The fight for equality for LGBT individuals has seen tremendous strides within the last decade, specifically in the area of marriage equality. As of this writing, 19 states have expanded marriage equality to lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals: CA, CT, DE, HI, IA, IL, ME, MD, MA, MN, NH, NJ, NM, NY, OR, PA, RI, VT, and WA – plus Washington, D.C. Fourteen additional states have seen federal judges overturn bans on same-sex marriage, though with a stay on their ruling: AR, CO, FL, ID, IN, KY, MI, OK, TX, UT, VA and WI. A record number of lesbian, gay, and bisexual Americans live in states where they can marry the person they love. 44% of Americans live in a state that has extended marriage rights to LGB individuals. The fight continues though, as Hawaii, Idaho, and Nevada are set to have their bans on same-sex marriage ruled on by the 9th Circuit Court. The tide does appear to be in favor of equality (even with US District Judge Martin Feldman’s ruling that upheld the ban on same-sex marriage in Louisiana), although nothing is certain. Given the makeup of the Supreme Court of the United States (largely Catholic, and look how they screwed over women in their Hobby Lobby ruling), and the inevitability of them ruling-at some point-on same sex marriage across the country, the issue of marriage equality is hardly settled. That said, progress has been made.
Unfortunately, while marriage equality has made great advances, the situation for LGBT youth is, in many cases, still dire: LGBT youth are roughly 5% of the overall youth population, but make up 40% of the homeless youth population. In many cases, children are kicked out of their homes, and cut off from all financial and emotional support by deeply religious families. That was the case with Jackie:
When Jackie got to college, the “typical gay sorority encounters” she found herself having didn’t seem to qualify as anything more than youthful exploration; she thought all girls drunkenly made out with their best friends. By her sophomore year, she was dating a fraternity brother but was also increasingly turned on by a friend she worked with at the campus women’s center. “I was just playing it off as ‘So maybe I’m just gay for you – I mean, I don’t have to tell my boyfriend’ kind of thing,” she says. “I knew what I wanted, but it was never something I ever envisioned that I could have on a public level.” And yet, as her friendship with this woman turned physical and their relationship grew more serious, Jackie saw her future shrinking before her: a heterosexual marriage, children, church and the knowledge that all of it was based on a lie. “I honestly thought my whole life I was just going to be an undercover gay,” she says, shaking her head in disbelief.
For better or worse, that plan was never to be. Toward the end of her sophomore year, Jackie got a text message from one of her sorority sisters who said she’d been seen kissing another girl, after which certain sisters started making it clear that they were not comfortable around Jackie. (“You’re living in the same house together,” she says, “and, of course, to close-minded people, if somebody’s gay, that means you’re automatically interested in all 80 of them.”) Eventually, she went before her chapter’s executive board and became the first sorority girl at her college to ever come out, at which point she realized that if she didn’t tell her parents, someone else would. “I was convinced somebody was going to blast it on Facebook.”
So while Jackie hoped for the best, she knew the call she was making had the potential to not end well. “You can’t hate me after I say this,” she pleaded when, alarmed to be receiving a call in the middle of the night, her mom picked up the phone.
“Oh, my God, you’re pregnant” was her mom’s first response, before running through a litany of parental fears. “Are you in jail? Did you get expelled? Are you in trouble? What happened? What did you do?” Suddenly her mom’s silence matched Jackie’s own. “Oh, my God,” she murmured in disbelief. “Are you gay?”
“Yeah,” Jackie forced herself to say.
After what felt like an eternity, her mom finally responded. “I don’t know what we could have done for God to have given us a fag as a child,” she said before hanging up.
Reading this fills me with tears of rage. Aside from the fact that belief in a deity is utter B.S., this family rejected their child. They cast her out and shut her out of their lives, and she didn’t do a damn thing wrong. She didn’t kill anyone. She didn’t rape anyone. She didn’t commit arson. She didn’t rob a bank. She came out of the closet, and for that, her family rejected her. It’s like a light switch turned off in their heads.
This is what life is like for countless numbers of LGBT youth. They’re cast out and become homeless. Unloved and unwanted by their families.
Research done by San Francisco State University’s Family Acceptance Project, which studies and works to prevent health and mentalhealth risks facing LGBT youth, empirically confirms what common sense would imply to be true: Highly religious parents are significantly more likely than their less-religious counterparts to reject their children for being gay – a finding that social-service workers believe goes a long way toward explaining why LGBT people make up roughly five percent of the youth population overall, but an estimated 40 percent of the homeless-youth population. The Center for American Progress has reported that there are between 320,000 and 400,000 homeless LGBT youths in the United States. Meanwhile, as societal advancements have made being gay less stigmatized and gay people more visible – and as the Internet now allows kids to reach beyond their circumscribed social groups for acceptance and support – the average coming-out age has dropped from post-college age in the 1990s to around 16 today, which means that more and more kids are coming out while they’re still economically reliant on their families. The resulting flood of kids who end up on the street, kicked out by parents whose religious beliefs often make them feel compelled to cast out their own offspring (one study estimates that up to 40 percent of LGBT homeless youth leave home due to family rejection), has been called a “hidden epidemic.” Tragically, every step forward for the gay-rights movement creates a false hope of acceptance for certain youth, and therefore a swelling of the homeless-youth population.
Reading this fills me with despair. Yes, I’m incredibly thankful that my family didn’t disown me, and continued to love and support me, but it doesn’t change the fact that my heart goes out to all those who’s families reacted so inhumanly. I know the feeling of dread roiling in the pit of your stomach as you try to find the words to say “I’m gay”. I know the possibilities that run through your mind before you speak those words to your family. I know the feeling of hope that exists deep down; hope that your family will find some way to keep loving you. I wish no one ever had to experience that feeling. Moreover, I wish that no one had to experience the rejection of their families. It’s heartbreaking and is indeed a hidden crisis.
While same-sex marriage has become more and more accepted in the United States, we can’t become complacent and think that all is good. We can’t ignore the fact that marriage equality is not the only fight for equality faced by LGBT individuals. There are other struggles. Ending the epidemic of homeless LGBT youth continues to be a struggle. I hope to see a significant reduction in the incidence of LGBT homelessness at some point in my life, but stories like Jackie’s fill me with despair and dwindling hope.