Growing Up LGBT in America
The Human Rights Campaign recently released a massive study on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth, with a sample well north of 10,000 and with more detailed information on how LGBT youth live their lives now. Overwhelmingly, the evidence shows that the deck is stacked against them, and that on nearly every metric of civil or emotional engagement, significant barriers divide their lives now from their straight peers, even though aspirations, like to marry someone they love and settle down, are so similar it hurts.
But there is a bright spot: Through looking at California responses, we see youth that are happier, more engaged and less alienated from their families, peers and communities.
That’s not an accident. Equality California, joined by many other coalition partners, has successfully fought to remove barriers, broaden access and support, and build a state of equality here in California for over a decade.
In large point, LGBT teens in California are more likely to feel accepted specifically in places where Equality California has done focused work: schools and government. California LGBT teens are 9 percent more likely to say they fit in than their national LGBT peers, 13 percent more likely to describe their community as accepting of them (3 percent more than even their straight peers), 9 percent more likely to feel accepted at school and 5 percent more likely to feel accepted by peers. With schools, Equality California started pushing for accurate data collection on bias incidents back in 2003, and passed SB 777, the Student Civil Rights Act, and AB 394, the Safe Place To Learn Act, back in 2007 (after introducing the latter in 2006). Those pieces of legislation created firm anti-discrimination protections under law and made sure that LGBT students — at particular risk for school violence — got resources to mitigate the most egregious forms of anti-LGBT bias in schools. Seth’s Law last year further enhanced protections for all students from bullying, an issue that disproportionately affects LGBT youth. We’ve also continued with the vision that equality means having heroes to look up to and seeing representatives of the LGBT community recognized, which led us to pass Harvey Milk Day back in 2010, and the Fair Education Act last year. Further studies from GLSEN emphasize the effects that teaching about the contributions of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people, including students being more likely to engage with teachers and support services, and seeing fewer instances of bullying. It all adds up to a state where LGBT youth are safer, more connected and happier at schools.
That Californian LGBT students also feel more accepted by their government and community is another point of pride — Equality California has worked hard for over a decade to both pass pro-equality legislation (it’s easier to feel like your government works for you when it’s passing some of the first comprehensive employment and housing non-discrimination laws in the country), and to support politicians who make a difference, like the first openly LGBT speaker of the assembly in the nation, John A. Pérez, and the pioneering work of the LGBT Legislative Caucus. Representation matters.
The other big series of questions where the LGBT youth of California come out better is a bit more subtle: The chances of living the life they want where they are now. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in California are 8 percent more likely to believe they can get married in the same town they live in now, 7 percent more likely to believe they can raise children in the same town, 4 percent more likely believe they can get a good job in their town, and 6 percent more likely to believe they can be a positive member of their community in the same town they live in now. They are 12 percent less likely to believe they have to move in order to live the life they want.
We know that the major factor for adverse outcomes for youth is instability. While the historical exodus to San Francisco and West Hollywood will likely be a part of many LGBT lives for years to come, it’s fantastic to realize that for many California teens, they can stay exactly where they are and have the kind of acceptance and success that they deserve. Not only will this correlate to lower runaway rates now, but it also allows California to benefit from the networks of relationships that support and sustain all of us. Hearing that things are better for LGBT California youth right where they are now is fantastic news. And they can stay where they are because they know that their employment, their housing, their relationships, are protected due to the work Equality California and others have done.
Obviously, we have a ways to go. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth here in California still have a long way to go before they show the same quality of life metrics as their straight peers — until they live in a full state of equality. They’re still 27 percent less happy than their straight peers, and are more likely to be bullied, harassed, ostracized, and have to compartmentalize their ability to live their authentic lives. But the numbers both give us cause for hope and proof of the positive effects of focused, determined pro-equality advocacy and activism. Progress can seem tortuously slow to those of us who have worked for it for a long time, but for the youth of California, they get to start out better than any of us ever did and allow us to make the case that the work we’ve done here leads the nation.