May 14, 2010 at 11:41 am EST | by Erwin de Leon
Safe spaces for LGBT youth

At the beginning of this week, the Baltimore Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center’s plans for an LGBT youth center were revealed. Scheduled to open this fall, the center will offer mentoring, health education and other services tailored for younger members of our community.

Andrew Ansel, programs manager for Baltimore’s Center, explained the need for a safe space for young LGBT: “Youth are coming out at a lot younger ages. It is becoming less stigmatizing, but there are still a lot of challenges. It is still very difficult to come out in high school.” Moreover, Ansel reports that the city’s youth centers and facilities tend to not be “gay-friendly.”

Indeed, although television shows like “Glee” and “Ugly Betty” depict gay boys who are for the most part embraced by their families and schoolmates, the reality is many young queers are not as fortunate. The Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network reports that nine out of 10 LGBT middle school and high school students experience harassment at school, and three out of five feel unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation. This translates into poor academic performance. The grade point average of students who are more frequently harassed because of their sexual orientation or gender expression is almost half a grade lower than for students who are less often harassed.

LGBT youth centers provide a place for adolescents and teens to congregate after school, where they can be themselves, free from harassment and intimidation. These spaces can also be life savers for teens who have run away or been thrown out by their parents after coming out.

An Urban Institute report estimates the runaway population to be anywhere from 1.6 million to 2.8 million. As the report points out, “running away from home puts youth at risk of violence, crime, drugs, prostitution, HIV and other STDs, and other health problems. … Runaway youth are not only likely to perpetrate crimes and engage in delinquent behaviors, they are also likely to have been victimized at home and to experience additional victimization once they leave home.”

It is safe to assume that a considerable portion of these runaways are queer and homeless. As the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force’s report on runaway and homeless LGBT youth found, a stunning 20 to 40 percent of all homeless youth identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. That means there are hundreds of thousands of vulnerable LGBT kids.

The CenterLink Community Center Directory lists 192 LGBT community centers in the U.S. and that 85 percent of these centers offer services tailored for LGBT youth. This is welcome information. But is it enough? Do LGBT youth and their advocates know where these oases are?

We need to support and open more centers that welcome and provide safe spaces for our youth. LGBT kids should know that there are places where they can take respite and, when necessary, refuge.

You can follow Erwin on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon.

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