By Gregory Lewis, the Executive Director of the True Colors Fund
I am one of the “fortunate ones,” in that my family universally accepted me being gay when I came out at 19 years old. Of course, there were the comical moments, like when my father asked me a few months after I came out to, “Keep an open mind that you might like girls,” and my response of, “Sure dad, as long as you keep an open mind that you might like guys.” We both laughed and his response, “Okay, I get it. Let’s move on,” was the end to that request.
What is important to know is that his request was not based on disapproval of my being gay, but rather in his fear of the discrimination that I would face as an openly gay man. When I shared this life-changing news, 3,000 miles separated us, with me “safely” in college in Los Angeles and him in New York. His first words to me over the phone were, “I love you and nothing changes between us.”
My father was one of the last significant people in my life I shared this news with and the one I was most concerned about. The weight of the fear I had felt—the fear that played a role in my suicide attempt a few months earlier—evaporated and I allowed myself, for the first time in a very long time, to breathe easily. But something did change between us. Our relationship grew stronger as a result of me finally being honest with myself and with him.
Only recently did I realize that I had to stop thinking of myself as one of the “fortunate ones.” Consciously I knew that no child should have to feel fortunate that their family loves and accepts them for who they are, but I still considered myself lucky. It’s hard not to, especially given the stories we hear daily at the True Colors Fund of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth being turned away from their homes at an alarming rate because their families have rejected them.
We must get to a point in our society where acceptance is the norm—where coming out is just a matter of fact that does not result in disapproval or congratulation. We have to get to a point where figuring out if you are gay, straight, bisexual, or transgender is just another regular experience of a young person’s life, like figuring out what you want to be when you grow up, what hobbies you like, or what your favorite kind of music is. We have to get to a point where fear around sexual orientation and gender identity no longer exists to disrupt and tear families apart.
The most universal human right that every child is entitled to is unconditional love and acceptance from their parents. While it may not be the law, it must be the standard that we as a society hold to the highest esteem above any other.
When only around seven percent of the general youth population identifies as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, and up to 40 percent of homeless youth do the same, we have to acknowledge that we have an epidemic on our hands. And we have to acknowledge that it is an epidemic greatly influenced by parental rejection. As a society we have to ensure that this form of rejection is eliminated from our culture and deemed unacceptable.
How can we say we are a civilized society and then allow the next generation of Americans to be turned away from the places they should feel most safe and secure, by the people they depend on most in the world?
How can we say we are humane and then not provide them the help they need when they find themselves alone?
If we ever expect to eliminate the disproportionate percentage of homeless youth who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, we not only need to address the competency of services provided to them, but also, the cause of their homelessness. We need a strategy to tackle the root causes so that we can work to prevent it, rather than simply react to it. We need to do both.
The runaway and homeless youth system that has been set up in our country is largely a responsive one, a system with limited funding that is not nearly meeting the needs of the up to 1.6 million youth who are homeless each year and the network of service providers providing them with food, shelter, and ongoing care. And, when it comes to gay and transgender homeless youth, we are falling even shorter.
We need to invest in a system that values prevention efforts as equal in importance to the vital services a young person accesses when they are faced with homelessness. We need all sectors of our society - the public, government, private funders, corporations, and more - to join together to invest in a fully holistic system of care that ensures homeless youth can lead healthy, happy, and productive lives.
And when it comes to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth, we need to ensure that we have a system that honors and supports their right and expectation to be loved and accepted by their families. And, when they are not, we as a society need to step up and help fill that void and ensure they have access to safe and affirming on-going care. That is what any great society would do and we should demand nothing less from the greatest country in the world.
The True Colors Fund’s Forty to None Project is dedicated to raising awareness about and bringing an end to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth homelessness.
For more from USICH's human rights series, visit http://usich.gov/issue/human-rights/.