGBT hate, another gay man was assaulted in the East Village. That same night, two young men attacked a gay couple walking down the street in SoHo. The crisis is grave, even more so considering the numerous hate crimes each year in this city that get much less media coverage than these incidents.

But there is hope.

Our youth are rising to the challenge and leading a new generation to acceptance.

At Community Healthcare Network, for example, teens participate in the Teens P.A.C.T. program, where, among other things, they write, act in, and direct PSA videos to educate their peers about teen sexual health issues and the culture around it, including anti-LGBT discrimination. In one clever PSA, a homophobic student finds himself in an alternate universe where he is the minority, surrounded by students who are all LGBT. The idea behind the PSAs is to use popular social media to influence social change.

Stephanie Diaz and Yara Palin, 17-year-old Teens P.A.C.T. participants, are currently working on a new PSA featuring a young male couple who is continually reminded by society that straight relationships are "normal." The PSA's message aims to reach youth who feel "different" and encourage them to change society's definition of normal.

What drove Stephanie and Yara to this topic? Stephanie has firsthand experience; her 17-year-old male friend has known he is gay for a number of years, but is afraid to tell anyone but close friends for fear of rejection. Yara told me, "We saw that LGBT kids didn't feel comfortable in their own communities."

Both girls are clear about what they want the video to help accomplish. According to Stephanie, "We have two messages. Our message to LGBT people is to embrace who they are without shame or regret. Our message to straight people: Become more aware about how you use your words, and how they impact people who are LGBT."

Yara is particularly inspired by the change she's seen in her friends' attitudes towards LGBT people. She says, "More and more, they understand that it's not OK to say certain things to gay people. Acceptance starts with the little things like that, and goes from there to broader social acceptance."

All this work is all the more important given other issued faced by teens, including increases in HIV and AIDS rates.

Late last year, a Centers for Disease Control report found that young people between the ages of 13 and 24 account for over twenty-five percent of new HIV infections in the U.S. The same study found that more than half of young people who become infected are not aware of it, and that 72 percent of these infections are in men who have sex with men (MSM).

According to Stephanie and Yara, many teens simply lack access to information about contraceptives and where to obtain them. And even when they do have this information, says Yara, "...they're afraid they'll be judged for going to clinics... there's no shame in wanting to protect themselves. Teens should be told that." To address these issues, Teens P.A.C.T has several PSAs for the general teen population, including: Meet the Contraceptives and Teen Clinic Tour.

The challenges faced by LGBT individuals are great. Forty-four years after the New York City Stonewall Riots, we still have more work to do. But like so many of our youth, Stephanie and Yara believe in their power to make a change. I have no doubt that they are taking great steps towards doing so, and that it will be their generation that makes the greatest impact.