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LGBT Youth: We Need You

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I was very pleased last week when President Obama announced his support of marriage equality for gays and lesbians. The president's words -- though historic -- came after North Carolina (following many other states) passed laws to restrict marriage rights and legislate inequality. The fight for our nation's founding promise of equal rights for all continues.

It has long troubled me when any population is marginalized and we don't benefit from their full, authentic participation and leadership in society. We need their skills, talents, and leadership, and we should fight against all forms of discrimination and harassment that limit any individual's potential. Recent advances in equal rights for our LGBT citizens are only a beginning.

Research demonstrates that young people who identify as LGBT are harassed constantly. According to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, 85 percent of LGBT students have been verbally harassed, 40 percent have been physically harassed, and 19 percent were physically assaulted in the past year. Sixty-one percent report they don't feel safe in school and 30 percent missed school at least one day out of fear of their safety. In the period from 1999 to 2009, there was little improvement.

This harassment and oppression takes a toll. LGBT students report higher levels of depression and anxiety and lower levels of self-esteem. Sadly, LGBT youth are two to three times more likely to commit suicide than other youths, and 30% of all completed youth suicides are related to the issue of sexual identity.

Many schools and parents have begun to crack down on bullying and there is an important movement to emphasize social and emotional learning in school to educate young people to be more empathetic, inclusive, collaborative, and emotionally intelligent. The "It Gets Better" videos were an important viral effort to reach out to these young people, but we need to do more.

Not only do these young people benefit when they are able to be authentic and love who they will without harassment, we all benefit. At Public Allies we have found LGBT young people to be an enormous source of leadership for our organization and for our communities. Our very competitive program (one out of six applicants made it in last year) has often been quite over-representative of LGBT leaders. I've come to the belief that there are two reasons we've been so successful at engaging LGBT leaders.

First, many LGBT youth have had a crucible experience in their lives, coming out, which has forced them to re-think their lives, their relationships, and their place in the world. That process, especially with the barriers they will have had to overcome in their homes, schools, and communities, develops leadership skills. They have to lead themselves, their families, and their friends. They have to build their inner strength, determination, and learn how to ask for help and find support. It is no surprise that many who succeed then turn those skills toward helping others.

Second, Public Allies has been inclusive of LGBT young people from our first days. I remember a gay Ally once saying to us that he didn't know where to go to get back on track and looked at Public Allies materials and saw "LGBT" right up front in our materials and thought, "this is for me." More organizations need to be explicit about their support of LGBT populations, and create inclusive environments where they will thrive.

I'm a straight guy who grew up being called homophobic slurs by people who perceived me as weak, and who used homophobic slurs toward others weaker than me. I struggled with addiction and depression in my teens and some of the mentors who helped me get my life together were gay and lesbian. I write about these mentors and several other inspiring LGBT leaders who I've worked with including Lisa Sulivan, Hez Norton, David Weaver, Chuck Supple, Craig Bowman and Milo Neild in my book Everyone Leads: Building Leadership from the Community Up. The book tells the stories of dozens of uncommon leaders who overcame barriers in themselves or in their communities to become leaders. It is their stories, including several LGBT leaders, that inspire me about the leadership possibilities in so many of our marginalized communities.

Two weeks ago, I spoke at a leadership conference of students from the City University of New York system and told many of these stories. A young woman named Lisa Marie approached me afterward, identified herself as a lesbian, and shared all the ways she has led and tried to make a difference in her community. She was so excited and eager to step up and do more, and I was truly inspired by her. We need Lisa Marie.

And while Lisa Marie found her way to school, there are many with great potential who have not found there way there yet. There are over six million young people of all racial backgrounds, gay and straight, urban and rural who are disconnected from education and work. There is great talent among many of these young people. Many are disconnected because of external factors in their lives, families, and communities that have nothing to do with their talents. Recent research finds that they are optimistic and want opportunities. Our communities and our society are better when all young people have opportunities and support to achieve their potential.

Social change has always come from the leadership of the many, people at all levels stepping up to take action and influence others. The president's words opened a door, but it is up to us to create change. We must create opportunities for all of our citizens, especially those marginalized and disconnected, to fulfill their potential as workers, citizens and leaders. Our LGBT young people and others on the margins of our communities need to hear all of us say: "You are valuable. We need your skills, talents, and leadership. Our communities cannot be strong or whole without you."

Paul Schmitz is the author of "Everyone Leads: Building Leadership from the Community Up" and CEO of Public Allies, a national AmeriCorps program that develops young community leaders.