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LGBTQ+ teens, 20-somethings share pandemic mental health struggles, post-pandemic plans

Wendy Nichols, a 22-year-old trans woman, is shown outside LGBTQ+ friendly shelter Casa Ruby, where she lived for two months early this year.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – People around the world have struggled for more than a year while stuck at home for school and work. But this physical and social isolation has taken a particularly tough toll on LGBTQ+ youth, data and interviews show. 

That’s because the pandemic cut many gay and transgender youth off from the places and spaces where they feel free to be themselves and forced them to spend a lot more time with family members who may not accept them.

“A lot of my friends are in the closet…and being stuck at home, they can’t really get out into the world,” said K.C. Elowitch, a 14-year-old transgender student in Rockville, Md. “At school, they were able to do whatever they wanted and be whoever they wanted. Now being stuck at home with [their families] is a lot more stressful.”

Elowitch was one of 11 young people, ages 14 to 22, who participated in a recent LGBTQ+ youth mental health focus group hosted by the Urban Health Media Project, a Washington-area nonprofit that trains diverse high school students from under-resourced communities to do multimedia health and social issue journalism. 

Elowitch’s experience was echoed by others in the focus group. 

“I was in a bad place when I was closeted,” said Wendy Nichols, a 22-year-old trans woman who began transitioning last summer. “Not just mentally, but literally and physically.” 

Living with transphobic parents made it “hard to be comfortable with myself,” said Nichols. 

Wendy (left) is shown with her twin brother (right)

Focus group members honed in on topics that make it hard to be LGBTQ+, including: 

  • A lack of positive and realistic representation of LGBTQ+ youth in media;
  • Being misdiagnosed in doctor’s offices and being treated unfairly due to sexuality, along with other health inequities; and
  • The impact of strict religious beliefs about sexual orientation and gender identity.

Participants were encouraged to share openly, and were led through the 90-minute discussion by professionals, and fellow members of the LGBTQ+ community. The focus group was co-moderated by Heidi Ellis and Josh Rivera. Ellis, who identifies as lesbian, was a senior adviser at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the Obama administration and now runs her own advocacy and consulting company. Rivera, Money & Consumer Editor at USA TODAY, is gay and chairs the newspaper’s diversity committee.  

The focus group participants talked about what they would like addressed by the media and what they would like to see change. They emphasized topics such as safety, gender identity, and safely coming out to others.

 

Roman Sardo-Longo, a 16-year-old trans male who joined the virtual focus group from Cleveland, said having more LGBTQ+ representation in the media could help other young people more easily accept peers like him.

“It took me a while to come out [as trans] because I was terrified that my friends would not understand, that they weren’t gonna get it, that they would think it was a weird thing they would have to accommodate for,” he said.

Others shared their experiences with religious beliefs that oppose  LGBTQ+ identity and sexuality. 

Tris Buchanan, a DC high school senior, is shown in a recent selfie.

Tris Buchanan, 17, lives in Washington, D.C., and identifies as gender-fluid. Buchanan’s parents’ Christian religion played a big role in their struggle to come out.  

“Some die-hard Christians…say God does not like gays, God doesn’t like anyone who’s part of the LGBTQ community,” said Buchanan. “Homophobes use the Bible and use God as excuses.”

Nichols, who also grew up in a conservative Christian household in Texas, said the concept of “toxic masculinity” also greatly affected her as she was growing up. 

“I was told, ‘Men don’t cry,’ ” said Nichols. “I grew up with that and it skewed my views.” 

When Nichols was 16, she finally decided to tell her family she identified as a woman. Her late mother, who had struggled with mental illness since a serious brain injury in a car crash, took Nichols for a drive and threatened to drive them both into the river if her daughter didn’t retract the statement. So Nichols did. 

But last June at 21, Nichols began transitioning to a female by taking hormones she got off the Internet. She didn’t have health insurance and lived nearly five hours from the nearest health care provider who would treat her.  After her father died of cancer last August, she moved to the Washington, D.C., area to live with a friend she met online. 

