Living here in the Bible belt and across the nation, the LGBT community often experiences a hostile environment, illustrated by this current sign in Portland, TN.
Portland resident Ronnie Monday, who commissioned the billboard, claims he is serving the Lord with it. "As for me and my house," he told WSMV's Nancy Amons, "we will serve the Lord. And He says it's wrong. And in my opinion, that's what it is, it's wrong." And while Monday and his “concerned Christian” group are expressing their freedom of speech, we know this kind of message promotes fear, societal shame, and anger, especially toward all of the youth who view it.
Chris Sanders, the executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project (TEP), says of this signage, “We are obviously concerned about how these messages contribute to LGBT youth homelessness… At their best, faith communities can bring people together around shared values. This [billboard] message is divisive and picks on vulnerable gender and sexual minorities in an area where there are few resources.” Chris adds that this kind of religious fervor can motivate parents to eject their LGBT kids from their homes, prompting severe psychological and physical distress, which is sometimes fatal.
A recent Rolling Stone article profiled a young woman named Jackie who, upon telling her pious parents that she is gay, received this response: "I don't know what we could have done for God to have given us a fag as a child.” Although Jackie hoped her parents would come around in time, they completely cut off all emotional and financial support to her. She was left with nothing.
Rolling Stone further reports that social service workers believe family rejection partially explains why an estimated 40% of the homeless youth population are LGBT when they make up only 5% of the total youth population. More kids come out earlier to their parents than in the past and teens are cast out of their homes prior to finishing high school. LGBT kids are seven times more likely than their straight counterparts to be the victims of crime.
When young people are rejected so completely by their parents, imagine the toll on the child. Their once loving, supportive parents now turn their backs on these young people, prompting much suffering. During the past several years, the LGBT movement has focused on laws around marriage equality, changing 'don't ask, don't tell,' and obtaining adoption rights but we haven't been dealing as much on the homeless youth epidemic. The tide may now be changing.
LGBT youth are at risk because they often lack access to medical care, they attempt suicide, use hard drugs, and are more likely to be arrested for survival crimes. Some turn to survival sex. Also, for children who have grown up in sheltered, religious homes, their ability to cope with and handle homeless life is significantly decreased. And if a child chooses to stay in the closet so parents won’t resort to extreme measures, they often suffer from depression, panic attacks, and sometimes get suicidal while they live a lie with great fear of being found out. This is no way for a child to develop into a healthy adult.
The bad news is that in June 2014 Nashville’s Oasis Center was forced to close its Transitional Living (TL) program due to the lack of available funding sources. Three years ago, Oasis lost federal funding for the TL program which had been functioning since 1992. Prior to June of this year, Oasis spent more than $700,000 to cover the federal funding loss, according to Pam Sheffer, Program Director for the Just Us initiative.
The good news is that Pam is trying to coordinate several Nashville shelter programs to increase their access to homeless youth by initiating a task force to develop plans for youth’s immediate needs, like places to sleep: #streetfreesleep. Although many have already joined the Task Force and have volunteered to create solutions to this problem, Pam would love to have more people involved. The task force has developed mid-term and long-term goals as well. Please contact Pam if you would like to help out in any number of ways: firstname.lastname@example.org, (615)-327-4455.
We need to help our LGBT youth experience hope and find better ways to live without so much risk of danger, marginalization poverty and misery.
The bigots and bullies can post as many hate-filled billboards that they want. If we work together to support our youth in need, everyone will win. We are all in this together.
Barbara Sanders, LCSW, is a psychotherapist who writes social commentary: http://synergeticresolutions.blogspot.com