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.
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, 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, 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.
Roe leak stokes fears that LGBTQ rights are now at heightened risk
Legal experts diverse on degree of threat to marriage
Fears that same-sex marriage and other LGBTQ rights could be on the chopping block are at a new high after a leaked draft opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court that would explicitly overturn precedent in Roe. v. Wade, although the degree of perceived danger differs among legal observers.
Although language in the leaked draft by U.S. Associate Justice Samuel Alito, which was published late Monday by Politico and confirmed as “authentic” by the Supreme Court, specifically distances the potential ruling from Obergefell v. Hodges, the general reasoning against finding unenumerated rights in the U.S. Constitution could apply to challenges to the landmark 2015 marriage decision.
Karen Loewy, senior counsel for the LGBTQ group Lambda Legal, told the Washington Blade if the draft decision were to become final it would “have no good implications” for either the Obergefell or Lawrence decisions.
“The analysis that Justice Alito has laid out really calls into question the sort of underlying liberty and dignity jurisprudence that really was the underpinning of cases like Lawrence and Obergefell,” Loewy said. “It requires a really cramped vision of what is constitutionally protected, that is tied to histories of oppression that are really, really concerning.”
Alito obliterates long-standing precedent, as defined in the 1973 Roe. v. Wade decision and subsequently affirmed in the 1992 decision in the Planned Parenthood v. Casey, finding a woman’s right to have an abortion is protected under the 14th Amendment.
“We hold that Roe and Casey must be overruled,” Alito writes. “The Constitution makes no references to abortion, and no such right is implicitly protected by any constitutional provision, including the one on which the defenders of Roe and Casey now chiefly rely — the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment.”
Alito makes clear for the Supreme Court to find any unenumerated rights under the 14th Amendment, the right must be “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition” and “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.”
Such an analysis would directly impact LGBTQ rights found under the 14th Amendment. In fact, three separate times over the course of the draft opinion, Alito compares the right to abortion to rights for LGBTQ people as defined by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Those references, however, aren’t to threaten those decisions, but to bolster the case for overturning precedent as established by Roe and limit the impact of the draft opinion.
“Roe’s defenders characterize the abortion right as similar to the rights recognized in past decisions involving matters such as intimate sexual relations, contraception, and marriage,” Alito writes, “but abortion is fundamentally different, as both Roe and Casey acknowledged, because it destroys what those decisions called ‘fetal life’ and what the law now before us describes as an ‘un-born human being.'”
In another instance, Alito includes Obergefell and Lawrence among a multitude of cases in a multi-page footnote giving examples of where the Supreme Court has decided to overturn precedent, which the draft opinion would do for Roe v. Wade. Another time, Alito rejects arguments from the U.S. solicitor general that abortion and marriage are connected, asserting “our decision concerns the constitutional right to abortion and no other right.”
Loewy, however, said the fundamental nature of the draft opinion, despite Alito’s rejection that abortion is comparable to LGBTQ rights, undermines that analysis no matter how many times he articulates it.
“The third time is where he offers a fig leaf saying, ‘This analysis is just about abortion rights. It’s not about anything else,’ and so suggests that it would leave untouched a case like Obergefell, when the analysis that he has offered in this opinion clearly leads to the opposite result,” Loewy said.
Indeed, the sweeping nature of Alito’s reasoning against finding unenumerated rights under the Constitution has led some observers to believe the draft was written by Alito alone and without the input of the other eight justices, which could mean the final decision would be a consensus different from the opinion that was leaked. (Upon publishing the leaked opinion, however, Politico did report the Supreme Court has five justices who will vote in favor of overturning Roe, which means without question such a ruling has a majority.)
Not all observers see the opinion in the same way and are interpreting Alito’s references to Obergefell and Lawrence as less threatening.
Dale Carpenter, a conservative law professor at Southern Methodist University who’s written about LGBTQ rights, downplayed the idea the draft opinion against Roe would be a prelude to overturning Obergefell based on Alito’s words denying the connection.
“The opinion tries to make it clear that it does not affect other unenumerated rights, like Lawrence and Obergefell and other fundamental rights cases, like contraceptive cases and other marriage cases,” Carpenter said. “So that’s comforting, I think, to LGBT rights advocates. Second, it says that there’s a fundamental distinction between those other cases and the abortion cases in that the abortion cases involve fetal life or potential life. And so, that I think, is a ground for setting a difference between them.”
Carpenter, however, conceded the mode of analysis in the opinion overturning Roe “is not very friendly to unenumerated rights like marriage and sexual intimacy,” so while Obergefell and Lawrence may face no immediate threat “there might be a longer term concern about decisions like those.”
A follow-up ruling from the Supreme Court rolling back the right for same-sex couples to marry would be consistent with a 2020 dissent from Alito and U.S. Associate Justice Clarence Thomas essentially declaring war on the Obergefell decision, urging justices to revisit the case to make greater accommodations for religious objections.
Jim Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in the marriage equality case and now a candidate for a seat in the Ohio state legislature, said in a statement after the leak of the draft Alito opinion he was fearful that the same forces seeking to overturn precedent for abortion rights would go after LGBTQ rights next.
