OK, let’s talk about youth. No, I know we weren’t—or maybe you weren’t. But they remain one of the most vulnerable populations in society—kids from 13 to 21 years old. And of those youth, the most vulnerable are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered youth. They face a higher rate of suicide than their straight peers, a greater risk of being homeless, of being forced into sex work, of substance abuse, and of being HIV/AIDS+.
Why? Simple. If they come out, they are often rejected by family, friends, church, school—the support system they so desperately need at that age, no matter their orientation. So they run away from home or are kicked out, and because most shelters aren’t set up for youth—or are not supportive of GLBT youth, especially trans youth—they end up on the street, often as sex workers.
Even if they are accepted by family and friends, it can be very difficult for them to feel at home in larger society at a time of life when all the forces of socialization are pushing them towards heterosexuality and gender conformity. Homecoming, prom, the whole dating scene, movies and popular music—it is all geared toward heterosexual teenagers. How do you learn how to flirt with another boy when all you see is how to flirt with a girl if you identify as a boy? How do you figure out how to be the gender you feel yourself to be, even if it doesn’t match what others think you are?
If they remain in the closet, they know they are living a lie, but they are also terrified of being found out and ostracized. They fake their way through a heterosexual world, never really feeling at home. Eventually they come out when they find themselves in a place where they can; or they live a double life; or they never do and live life denying who they are. Sometimes they commit suicide, unable to reconcile their knowledge of their own truth and what their family, friends, church, and school are telling them.
Yes. It’s depressing. And no, it’s not like that for all youth, everywhere. We can point to all kinds of exceptions—but they are exceptions.
One of the difficulties is that these issues cut across several areas—mental health, public health, spirituality, social services, child protection, criminal justice, substance abuse….and so on. No one agency can handle all these issues. And yet each of them is bound to deal with GLBT youth in some way—whether they know it or not, whether they want to acknowledge it or not, whether they want to deal with it or not, that’s the simple truth.
Here in Canada, any agency that receives government funds must abide by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms—which includes sexual orientation, and soon, if my prayers and the prayers of many others are answered, gender identity. They simply do not have a choice, they must be prepared to treat all clients equably and well, according to their needs.
River City has a group, an alliance, an organization—we’re not sure what to call ourselves—of representatives from several agencies who work together on just these issues. The child protection agency, the youth health centre, the public health agency, the HIV/AIDS organization, the local GLBT Pride organization, the mental health and substance abuse agencies, and of course the church, are all involved, among others. We’re trying to work together to offer the kind of training the agencies need, the support the kids and families need, the information everyone needs—the whole thing. Our dream is a drop-in centre or even a safe house for the youth, as are available in many cities.
Wild dreaming? Maybe. But the kids need it. Desperately. In fact, lives may literally depend on it. So we’ll keep working. Keep us in prayer as we work to move forward.