The biggest threat for our youth

Forget politics - the real challenge is our families

By Abby Dees

Viewpoint

In my travels lately as a professional gay I've been speaking at a lot of PFLAG meetings. No matter where I go, the following people are always there: hard core straight allies with "Ask me about my lesbian daughter!" pins permanently affixed to their chests, pink goth LGBT teens, and well-meaning deer-in-the-headlights parents whose kids just came out to them. They're all cool for different reasons: first, the straight allies, because they put to shame the rest of us blase queers who have protested nary a school-board homophobe in years; second, the kids, because they're brave and fabulous and it sucks being in high school; and third, those newbie PFLAG parents, because they're diving in with both feet, albeit totally freaked out.

But I've noticed another pattern at these meeting too. While there are often a few LGBT kids who grew up, like their parents, steeped in a Sesame Street ideal of tolerance, there are always several more who grew up in deeply conservative or religious homes. At some point, nearly every one of these young people talks about attempting or thinking about suicide.

Of course I know the statistic that LGBT youth are four times more likely than straight kids to commit suicide, but it's quite another thing to meet the survivors, week after week - out in the sticks or smack in the middle of presumably hip L.A. These suicidal thoughts are as predictable as the weather.

Whether folks were sent to reparative therapy, shunned, shamed, or simply forced into an identity that was a big fat lie, the gist is that growing up in intolerant homes does nothing less than destroy lives. There is a body count.

So, a few weeks ago at yet another meeting, the familiar cross-section of folks introduced themselves, as is PFLAG tradition: the pierced bi girl who's starting a gay-straight alliance, the activist mom running a speaker's bureau at the library, the scared parents whose 14-year-old son has declared his desire to come out to everyone, and at least two young men who compared suicide attempts with bittersweet campy humor.

Then the newbie parents asked the group, "How we can keep our son safe? You hear all this horrible stuff about gay-bashing and things on the news. It's frightening to think of him out there alone."

I've heard a version of this question a hundred times, but I'd never put two and two together until I looked around the room that night. I said, "The biggest threat our kids face isn't 'out there' somewhere; it's right at home."

Yes, the world is dangerous, and there are hate crimes and bullying every day. And that's just here - you really don't want to visit Uganda or Iraq in a rainbow T-shirt anytime soon. But none of that matters much if you can't survive your own family.

As I spoke, I wondered if, among these people earnestly trying to be good parents, I was in effect saying, "It's you! You are going to screw up your kid!" I felt like the guest who just sneezed all over the buffet. Still, it was suddenly so obvious that if all you do is stand by your LGBT child, their odds for survival go up by at least 400 percent.

There were nods of agreement, so I didn't need to duck out in shame. But I'm left acutely aware of the irony that while we're fighting publicly to have our chosen families legally recognized, LGBT young people are quietly in the fight of their lives, every day, in their own family homes. We can't prevail if they can't.

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