When that didn’t work out, Nichols became homeless and called the LGBTQ+ youth shelter Casa Ruby. There, she found comfort with others like her and within two months, was connected to the transitional housing where she can now live for the next 18 months, if needed. She begins a new job as a receptionist in early May. 

Nichols, who struggles with substance use and what she believes is depression, said she’s feeling more hopeful than ever that “one day I can overcome it all.” 

“The future seems so bright now,” she said. “I’m not stuck in a place where I couldn’t be myself or dreading the next bad thing as I did for most of 2020 when I was preparing for my father to pass away.” 

 

UHMP also just completed a workshop on the relationship between housing and health, including LGBTQ+ youth homelessness in D.C. and Baltimore. That story will run soon in the Blade. Another reporting workshop this summer will explore youth mental health, with a special focus on the LGBTQ+ and Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. UHMP is seeking applications for 20 high school students to attend.

UHMP is also pursuing reporting on topics proposed by the young people who attended the focus group. Two participants are working on a story about the additional challenges faced by LGBTQ+ youth with learning disabilities. 

Jojo Brew, 18, is a DC high school senior and photographer.

Jojo Brew, an 18-year-old trans male in Washington, D.C., who participated in the focus group, believes the LGBTQ+ community should produce positive content on social media sites such as Instagram in order to raise awareness and promote understanding of gender and sexuality issues.

To that end, he’s begun interviewing and photographing other LGBTQ+ teens in the D.C. area for visual articles and social media posts and told a little of his own story for Instagram. Brew is also helping plan a June 18 LGBTQ+ event co-hosted by UHMP in Washington, where he hopes young people who may not be out can be “one with the community” even if they don’t speak publicly.  

Having that exposure to other LGBTQ+ people, they’d realize they aren’t the only ones going through a tough time,” said Brew. “They want to be heard and feel some type of love.” 

Brew was recently awarded a Children’s Defense Fund fellowship grant to chronicle the sense of community in Southeast Washington and is working with UHMP to capture and share the stories of LGBTQ+ youth in the D.C. area. 

 

UHMP is looking for LGBTQ+ people of all ages who are willing to be interviewed about youth mental health. We’d like to hear from youth and adults on all topics, including the impact of the reactions of community, government, parents, religious organizations and peers to youth gender and identity. What helped you weather challenges that could help the next generation?  Let us know at [email protected] 

Vanessa Falcon is a UHMP intern and senior at Miami Lakes Educational Center in Florida. Jayne O’Donnell, former health policy reporter at USA TODAY, is UHMP’s founder.

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Commentary

Asian American and LGBTQ: A Heritage of Pride

May is Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

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Glenn D. Magpantay (Photo courtesy of Glenn D. Magpantay)

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (APIs) are the nation’s fastest growing racial minority group by 2040, one in 10 Americans will be of Asian ancestry. And, while many Americans think that anti-Asian hate and racism towards Asian Americans has disappeared, the community disagrees.

The Asian American Foundation which found that Asian Americans are continually subjected to hate, violence, and discrimination, baldly reveals that disparity. 

  • 33 percent of Americans think hate towards Asian Americans has increased in the past year, compared to 61 percent of Asian Americans themselves.
  • In the past year, 32 percent of Asian Americans across the country reported being called a racial slur; 29 percent said they were verbally harassed or verbally abused.
  • Southeast Asian Americans report even higher incidences of being subject to racial slurs (40 percent), verbal harassment or abuse (38 percent), and threats of physical assault (22 percent).
  • Many Asian Americans live in a state of fear and anxiety with 41 percent of Asian American/ Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (AANHPI) believing they will likely be the victims of a physical attack due to their race, ethnicity, or religion. These numbers are disturbing.  

I serve as the only Asian American Pacific Islander member on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. And, I am the first and only queer AAPI on the U.S. commission. I am deeply honored to both serve my country and represent my Asian Americans and Pacific Islander community.    

Last year, the commission investigated the Federal Response to Anti-Asian Racism in the United States. With congressional authorization, the report documented the experiences of AANHPIs in the U.S. since the dubbing of COVID-19 as the “China Virus” infecting people with the “Kung Flu” by government leadership. Words matter, as this report shows.

