Growing up is hard. Growing up feeling different, with shame, without relatable examples of how to cope with it all, is very hard. For LGBT youth growing up today, it's the most common reality, but it shouldn't be. Today, on National Coming Out Day, I propose that we remember not just Harvey Milk's famous line, "You have got to give them hope," but also his observation that the LGBT community "cannot live on hope alone."
For me, growing up as a gay teen in Brazil was about more than having or not having hope. I couldn't put it in words back then, but there were two other factors that made my experience different. First, I didn't have models of resiliency that I could connect and relate to; I couldn't find people who also felt "less-than" in the same way that I did, much less tap their wisdom and get to know how they coped with it. Second, I didn't feel like part of a community. "How many people have been in my shoes?" I asked myself. "Are there queer people everywhere? What's different? Do I need to change?"
Across different times, places, and communities, I have come to realize that there's a common denominator underlying the experiences of LGBT youth everywhere, one that is centrally connected to their happiness. Unlike their peers, these youth don't often get to have contact with people who have been in their shoes. On a global scale they face unique challenges at increasingly younger ages, without models for how to cope with it all. Too many isolate themselves in order to feel safe, and as a result they feel as though they are the only ones going through these experiences.
Despite increasing attention in the media and in the courts, these truths are not new developments; they describe the experience of generations of LGBT youth, from many corners on the globe. Figures from the largest known survey of LGBT youth, released this June by the Human Rights Campaign, show how uneven the playing field remains. Compared with their non-LGBT peers, LGBT youth growing up in America today are half as likely to describe themselves as happy and three times as likely to disagree with the statement "I know things will get better," and about half of them report not having someone in their family whom they can talk to if they feel alone or sad. The San Francisco-based Family Acceptance Project, meanwhile, has also found that school bullying has a significant, long-term, adverse impact on the mental health of LGBT youth, and bullying remains a tragic reality for these youth.
My generation is defined by an interconnectivity that those before us only dreamed of. Indeed, the HRC survey found that most young LGBT people go to the Internet for support, and that it is online where they are most able to be honest about themselves. "Not being able to connect" is not a reality that my generation, including me, can easily settle with.
It was to connect these dots that I founded the nonprofit organization Equalize Youth. Beginning today, we're giving you (yes, you!) an unprecedented opportunity to connect with LGBT youth and let them know about the world of support that's out here for them. We're launching Out Your Story, a new online platform for people to share their experiences of growing up LGBT. It's the world's first global support network that connects and empowers LGBT youth, their families, and LGBT adults in a safe and meaningful way.
Equalize Youth will connect its visitors to a multimedia knowledge base formed by adults from familiar backgrounds and communities. You can let youth know that you were there, that you survived. It can be a confession, a rant, or maybe just a tweet or a quotation. It can be whatever you want to make it, but you have the power to "out your story" and even place a virtual pin on the location of your story via Google Maps. We curate content from our contributors -- relevant, real-life accounts and resources -- and do more than just roughly cram them into categories. Tags for gender, sexuality, and expression were a first step, but the introduction of tags for places, religions, and ethnicities is the part that really enables youth to find content that they can relate to. Starting today, you can can drop your pin and help fill our map with stories that reflect the unconditional love and support that exists for today's youth. The stories that have already been submitted include those of a South Asian lesbian who grew up in Maryland and a young man who relays his experiences of being bullied in high school in Cherry Hill, N.J.
For those who care about the well-being of LGBT youth, Out Your Story is for you. It's a high-impact vehicle for action, with an exceedingly low barrier for entry; it's about giving you a free, easy, and personal way to make it better for youth today, everywhere. Every contributor is kept anonymous, and there's no pressure to be the perfect role model. You just have to be you.
To my LGBT and allied readers: In the end, no one else has been there before. Only you have, so out your story! Be that beacon of support, and model the resiliency that our community's youth so sorely need.