Making It Better: Our LGBT Youth

Friday, October 08, 2010

By Yvonne Tran

With the onslaught of anti-gay bullying, intimidation, and overall harrasment of queer/LGBT youth resulting in numerous consecutive suicides this past month, it's been an emotional and heart breaking time.

I remember, in college, for myself the internalized homophobia and the struggle with giving up my "privilege" of being straight for someone more true, a more real self. I cannot imagine going through that in high school and being ridiculed mercilessly for just being... me. I know that when I came out, knowing my attraction is not bound by societal expectation of my gender... it was completely liberating. It breaks my heart to know and see the struggles that our young queer community faces with homelessness, HIV, depression, drug use, and other host of issues that are a product of intolerance, hate, and ignorance.
I do note that a majority of the recent suicides have been young gay males. This speaks volume of our perceptions and violent enforcement of masculine archetypes and behaviors. Any deviation will result in violent physical and verbal gay-bashing/questioning of "manhood". It's so ridiculous and preposterous that it's mind-blowing and heart-wreching to even think about.

We posted up an earlier blog post about Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" project and the timeliness and courage it takes to take a stand and SAY something about this epidemic. One suicide could be an isolated incident but 6 queer youth suicides in one month is not isolated... it's an epidemic.

There have definitely been critiques of Savage's attempts at starting and holding the conversation around queer youth and as a response the Gay Straight Alliance has released their response project to compliment Savage's project called "Make It Better". It's a website with resources, testimonies, and host of other tools to really help youth, their community, and schools to better address this VERY SERIOUS issue.

One of my friends, Tonilynn wrote this note (pasted below) on Facebook and I thought it was very thoughtfully and heartfully written on this situation and calling for a community forum for true dialogue to happen around our queer communtiy and queer youth. Please contact her if you want to be involved with this event and/or want to submit your own stories.

Here's the details of the community forum (please forward it on!):

Tuesday, October 12 · 6:30pm - 9:30pm

The Women's Building
3543 18th St Room A
San Francisco, CA

Sleep will not find me tonight. Instead, the thoughts swirling around in my head will desperately try to find their way out. They’ve pummeled through this heart and into a need to say something…anything. I am also aware that I may create more uncertainty and confusion for myself, the more I truly listen and pay attention. Here goes…

I am in pain. My heart hurts. Seriously, I feel a heavy force upon my chest. I am sad. I am angry and outraged. During the course of one week, five queer youth across the nation have been forced to feel that committing suicide was their only option to cope with constant bullying and harassment. This is not okay. This has never been okay and yet one of the most powerful responses our community has come up with has been neatly packaged into three little words, “IT GETS BETTER.”

I have not watched every single video that was created through or inspired by the It Gets Better Project. To be completely honest, I found myself frustrated by the message. One video takes place in the Castro and most of the folks who urge lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning youth to “tough it out” or “hang in there”, I noticed, were white. This does not surprise me. (come on, we all know that the Castro is not the safest place for queer women and trans folks, people of color, and youth). And, the video also seemed to reinforce this notion that once they came to San Francisco, “everything changed” and “they could be themselves”. While I acknowledge that some folks have found safety here and while I find value in verbal intergenerational exchange and mentorship (the ability to imagine where you can be in ten, twenty, thirty years is powerful), it seemed to promote San Francisco tourism and continued gay safe haven sentiment however, more than actually encouraging our young folks to stay alive.

Try telling a suicidal young person that it gets better…to their face. That is one of the last things they may want to hear in that situation. They can barely see tomorrow and you’re asking them to “wait til after high school” for their dignity and confidence to magically appear? Did it ever occur to people to ask young LGBTQ folks why they feel suicidal in the first place? To ask them if there is anything we can do, actually do (not say) to prove to them that they are valuable. That their joyful existence and innate ability to question and challenge society’s oppressive forces has a direct positive impact on us and that we are all capable of healing together? Or are we already too painfully aware that we may not be able to change their circumstances…that maybe even us adults don’t have the solution? So, we say, “I know you don’t believe me now, but IT GETS BETTER.”

I am guilty of this and have said it before working with youth. In college, I created free business cards that read: ‘Tonilyn A. Sideco, committed to promoting the visibility of the queer API community.’ I knew that right after graduation I was to work with queer youth of color. It took me ten months to find it, but I was able to land my dream job working full-time as the Queer Youth Services Coordinator at a non-profit housed at a Richmond district public high school. It was amazing and heart-breaking, fulfilling and humbling. I worked with mostly children of Asian and Russian immigrants who were committed to leading and maintaining a Gay Straight Alliance on campus, who risked their personal safety everyday yet remained committed to creating a culture of acceptance and compassion. Afraid to report bullying and harassment because “it never goes anywhere” so they take that pain and talked about it during GSA meetings, ultimately finding their way into a smile with each other’s help.

Meanwhile, I am in meetings with their teachers who are desperate for tools that will help create safety and sensitivity in their classrooms. And after school, I had an open door/open couch policy. I had art supplies, board games, and even a guitar by my desk. Students and teachers would drop by for a couple minutes, while others lingered for hours. It was so apparent that all they needed was a safe space to be themselves. Their need to be seen and heard, validated, acknowledged, respected and loved has continued to inspire and fuel the work I do. It has led me to coordinating projects with queer young women that explored issues of violence through filmmaking and projects that gathered queer youth and elders to talk about the different, yet all too similar, issues they faced.

And it has led me to 5:36am September 30, 2010. I am awake wondering how the safety net for our young people can be cast wider and stronger. I am reminded of a former 15 year old, sometimes suicidal student who covered her wrists and ankles with bandanas because she was a cutter. She was comforted by self-inflicted physical pain because releasing her emotional torment through drops of blood felt way better than any other coping mechanism a book would suggest. Grabbing a fistful of ice, waiting until it melted in her palm or snapping a rubber band against her wrist just wasn’t going to suffice. I am reminded of giving her a sketch book because she was an amazing artist, thinking that would help deter her behavior. Then finally realizing that if she put the two together, she would no longer need to break skin. I made a contract with her and asked if she would try something different the next time she felt like cutting. The next day, she walked into our offices with a smile that would hold her up for the rest of the year. She rolled up her sleeves to reveal very intricate pieces of art on her forearms. They were beautiful. She was beautiful and still is…she is now 20 years old and in college.

We need to pay attention to our young people. I draw strength and energy from my interactions, conversations, and memories with and of the young people I have worked with over the past 10 years. 

We must actively challenge each other to be better allies. Let’s take ownership of our own learning and be engaged in increasing awareness and acceptance for ourselves and those around us.

It takes more than an individual’s desire to live! It is going to take all of us. Parents, teachers, coaches, youth centers, schools, health providers, creative educators, families, community leaders…we have to step up for each other. We are telling our youth to not be afraid to ask for help, yet we ourselves can’t ask for guidance in providing support to our young folks.

I think I’ll make a video with folks who are actively questioning and practicing how to create that safety net for young people. It will be titled: “I am committed to making it better.” So, I am asking you to help. How are you committed to making it better?


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