This report has a deep personal connection for me. I am the survivor of a hate crime of 25 years ago for being gay, and the victim of a hate crime for being Asian 25 months ago 

The Stop AAPI Hate Coalition reported that bias incidents against individuals who are Asian and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ) were most prominent between 2019 and 2022, highlighting the intersectional nature of these incidents. For example, two transgender Asian women stated: 

“I was with my new boyfriend at a restaurant. When we walked in the server started calling me names … a b—h, ch—k, tra—i.e. … He said I have a big fat p—s, and told me to go back to China. Then my boyfriend proceeded to walk in the restaurant and when I took a step forward, the server hit me, so I left.” 

“Left a restaurant with friends in the Asian district of town. A man began to follow me calling out ‘Hey you f—got c—k!’ and ‘Come here you virus!’ I began to walk fast towards a crowd until he stopped following me.”

To address these and other equally appalling experiences, I helped shepherd the bipartisan Commission on Civil Rights recommendations to the president, Congress, and the nation that: 

  • Prosecutors and law enforcement should vigorously investigate and prosecute hate crimes and harassment against Asian Americans, as well as Asian Americans who are LGBTQ.
  • First responders should be trained to understand what exactly constitutes a hate crime in their jurisdiction, including the protections of LGBTQ people.
  • Federal, state, and local law enforcement and victim services should identify deficiencies in their programs for individuals with limited English proficiency

Greater language access will make an enormous impact for the Asian American community as one in five Asian individuals speak a language other than English at home. A third (34 percent) is limited English proficient. The most frequently spoken languages are Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Thai, Khmer, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, and Punjabi.   

For me, this report comes full circle. Since 1988, I’ve lobbied for passage of LGBTQ-inclusive federal and state laws to prevent hate crimes. Since 2001, I’ve supported South Asian and Muslim victims of post 9/11 violence. In response to the shootings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla, in 2016; Atlanta Spa in Georgia in 2021; and Club Q in Colorado Springs, Colo., in 2022, I‘ve trained over 3,000 lawyers, law students, and community leaders on hate crimes law.  

And yet, our work is not yet done. 

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. June is LGBTQ Pride Month. Despite these challenges, we are resilient. Let us join together in celebrating our Heritage of Pride 

Glenn D. Magpantay, Esq., is a long-time civil rights attorney, professor of law and Asian American Studies, and LGBTQ rights activist. Glenn is a founder and former Executive Director of the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (NQAPIA). He is principal at Magpantay & Associates: A nonprofit consulting and legal services firm. In 2023, the U.S. Senate (majority) appointed Glenn to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to advise Congress and the White House on the enforcement of civil rights laws and development of national civil rights policy. 

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Health

CDC issues warning on new ‘deadlier strain’ of mpox

WHO says epidemic is escalating in Congo

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JYNNEOS mpox vaccine (Photo courtesy of the CDC)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a health advisory regarding a deadlier strain of the Mpox virus outbreak which is currently impacting the Democratic Republic of Congo.

According to the CDC, since January 2023, DRC has reported more than 19,000 suspect mpox cases and more than 900 deaths. The CDC stated that the overall risk to the U.S. posed by the clade I mpox outbreak is low.

The risk to gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men who have more than one sexual partner and people who have sex with men, regardless of gender, is assessed as low to moderate the agency stated.

While no cases of that subtype have been identified outside sub-Saharan Africa so far, the World Health Organization said earlier this week that the escalating epidemic in Congo nevertheless poses a global threat, just as infections in Nigeria set off the 2022 outbreak according to a WHO spokesperson.

The spokesperson also noted that as Pride Month and events happen globally, there is more need for greater caution and people to take steps at prevention including being vaccinated.

The CDC advises that while there are no changes to the overall risk assessment, people in the U.S. who have already had mpox or are fully vaccinated should be protected against the type of mpox spreading in DRC. Casual contact, such as might occur during travel, is not likely to cause the disease to spread. The best protection against mpox is two doses of the JYNNEOS vaccine.

