Homeless rates for LGBT teens are alarming, but parents can make a difference
I will never forget the father who told me, on a first date, about his transgender son, who was assigned female gender at birth but identifies as male. What stuck with me most wasn't the fact that he had a transgender child, but the affectionate way he described his relationship with his son. He told me about how his teenager, who identifies as a lesbian, came to him one night and explained that she was a he.
The father told me that he didn't fully understand at first what his child was saying, but he knew he loved him, and that was all that mattered. So he educated himself and supported his child through the transition.
Not all parents are as accepting of their children. Too often, kids who come out to their parents are rejected, abused or thrown out of their home.
Up to 1.6 million young people experience homelessness in the United States every year. Forty percent of them identify as LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender), according to a 2012 study conducted by the Williams Institute at UCLA Law. It's estimated that LGBT youth represent about 7 percent of the population, which puts that 40 percent figure into heartbreaking context.
The study's other findings are equally bleak: 46 percent of homeless LGBT youths ran away because of family rejection of their sexual orientation or gender identity; 43 percent were forced out by parents, and 32 percent faced physical, emotional or sexual abuse at home.
"There are several reasons parents reject their LGBT youth," said Telaina Eriksen, author of "Unconditional: A Guide to Loving and Supporting Your LGBTQ Child." "Sometimes it is based on religion; they think that their child is a sinner or that their child needs to be punished so they see 'the error of their ways.' They might think if they force their child to leave their home, their child may return repenting, magically somehow no longer LGBT."
Eriksen, who is an assistant professor at Michigan State University and has a gay daughter, added that sometimes one parent is more accepting than the other and that they might kick a child out of their home to please their spouse or partner. Or parents might think that an LGBT child makes them look bad to their peers.
"These attitudes can be present in any race, religion or income bracket," Eriksen said.
She said that parents who reject their LGBT child need to do some work on themselves, because the problem is theirs, not their child's.
"A good way to start is for a parent to think about how they felt when their child was first born; the overwhelming love, sense of awe, and the sense of responsibility and commitment," Eriksen said. "My number one piece of advice is to keep the lines of communication open and keep reaffirming your love to your child."
Marcus Pizer, 19, told me that when he came out as transgender to his family three years ago, he was worried that his parents wouldn't accept him, but those fears were unfounded.
Marcus and his parents, Penny and Chuck, recently spoke with me from their home in Vermont.
"I had two reactions when Marcus came out," Penny said. "Intellectually, I felt like, 'We love you and want you to be who you are.' But then there's the emotional, which is like a death, in a way, of the person who used to be."
When Penny said that her daughter "Molly" was going to be gone, I asked Marcus how he felt about his former name being used publicly. Some transgender people do not want to be reminded of the name they were given at birth. He was quick to give his permission before Penny continued.
"What about the family photos, do we put them out?" Penny said. "Molly is no more, and she was very special, and now this new person is coming about, and it's not a birth. How do you get to the point where with your loss, you're losing the child you identified with but trying to be accepting of who they are becoming? You don't want to look like you're so upset, you want to be supportive, but inside you're grieving as well. It was definitely difficult."
Each family member - Marcus has three siblings - is dealing with the change in their own way and from their own perspective. Marcus and his parents attended family therapy, and they all continue to work through their emotions as Marcus transitions.
"I think that everybody has to be really honest on where they are," Penny said. "You can't tell anybody else how they should do their own process."
Two years ago, Marcus went to his parents and said he wanted to do something to help trans youth who don't have the support he has at home.
"I've always recognized the privilege that I had," Marcus said. "Talking to other trans youth online, I heard stories that were heartbreaking about how others haven't been able to transition safely or be who they are."
The family founded Safe Harbor for Trans Teens, a nonprofit foundation that offers a safe space for LGBT teens - including a small Department for Children and Families licensed homeless shelter - where they live, in Burlington, Vermont. The hip college town on Lake Champlain mirrors the rest of the nation, where 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT.
"That was a motivating factor," Chuck said. "It was something that we felt was not being addressed adequately, so we decided to focus on that area."
The shelter can accommodate four teens, and the Pizers are working with the Pride Center of Vermont and Outright Vermont and raising money to expand. Their goal is to have a place where LGBT teenagers can come together, listen to music and have a cup of coffee in an atmosphere of acceptance.
Penny and Chuck don't pretend to have all the answers, and they are the first to admit that the process has not been easy. But their acceptance and support of Marcus was never in question. The family is now harnessing their love to help other LGBT teens who might otherwise be on the street.
"If the parent is inclined to get angry, lash out at their child or kick them out of the house, they should think about how they would feel if their child were to die tomorrow. Because that could really happen if a parent withdraws emotional, physical and financial support from their minor child," Eriksen said.
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