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Role Models for Gay Youth in America Can Be A Matter of Life and Death

Published in “HWFmag”

September 2007

We all need role models. They provide direction and guide us through times of adversity. I can think of a multitude of occasions when I was at a crossroads when I had an inner conversation with myself wondering how somebody that I respected would handle a situation with which I was faced. Role models are particularly essential for adolescents who are short on knowledge, while at the same time faced with an overabundance of experiences requiring them to make decisions of high impact. Teenage suicide in the U.S. has risen by more than 200% since 1960 and suicide is one of the top three causes of death among 15-24-year-olds in the States.

As difficult as adolescent and young adult years are for mainstream youth, these formative years are especially difficult for those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. LGBT youth are dependent on family members for emotional and financial support. Therefore, they must be careful to whom they come out, or risk abandonment. LGBT youth account for 40% of the homeless youth living in the States. Coming out is always a challenge but at least adults can support themselves financially. Youth are at the mercy of their parents. Furthermore, adolescents are strongly concerned with how they are treated by peers. They fear harassment at school for good reason, so they don’t tell their friends. They don’t confide in teachers or school counsellors for fear that they will be mistreated or the school may tell their parents. They don’t talk to clergy for fear of being condemned by their religion. So they suffer in silence, very much alone. LGBT students in school face extreme harassment. Statistics from the 2005 GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) National Climate Survey released in April 2006 were sobering:

Given the environment faced by LGBT students it is no surprise that suicide rates for this age group are alarming. And yet all too often schools do little to protect their gay students. Teachers will punish students who call others racial or ethnic names but often ignore anti-gay comments. In fact, boys in gym class often hear comments from their coaches like, “Stop throwing that baseball like a girl”, or “stop being such a sissy and toughen up!” As a gay adult my memories of gym class in school still send shivers up and down my spine.

If ever a group needed solid role models it is gay youth. Gay role models are not part of our education and they are not part of our culture. Parents need to become more accepting and supportive of their LGBT children. Schools need to address the special needs of their LGBT students instead of ignoring that such needs exist. Fundamentalist religious institutions need to stop preaching hate towards gays. Popular sports figures, musicians and actors need to come out at the height of their careers. All of these are necessary but unfortunately won’t happen across the board anytime soon.

However, LGBT role models can offer hope and support and inspiration to gay youth - that there is hope for them and that they can lead fruitful, productive and rewarding lives. Adult gays and lesbians getting involved with LGBT youth organizations make a huge difference in offering emotional support and hope to the young. Sadly, many gay adults don’t interact with youth for a number of reasons. First of all, many had traumatic childhoods because of their own challenges facing their sexual orientation and gender identity issues. Others haven’t been around youth in years since most don’t have children of their own. Then there is the fear of being called a paedophile if they are seen amongst adolescents.

In the U. S. three of the national organizations that provide excellent support are GLSEN, which provides support for LGBT students, teachers and administrators in schools; The Trevor Project, which is a 24 hour telephone suicide and crisis prevention hotline for LGBT youth; and The Point Foundation, which provides financial support, mentoring and hope to meritorious students who are marginalized due to sexual orientation, gender expression or gender identity. (Point scholars are young adults studying at University at the undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate levels).

Many of the major cities throughout the U.S. have groups designed to help gay adolescents and young adults. Youth First Texas is an organization here in Dallas that provides support to LGBT youth living in the Dallas area up through 22 years of age. Youth First Texas conducts a variety of support groups specializing in support of high school students, young women and Latinos. They have a mentor program where older role models are available for guidance. Life coaching services are also available to provide assistance on issues that can be handled short-term. An E-Pal email support program and a drop-in centre and computer lab are some of the additional services provided as lifelines to Dallas area LGBT youth.

Role models are important for all of us but for LGBT youth, role models can often save lives! Every athlete, movie or television star who comes out, helps. So do politicians and local figures. Instead of focusing on stereotypes gay youth can have somebody to look up to, with hope instead of despair for their futures.

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© 2007 John R. Selig. All rights reserved.