The headlines hammer home something I see every day when working with homeless young people: it's often difficult and dangerous to be gay in our society. A law passed last week by the Arizona legislature seeks to protect the "right" of shop keepers to refuse service to gay and lesbian patrons, based on religious beliefs. Lawmakers in Arizona are not alone in trying to use religious beliefs as an excuse to discriminate -- some leaders in Ohio, Kansas, Mississippi, Idaho, South Dakota, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Idaho, Ohio and Kansas have tried to pass similar legislation.
It makes me want to take them all by hand to the headstones of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning) homeless youth we've buried over the last 22 years. The burden so many homeless youth shoulder is a profound and sometimes inconsolable loneliness, and when those teenagers are LGBTQ, their loneliness is often compounded by despair when loved ones reject them for who they are. Too many homeless youth end their young lives because they feel alone, unloved and deeply broken. We've watched those caskets lowered into the ground, and grieved at those wakes and funerals, just as many thousands of child advocates all across the country have done. Legislation that endorses discrimination against them will only worsen their isolation and despair.
We are ALL made in the image and likeness of God. If we pass a law that allows one not to serve another because of whom they love, I believe we are denying God's wish for us to love one another, celebrate one another and serve one another.
These ill-conceived laws remind me of a conversation that happened in an Orange County, California apartment several years ago, when Meagan, a 20-year-old Latina, heard similar messages of hate, but from her own grandmother. "How could you like girls?" her grandmother yelled. "You're not going to amount to nothing in life! Leave my house and don't come back."
Grandma was, in a way, choosing to "refuse service" to her own flesh and blood, sending Meagan to the couches of friends, and to the streets of southern California, because she did not approve of who Meagan loved. We hosted her at Covenant House California, helping her attain her dreams, and wrote about her in depth in our recent book, Almost Home: Helping Kids Move from Homelessness to Hope.
Meagan had to confront various dangers solely because she is gay. Living on the street increases one's chance of getting sick and falling prey to violence, both sexual and physical. Each year, an estimated 240,000 to 400,000 LGBTQ minors become homeless. Compared to straight homeless youth, they are more likely to be robbed or assaulted and three times as likely to be sexually assaulted or raped. And studies have shown that more than 60 percent of homeless lesbian, gay and bisexual young people try to kill themselves at least once, twice the percentage of straight homeless youth.
The Arizona law is simply another example of the shame our kids face on a daily basis. Too often, they internalize those messages from society and from family, starting to believe that they are not good enough, that they are broken and worthy of disdain.
In some of the cities where Covenant House serves homeless youth, 40 percent of the kids are LGBTQ. Sexual minority youth who come to the shelter often need a welcoming message more than the first good night's sleep. Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, the medical director of Covenant House Pennsylvania, has seen quick and positive changes in some youth just from the new chance to feel accepted instead of shunned.
"So many of these kids are in trouble because of how much pain they've been in, because of the shame and isolation," he said in our book. "Shame and isolation can be broken with love and respect. For that reason, the good we can do with an LGBTQ kid is enormous and relatively simple."
We know from our own practice, and from research that it's crucial for agencies serving homeless LGBTQ young people to direct outreach efforts to them, have policies prohibiting discrimination and harassment, provide a welcoming environment where each resident is honored and respected, and have staff trained to have expertise in working with issues of importance to them. We know that, according to a recent federal report, they are susceptible to "emotional distress and poor mental health, substance abuse and sexual risk behavior, and problems with family and personal relationships."
We also value the preventative value of work by the Family Acceptance Project, which has compiled a list of more than fifty accepting behaviors parents can show to their LGBTQ children, such as talking to them about their LGBTQ identity, advocating for them if they are mistreated because of their identity, connecting them with an older role model to show them they can have a happy future, or inviting the young person's friends and partners over. Taking even a few such steps could be good for your child's health. Dr. Caitlin Ryan, head of the project, did research that showed that, compared to young people with parents who were very rejecting of their gay identity, those whose parents showed some of those accepting behaviors were half as likely to attempt suicide, use illegal drugs, or take other serious risks with their health. Such work could prevent LGBTQ young people from having to leave home in the first place.
We must, as parents, caregivers, lawmakers and governors, show all of our young people that they are welcomed and cherished. History has taught us how to fight discrimination. We can't forget now.