As the celebration of marriage equality winds down, our community appears poised to pivot toward, and bring the primary focus of our formidable influence, to the fight for passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). It may seem the obvious course. After all, as the saying goes, a gay or lesbian person can get married in the morning and fired in the afternoon. Only 21 states protect against employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and a mere 18 on gender identity. However, there is a need more urgent, one literally of life and death — namely assisting homeless LGBT youth. The time is now that they be not just a priority, but the top priority moving forward.
Up to 40 percent of the approximately 1.5 million homeless youths in America identify as LGBTQ, based on numerous studies. Over the past almost two decades I have been engaged on this issue and these dismal statistics have proven stubbornly resistant to change. Studies also show that a youth’s LGBTQ identity is often a major contributing factor to becoming homeless, if not the direct cause. Once homeless, LGBT youth face a myriad of risks, including suicide, violence, HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, prostitution and substance abuse/dependence.
Greater access to LGBTQ-specific and LGBTQ- friendly services, with the necessary competencies and experience, are sorely needed. There are a number of amazing foundations and service organizations around the country attempting to raise awareness and/or directly address the plight of homelessness among our youth. Yet these organizations have been de facto charged with the responsibility for addressing a crisis that in scope and scale is far beyond their resources and capabilities.
Marriage equality is just the latest on the list of our most consequential victories to date. HIV/AIDS has gone from being a terminal to potentially manageable chronic condition (for those with access to life-saving medications), “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act have fallen; we now enjoy protections in federal government employment and contracting; polls consistently show we have won the hearts and minds of an ever-increasing majority; and corporate America largely has our backs. However, most national level successes have been to the sole benefit of LGBT adults.
My life partner, now husband, of 16 years and I are no exception. Our ability to be legally married and have our relationship recognized by the federal government has been a huge advantage to us personally. I am grateful for that and to our LGBT ancestors and most especially to President Obama, without whom we would currently enjoy precious few of these advances. I am certainly mindful, as well, of the ongoing and important efforts to address the numerous issues in addition to ENDA that remain before us, including transgender equality, equal access to adoption and securing equality in housing, public accommodation, senior care and facilities, etc.
But when community leaders and pundits discuss the work ahead in the wake of Obergefell v. Hodges, I am disheartened at what I do not hear. Homeless LGBTQ youth rarely, if ever, rate a mention.
To be fair, our national leadership is not entirely AWOL. One example is the campaign to end anti-LGBTQ bullying which may help reduce a contributing factor toward homelessness among some LGBTQ youth. The Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA) is a complimentary effort to address bullying and equal opportunity in education. Another example is the advocacy around the Runaway and Homeless Youth Inclusion Act (RHYIA), which would help ensure that programs funded by the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act serve LGBT youth effectively and without discrimination.
We’ve all heard of ENDA, chances are the same cannot be said for SNDA or RHYIA. Our national leadership has consistently failed to embrace a sense of urgency regarding the crisis, let alone respond accordingly. Unless our national organizations wake up and similarly prioritize homeless LGBT youth, RHYIA and SNDA will languish, services will remain inadequate and overall progress will be incremental at best.
Whatever the cause of our functional neglect of these kids, it is long past time to get over it. We cannot allow yet another decade to go by, or another generation of our youth to be lost to the streets.
Glenn LeCarl is a disabled veteran and U.S. Naval Academy alumnus based in Tallahassee, Fla. Reach him at [email protected].