Twenty years ago, Republican Governor William Weld took a bold step toward equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people by forming the first-in-the-nation Governor’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth. The Commission was tasked with understanding the impact of anti-gay discrimination and harassment in schools and society, improving school climate, and supporting parents of gay and lesbian youth.
This month, the Massachusetts Commission on GLBT Youth will hold hearings — the first in two decades — on the status of GLBT youth in the Commonwealth and challenges and opportunities facing them. The hearings will take place June 20, from 1 to 6 p.m. at the State House, and June 21, from 2 to 6 p.m. at Holyoke Community College.
Massachusetts is among the most pro-GLBT states in the country. Soon after Weld launched the youth commission, the Legislature passed the first-ever student non-discrimination law covering sexual orientation, and a Safe Schools Initiative took concrete steps to make schools safer for GLBT youth — promoting gay-straight alliances and anti-bullying training of school staff. A couple of years later, Weld became one of the few elected officials to express support for marriage equality for same-sex couples. (Later, when seeking support for a run for the governorship of New York, Weld walked back this support). And of course, the Bay State was the first to legalize marriage for gay couples.
But before we rest too much on our laurels, we should look at the state of GLBT youth in Massachusetts. One the one hand, GLBT youth exhibit incredible creativity and resiliency. Most do well in school, are healthy, and stay out of trouble. Many organize GSAs or Alliances for GLBT Youth, non-school-based support groups which provide essential services with minimal funding or staffing.
But we also know that GLBT youth, both in Massachusetts and in other states, also experience striking disparities related to bullying, minority stress, and social isolation. Data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as dozens of studies published in peer-reviewed academic journals indicate that GLBT youth are at greater risk than their heterosexual peers of violence and victimization, self-harm and suicidality, substance use, sexual risk behavior, and skipping school because they feel unsafe. In Massachusetts, in 2009, an incredible 19 percent of young gay and bisexual males reported injection drug use, compared with only 2 percent of other, presumably heterosexual young males. Even though some risk behaviors, such as cigarette smoking, have declined since the 1990s, rates are still much higher among lesbian, gay and bisexual youth than among heterosexual youth.
We know from the research that there are a number of resiliency factors that correlate with lower rates of risk behavior among GLBT youth. These include having a GSA at one’s school; having openly gay role models among teachers, school staff, or family, such as a lesbian aunt; having nondiscrimination and anti-bullying policies and training in schools; and family acceptance, especially parental acceptance of GLBT youth. Young people who have these supports are less likely to have unprotected sex, have multiple sexual partners, be depressed, be homeless, use substances, etc.
After Tyler Clementi and nearly half a dozen other gay men killed themselves in the fall of 2010, Dan Savage launched the “It Gets Better” campaign. This was a laudable effort to highlight anti-GLBT bullying and shift social norms toward acceptance and support of GLBT youth. But we also know how to make things better now. All it takes is political will.
It is a sad state of affairs that the federal Student Non-Discrimination Act and the Safe Schools Improvement Act, federal versions of the law passed in Massachusetts and signed by a Republican governor 19 years ago, have little chance of passing the US House of Representatives this Congress. (These laws would outlaw anti-GLBT bullying and require the Department of Education to collect and report data on bullying.)
We urge policy makers in Massachusetts and around the country to listen to the voices of GLBT youth and children of GLBT parents and make schools safe, affirming places where all young people can focus on learning and developing their full potential.Sean Cahill and Jason Cianciotto are co-authors of “LGBT Youth in America’s Schools.” Cahill is director of health policy research at The Fenway Institute at Fenway Health and a member of the Massachusetts Commission on GLBT Youth. Cianciotto is a consultant specializing in applied research and public policy analysis.