I was one of the lucky ones—gay kids, that is. My parents accepted me at an early age. On my 13th birthday, just as I was entering puberty, I came out to them—I told them I am gay.
My mother and stepfather warmly embraced me with open arms, saying: "We always knew," and "We were just waiting for you to come out." Hence, [pullquote position="right"]home with my family was my refuge.[/pullquote]
Junior high and high school, however, were the war zones. Kids can be nasty if you're a boy who comes across too feminine and soft-spoken. I recall a time when a kid threw an eraser at my head during the PSAT exam, then yelled, “Gay!” The teacher did nothing to protect me or bring emotional justice to my fractured spirit. And when I stood up for myself and confronted the kid, the teacher sent me out of the classroom to the principal’s office.
School was bad, but church may have been worse. The ultra-conservative church I attended was like the day of judgment every Wednesday evening and Sunday morning. The questionable lesson I'd take from this place was that I needed to fast—as in, don't eat—with the end goal being that God would hear my prayers and deliver me from being what some in our society had deemed unfit to receive unconditional love from Jesus or entry into the pearly gates of heaven.
As a growing teenager and student-athlete at a rigorous high school, I unhealthily starved myself. I'd wake up early mornings before school—and without breakfast, make my way to the basement of my family's home to have solo revival sessions with God. After school, I'd also have spiritual encounters with the Creator. And on the days I'd felt extra judged by my teenaged-peers for coming across too girlish, I'd go twice as hard with the praise and worship sessions.
Subsequent to each session, thinking I'd ushered myself closer to God, I'd spend time trying to pray the gay away. But it just didn't work. Because with each passing teenage year, I felt myself losing this battle biologically, mentally and emotionally. [pullquote]Although my parents accepted me, I feared that society and God never would.[/pullquote]
Some years later, I came to the understanding that God had made me exactly how he wanted me to be: a lover of Him and humanity. I learned that I was born perfect. I discovered that I can still love God, be attracted to the same sex and not be lukewarm when it came to having faith. The hardest part about my journey was learning to love myself, just as God and my parents have always loved me.
But still, I was one of the lucky ones. I was lucky never to have even contemplated suicide because I had loving and supportive parents.
Since the Covid-19 outbreak, forcing families to shelter at home, I couldn't help but wonder what our nation's lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning (LGBTQ+) youth are experiencing.
If they are lucky to have parents like mine, I'm sure they're probably fairing well—assuming they don't have social media trolls weighing on their mental health.
But I know that not every young person is lucky enough to have accepting parents. [pullquote]With schools closed and community centers shuttered throughout the country, many LGBTQ+ youth don't have access to life-saving support systems.[/pullquote] My heart breaks for these young people who are unable to dwell in safe, nurturing and affirming environments.
According to a white paper recently released by The Trevor Project, the largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ+ youth, COVID-19 has serious implications for the mental health of teens who identify within the LGBTQ+ community.
The paper noted that for LGBTQ+ youth, physical distancing may have additional unintended negative consequences, related to being confined to an environment that may be unsupportive or abusive.
An unintended consequence of physical [and social] distancing is that it may provide less opportunities for mandated reporters and other concerned individuals to observe signs of potential abuse and domestic violence.
“Since the epidemic began, the volume of youth reaching out to our crisis services programs has increased, at times spiking to more than double volumes earlier in 2020,” said Rob Todaro, press secretary for The Trevor Project.
The Trevor Project suggests those in direct contact with LGBTQ+ youth, including teachers, “can ask them directly about whether or not they feel safe and supported in their current living situation."
If young members of the LGBTQ+ community are sheltering-in-place in an unsupportive environment, supportive adults outside the family setting can let them know they are not alone and help them with problem-solving to maintain their physical and emotional safety. When possible, LGTBQ+ youth themselves can seek out affirming communities, either among their existing networks or by joining safe virtual spaces like TrevorSpace—the world’s largest safe space social networking site for LGBTQ+ youth.
The Trevor Project offers a wealth of other resources, too, including a Coming Out handbook to explore coming out safely and a new Guide to Being An Ally for Transgender and Nonbinary Youth. The guide could be used as a helpful resource for trans youth to start a conversation around gender identity and expression with their loved ones.
And let’s get real—[pullquote position="right"]life-threatening situations are real possibilities for LGBTQ+ youth at this time.[/pullquote] Teachers need to know and share with students how to reach the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233), as well as information on how to access state child abuse and neglect hotlines. To prevent suicide, LGBTQ+ young people also need to know they can reach The Trevor Project's TrevorLifeline 24/7 at 1-866-488-7386, via chat every day at TheTrevorProject.org/Help, or by texting "START" to 678-678.
Schools often struggle to support LGBTQ+ youth, but even in a remote learning environment with social distancing, teachers can help create a safe space. Support from caring adults is crucial, so take advantage of the resources available to help you support your students.
Make some time and be available to listen with empathy. Reassure LGBTQ+ youth that the stress and anxiety they feel right now are completely normal, and encourage them to stay connected and practice self-care. [pullquote]The supportive adults in my life—especially my parents—made a difference and now you have an opportunity to do the same[/pullquote]—especially for kids struggling at home during this pandemic.
Nehemiah Frank is a fierce advocate for charter and community schools. He has public policy experience and is the founder and editor in chief of the Black Wall St. Times. Frank is also a middle school teacher at Oklahoma's top performing charter school, Sankofa Middle School of the Performing Arts a member of the Deborah Brown Community Schools. Nehemiah believes that charter and community partnership schools are the paths to closing the achievement gap and curving the school-to-prison pipeline. Frank earned his B.A. in political science from Oklahoma State University.
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