The CDC also noted the risk might change as more information becomes available, or if cases appear outside DRC or other African countries where clade I exists naturally.

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Commentary

Journalists are not the enemy

Wednesday marks five years since Blade reporter detained in Cuba

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The Hungarian Parliament in Budapest, Hungary, on April 4, 2024. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his government over the last decade has cracked down on the country's independent media. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Wednesday marked five years since the Cuban government detained me at Havana’s José Marti International Airport.

I had tried to enter the country in order to continue the Washington Blade’s coverage of LGBTQ and intersex Cubans. I found myself instead unable to leave the customs hall until an airport employee escorted me onto an American Airlines flight back to Miami.

This unfortunate encounter with the Cuban regime made national news. The State Department also noted it in its 2020 human rights report.

Press freedom and a journalist’s ability to do their job without persecution have always been important to me. They became even more personal to me on May 8, 2019, when the Cuban government for whatever reason decided not to allow me into the country.  

Washington Blade International News Editor Michael K. Lavers after the Cuban government detained him at Havana’s José Marti International Airport on May 8, 2019. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

‘A free press matters now more than ever’

Journalists in the U.S. and around the world on May 3 marked World Press Freedom Day.

Reporters without Borders in its 2024 World Press Freedom Index notes that in Cuba “arrests, arbitrary detentions, threats of imprisonment, persecution and harassment, illegal raids on homes, confiscation, and destruction of equipment — all this awaits journalists who do not toe the Cuban Communist Party line.” 

“The authorities also control foreign journalists’ coverage by granting accreditation selectively, and by expelling those considered ‘too negative’ about the government,” adds Reporters without Borders.

Cuba is certainly not the only country in which journalists face persecution or even death while doing their jobs.

• Reporters without Borders notes “more than 100 Palestinian reporters have been killed by the Israel Defense Forces, including at least 22 in the course of their work” in the Gaza Strip since Hamas launched its surprise attack against Israel on Oct. 7, 2023. Media groups have also criticized the Israeli government’s decision earlier this month to close Al Jazeera’s offices in the country.

• Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, Washington Post contributor and Russian opposition figure Vladimir Kara-Murza and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Alsu Kurmasheva remain in Russian custody. Austin Tice, a freelance journalist who contributes to the Post, was kidnapped in Syria in August 2012.

• Reporters without Borders indicates nearly 150 journalists have been murdered in Mexico since 2000, and 28 others have disappeared.

The Nahal Oz border crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip on Nov. 21, 2016. Reporters without Borders notes the Israel Defense Forces have killed more than 100 Palestinian reporters in the enclave since Hamas launched its surprise attack against Israel on Oct. 7, 2023. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Secretary of State Antony Blinken in his World Press Freedom Day notes more journalists were killed in 2023 “than in any year in recent memory.”

“Authoritarian governments and non-state actors continue to use disinformation and propaganda to undermine social discourse and impede journalists’ efforts to inform the public, hold governments accountable, and bring the truth to light,” he said. “Governments that fear truthful reporting have proved willing to target individual journalists, including through the misuse of commercial spyware and other surveillance technologies.”

U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power, who is a former journalist, in her World Press Freedom Day statement noted journalists “are more essential than ever to safeguarding democratic values.” 

“From those employed by international media organizations to those working for local newspapers, courageous journalists all over the world help shine a light on corruption, encourage civic engagement, and hold governments accountable,” she said.

President Joe Biden echoed these points when he spoke at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner here in D.C. on April. 27.

“There are some who call you the ‘enemy of the people,'” he said. “That’s wrong, and it’s dangerous. You literally risk your lives doing your job.”

I wrote in last year’s World Press Freedom Day op-ed that the “rhetoric — ‘fake news’ and journalists are the ‘enemy of the people’ — that the previous president and his followers continue to use in order to advance an agenda based on transphobia, homophobia, misogyny, islamophobia, and white supremacy has placed American journalists at increased risk.” I also wrote the “current reality in which we media professionals are working should not be the case in a country that has enshrined a free press in its constitution.”

“A free press matters now more than ever,” I concluded.

That sentiment is even more important today.

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