The massacre at an Orlando nightclub in June raised many questions about our society’s acceptance of sexual and gender diversity, and the safety of individuals in the LGBTQ community. As a child advocate who works so that all children can thrive, I wondered how welcoming Richmond is for youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (LGBTQ).
I sought out the expertise of individuals and groups in our community who could provide helpful perspectives about what it’s like to be an LGBTQ young person in Richmond, and what we could do to create an accepting community. The best place to start, of course, is with youth themselves.
In late June, Advocates for Richmond Youth hosted more than sixty youth-serving organizations at an all-day training and summit to address the issue of youth homelessness. While most LGBTQ youth are not homeless, they are of particular concern to those trying to address the issue because they represent up to 40 percent of homeless youth, largely due to family rejection. Bullying and harassment can lead some of these children to drop out of school, and getting help from a health system that does not ask about their unique needs can compound their difficulties. At the event, youth asked for respect for their confidentiality, for what name they want to be called, and for the pronouns they choose to use. They also urged service providers to examine their own biases and create supportive environments.
LGBTQ youth are particularly at risk for suicide, due to the stigma and discrimination they often face and the mental health issues that can result. According to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control, suicide rates have been increasing steadily since 1999. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for children and young people ages ten to twenty-four. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers who are straight, according to The Trevor Project, a national organization that provides a crisis hotline for LGBTQ youth. The risk is much higher, according to Mark Loewen, LPC, owner of LaunchPad Counseling, when the youth’s relationship with family members is characterized as hostile.
The good news is that family support can go a long way toward reducing that risk for LGBTQ youth. Loewen says, “There is nothing as powerful as having a parent who defends you. When parents support their children in coming out, they can model a strong, secure sense of self. They are also coming out as the parent of a LGBTQ child, and how they portray themselves and respond to others will set the tone for how their child is going to live out their identity as well.”
LGBTQ youth and their families need not feel isolated in the Richmond area, as there are organizations available to provide support and connection. ROSMY, celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary this year, offers support groups for middle, high school, and college-age youth in Richmond and Charlottesville, as well as training to the community through its Institute for Equality. Additionally, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) has a Richmond chapter, which provides support, education, and advocacy for LGBTQ people, their families, and allies.
If there is anything positive that can result from the atrocity in Orlando, perhaps it can be that our community takes the time to learn about the issues facing sexual minority youth and creates a more supportive environment in which all children can thrive.