Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Next Big Thing

Photo: Brion McCarthy Photography
There was an abundance of symbolism on the day the report from the Youth Equality Alliance (YEA) was released, which revealed that many LGBTQ youth in Maryland are facing difficult challenges including homelessness.  The unveiling of the report Living in the Margins  took place in Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Central Library where homeless individuals frequently enter to gain shelter.  It also occurred during the record-breaking deluge, which reminded people of the deplorable conditions the homeless must endure on days like that.
On that waterlogged August 12 morning, ten YEA coalition members and LGBTQ youth spoke passionately about the experiences of bullying, harassment, and discrimination that tend to lead to negative outcomes.

Most of us are aware that LGBTQ youth are bullied and tormented in school or online.  We have a sense that some parents kick their kids out of their homes when they find out their child is LGBTQ.   We realize that homeless children (as well as adults) are at great risk on numerous levels.  We recognize, too, that foster care is not a good solution to homelessness when the child is constantly discriminated against, bullied or abused. 
We know these problems exist; therefore, it’s time to finally turn our attention to the plight of our LGBTQ youth.  Aaron Merki, the executive director for the FreeState Legal Project, which is one of the founding members of the YEA coalition, agreed. “Although the Maryland LGBTQ community has recently secured several new rights, including marriage equality and the Fairness for All Marylanders Act, there is much work to be done to protect the rights of LGBTQ youth.”

Indeed, we’ve achieved goals in equality and transgender nondiscrimination that were seemingly unimaginable five years ago, and we are proud of that.  Those have been powerful, sexy issues that attracted generous contributions, volunteers and the work by elected officials to make it happen.  These matters were the subject of conversations from dinner parties in Bolton Hill and Silver Spring to the pews in Baltimore’s churches to the sands of Rehoboth Beach. 

Are we ready to tackle the gritty, less glamorous task of helping our youth?  I hope so.”
They were historic, monumental achievements.  Are we ready to tackle the gritty, less glamorous task of helping our youth?  I hope so.  It’s time, and it’s the next big thing, although much work is still needed to ensure our safety, combat HIV/AIDS, address the needs of the burgeoning aging population and deal with other concerns. 

The YEA coalition, consisting of a number of advocacy groups and individuals, is searching for additional members to join in and participate in workgroups formed to implement the recommendations outlined in the report.  Many of these initiatives require policy, regulatory or legislative changes to help LGBTQ youth, and the process is expected to take several years. 
As YEA constructs the coalition, hopefully those joining will not simply lend their name as we have seen at times before, but rather they should roll up their sleeves and work.  And YEA should ensure accountability in that regard.

In the coming weeks, YEA will assign tasks to those best equipped to carry them out.  Much of the changes are political and enlisting the support of top elected officials is paramount to implementing the recommendations.  Our LGBT caucus in Annapolis, fresh off of the previous two big victories, would be helpful in championing this cause as well.
Photo: Brion McCarthy Photography
One recommendation, however, is a non-starter, in my judgment.  Under the section for Education, there is this: “Teach students about LGBTQ rights, issues and history in a K-12 curriculum.”

While that would be great, it will unlikely fly politically.  Those who opposed marriage equality will get on their soap boxes and say, “We told you that if gays were allowed to marry, the next step is teaching homosexuality in the schools.”  That’s how it would be painted no matter how noble and desirable the goal is.  I’m concerned that the whole effort to make changes in the Education piece could be derailed if this recommendation is included in the package.
Nonetheless, the other recommendations are ambitious and solid and could go a long way towards alleviating the misery experienced by LGBTQ youth.  The rest of us should get behind the effort by lobbying legislators and other officials, and at a minimum, raise awareness about problems facing our youth.  Moreover, the YEA needs to keep our communities informed through the LGBT press of any progress so that their efforts could gain momentum by enlisting additional support.

“Maryland LGBTQ communities are called upon to take notice of their youth,” said Diana Philip, Policy Director for FreeState Legal Project. “We are asking adults and youth to read the report and select the recommendations that they feel they can best contribute knowledge, contacts, and resources to influence administrators, policy makers, and legislators in their home counties.  I am hopeful that we will have youth in the room to help inform discussion and decision-making.”
To that end, Philip pointed out that YEA has begun reaching out to Gay Straight Alliances and LGBTQ youth community groups throughout the state to see if they can partner to hold Speak Up, Speak Out events—public discussions where LGBTQ youth can share their experiences in schools, foster care, and juvenile services.  “We want to capture information about the parts of these three systems that are supportive of these youth as well as the parts which undermine their wellbeing - what works, what doesn’t, what we should fix,” she said.

This is going to require an all-hands-on-deck approach from our communities. Rev. Olu-Moses Moise from the Apostolic Catholic Church said as much at the Pratt Library event, “I’m glad we are saying ‘enough is enough.’  This is a call to LGBTQ communities to come out to support LGBTQ children.”
While other work is needed and should not be brushed aside, helping solve the challenges facing our LGBTQ youth is the next big thing.  They are the future; we must join in.

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