“It’s also concerning that some members of the extreme court are eager to turn their attention to overturning marriage equality,” Obergefell said. “The sad part is in both these cases, five or six people will determine the law of the land and go against the vast majority of Ohioans and Americans who overwhelmingly support a woman’s right to make her own health decisions and a couple’s right to be married.”
The Supreme Court, of course, couldn’t willy nilly reverse the Obergefell decision, which would require some case or controversy to wind its way through the judicial system before justices could revisit the ruling. Mostly likely, such a hypothetical case would be a state passing a law banning same-sex marriage or simply declaring it would no longer allow same-sex couples to wed in defiance of the Obergefell decision.
No state, however, is engaged in a serious effort to challenge marriage rights for same-sex couples. The last such challenge was in 2020 and from the solicitor general of Indiana, who was seeking to challenge the decision on the basis of birth certificates for the children of women in same-sex marriages. Even the current 6-3 conservative majority on the court declined to hear the case.
Additionally, as polls demonstrate, the nation is in a different place with abortion rights compared to the right for same-sex couples to marry. A recent Fox News poll found six in 10 registered voters still think the U.S. Supreme Court should uphold Roe v. Wade, but more than half of those responders favored banning abortions after 15 weeks. Comparatively, a Gallup poll in September 2021 found support for marriage equality is at a record high of 70 percent and, for the first time, a majority of Republicans back same-sex marriage.
A question also remains about what the draft opinion means for decisions on LGBTQ rights that have yet to come before the Supreme Court but may come at a later time, such as a legal challenge to the “Don’t Say Gay” measure recently signed into law by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Carpenter said he doesn’t think the observers can glean anything about a potential ruling on the “Don’t Say Gay” law based on the fact the legal challenge would be different than challenges to abortion or same-sex marriage.
“That kind of challenge would more than likely be brought under the First Amendment,” Carpenter said. “And I don’t see the First Amendment being affected by the Dobbs decision. I suppose that someone might want to bring an Equal Protection challenge to the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law in Florida, but it just doesn’t seem like it would have an immediate impact on even that kind of claim.”
HRC names Chase Brexton ‘Leader in LGBTQ Healthcare Equality’
Perfect HEI score for Baltimore provider
The Human Rights Campaign has again awarded the title of “Leader in LGBTQ Healthcare Equality” to Chase Brexton Health Care in Baltimore.
The designation was reported in the recently released 2022 edition of the Healthcare Equality Index (HEI). Chase Brexton was one of only two Maryland healthcare providers, and 496 nationwide, to earn the honor.
To be named a Leader in LGBTQ+ Healthcare Equality, Chase Brexton achieved a perfect score of 100 points across strict criteria implemented by the Healthcare Equality Index. The categories measured included staff training and benefits, patient services and engagement, and responsible citizenship.
AIDS Healthcare Foundation opens first Healthcare Center in Virginia
Clients at AHF’s Falls Church Healthcare Center will receive care from Danbi Martinez, a provider with 19 years of HIV and primary care experience.
The AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) just opened a new Healthcare Center in Falls Church, Virginia—the organization’s very first Healthcare Center in the state. AHF’s mission is to eradicate HIV/AIDS and to provide cutting-edge medicine and advocacy regardless of ability to pay.
As of 2019, there were 23,691 people living with HIV in Virginia, and 56.4% of those people were black Americans. AHF is rooted in providing needed services to the most vulnerable demographics. With every AHF Healthcare Center, AHF Wellness Center, and AHF Pharmacy that caters to underserved communities, AHF hopes to close the gap on HIV/AIDS disproportionately affecting a single community.
In 2019, the Commonwealth of Virginia also saw 822 new HIV diagnoses. This further highlights the need for the free-to-low-cost HIV services and linkage to care that AHF offers. For instance, AHF is now the largest provider of PrEP (Pre-exposure Prophylaxis), an HIV prevention medication in the U.S.
In Virginia, The prEP-to-need ratio (PNR) went from 0.30 in 2012 to 4.37 in 2019. The lower the number is, the larger the need is for HIV prevention. And although the PNR has steadily increased, among females in Virginia, the PNR was far lower at 1.48. o
AHF’s new Falls Church Healthcare Center is another step in the right direction in providing at-risk populations with HIV prevention medication, getting them tested for HIV regularly, and getting them linked to care within 72 hours of a positive test result.
Clients at AHF’s Falls Church Healthcare Center will receive care from Danbi Martinez, a provider with 19 years of HIV and primary care experience. The location offers free STI and HIV testing, linkage to care, and access to a specialty pharmacy. Operating hours are Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday from 8:30 am to 5:00 pm, as well as, Wednesday from 10:00 am to 6:30 pm.
To welcome Danbi Martinez to the AHF family, and to celebrate their first Healthcare Center in Virginia, AHF is hosting a grand opening event and reception on March 10th, 12 pm at 2946 Sleepy Hollow Road Suite 4B Falls Church VA 22044. Please call (703) 962-1528 for further information on the event or services offered.
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