Finding better ways to ensure safety for LGBTQ young peopleElizabeth Ziffon November 15, 2021 at 9:21 pm

Participants in a Pride Parade in California on Nov. 7, 2021. | Rich Fury/Getty Images

Concerns about safety and belonging stem from real and acute threats to physical, mental, and emotional safety. In 2020 The Human Rights Campaign reports a record number of incidents of fatal violence against transgender and gender non-conforming people.

Actor Kal Penn recently announced his engagement to his partner of 11 years, simultaneously coming out to the world in his new memoir. Making a nod to the fluidity of sexuality, Penn noted he arrived at this chapter of his sexuality later in life, and that his family and loved ones were loving and supportive, which he readily acknowledges is not the case for all.

That is true, as recent alarming reports on the health and safety of LGBTQ+ students from high school through college show the serious physical and mental health concerns of these young people.

The recent Proud & Thriving Project reveals LGBTQ+ high school, college, and university students experience a higher incidence of substance misuse, depression, suicidal ideation and academic and extracurricular disengagement as compared to their non-LGBTQ+ peers. These trends have been exacerbated during the pandemic.

The 2021 The Trevor Project National Survey on LGBTQ Mental Health report found 42% of LGBTQ youth between 13-24 reported that they seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year. The situation is even more dire for transgender and non-binary, Native/Indigenous, Black, multiracial, and Latinx youth.

Key risk factors stem from living in a non-LGBTQ affirming space; lack of access to mental health counseling; food insecurity; acts of discrimination on the basis of sex, gender and/or race; and the experience of recent political events.

In the broader political realm, U.S Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, as a gay father, was ridiculed of for taking parental leave.

The Human Rights Campaign noted 2021 has officially become the worst year in recent history for LGBTQ state legislative attacks, with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott recently signing a bill restricting transgender student athletes from participation.

At the recent 29th annual The Midwest Bisexual Lesbian Gay Transgender Asexual College Conference (MBLGTACC), the largest and oldest-continuously running conference of this type in the U.S., panels and workshops covered topics including allyship.

As an assistant professor of sociology who teaches courses on inequality, gender, and sexuality, I identify as an ally and have been trained to see and understand my privileges of race, class, cisgender status, sexuality, and family.

Growing up in Los Angeles, and living in New York City for 10 years before relocating to the Midwest, I experience firsthand that advocacy for the LGBTQ+ community is different by location and community.

Worst schools for LGBTQ+ students

As of 2015, only three states in the Midwest, Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota, provide sexual orientation and gender identity protections. One state, Wisconsin, provides sexual orientation protections and the Midwest region reports the lowest rate of college completion among LGBTQ+ individuals.

At the recent Midwest college conference, students and presenters shared stories of regional trauma and the fears many LGBTQ+ members have that is unique to this collection of states.

Campus Pride, an LGBTQ nonprofit, released its annual report on the most unsafe and worst colleges for LGBTQ youth. Five colleges and universities in Illinois are on the list: Moody Bible Institute in Chicago; Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbannais; Judson University in Elgin; Trinity International University in Deerfield and Wheaton College in Wheaton. Three colleges in Indiana are on that list: Taylor University, Bethel University, and Indiana Wesleyan University.

Indiana Wesleyan is one of 26 schools named in a class action lawsuit spanning 19 states, Hunter v. the U.S. Department of Education, citing the abuses that thousands of LGBTQ+ students endured at these colleges and universities over the years.

The Worst List was first published in 2015, and this last year has seen the most extensive additions of schools to the list. To make it on to the Worst List, a college has to have done one of the following: demonstrated anti-LGBTQ actions, programs and practices or either received or requested Title IX exemption to discriminate against LGBTQ youth.

While extreme policies make it easy to identify a non-welcoming climate, there are many levels of structural barriers that would prevent students from feeling safe. The Proud and Thriving report identified structural interventions to better support LGBTQ+ youth, ranging from LGBTQ+ affirming policies to cultural competency training for faculty, staff, and counselors to combat heterosexist, mono-sexist, and cis-sexist approaches.

Safety is a right

Concerns about safety and belonging stem from real and acute threats to physical, mental, and emotional safety. In 2020 The Human Rights Campaign reports a record number of incidents of fatal violence against transgender and gender non-conforming people, with 2021 on track to break that record.

A study of youth in grades 7-12 found that lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth were more than twice as likely to have attempted suicide as their heterosexual peers. Additionally, 86% of LGBTQ+ students report being harassed or assaulted at school.

Cultural competency includes understanding regional context and needs. What works in one region or state might actually cause additional injury or harm to the community when regional history is not part of the equation. Responsibility falls to allies to make sure their work is always grounded in learning, listening, adapting, and employing reflexivity.

It is imperative that everyone, particularly those with privilege and administrative access and decision-making duties, work to create equality, safety and inclusion for all youth in their schools and communities. Their safety is not a privilege — it is their right.

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Elizabeth Ziff is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Indianapolis. For LGBTQ+ youth, The Trevor Project is available 24/7, 1-866-488-7386

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