On my first day at The Bridge, I sat down to talk with the kids who were staying at the shelter that day. They shared with me their stories of why they were at The Bridge for Youth.
Unfortunately, the too-common theme was one that we at The Bridge hear hundreds of times a year. The variations of this story are different but the result is always the same:
“I’m being bullied at school.”
“My mother kicked me out of the house.”
“I don’t belong.”
“Nobody supports or loves me.”
“I’m angry and depressed.”
“I have turned to alcohol and drugs to deal with my true feelings”
And, as the story line often plays out for these teens, “It’s because I am gay.”
I thought I had understood this problem, but what I realized after talking to these kids was just how different my version of the story was from what they had experienced in their own lives.
We live in a period of great social change. Gay marriage has become the norm in many states. Sports figures, politicians are coming out publicly and speaking about their identities and encouraging the young to resist bullying.
For those of you who are in college, this is normal. But I can assure you, as I approach my 50th birthday this year, that this is not at all the case.
Back in 1983, when I graduated from high school in rural Minnesota, there was no one in my class who was openly gay.
- In 1981, Tennis player Billie Jean King became the first prominent professional athlete to come out as a lesbian–due to this, a year later, she had lost all of her celebrity endorsements.
- In1988 – Sweden is the first country to pass laws protecting homosexual regarding social services, taxes, and inheritances
- In1989 — Denmark is the first country in the world to enact registered partnership laws (like a civil union) for same-sex couples
- 1992–Homosexuality no longer an illness according to The World Health Organization
While we have seen enormous progress, of course, bias and discrimination still exist.
Recently, the Star Tribune reported that, “Gay Marriage hit a roadblock in four states where a federal appeals court upheld laws against same-sex marriage creating a legal split that increase the chances the Supreme Court will take up the issue.”
If you are a youth and you want to come out, all of these societal conflicts about gay marriage, gay rights, bias and discrimination make you feel as if something is wrong with whom you are.
Why do certain politicians keep fighting about policies that ensure rights? Why do we keep sending a negative message to youth about this issue? Do we not understand how the very questioning of these issues can send a negative message to youth who just want to be recognized for who they are?
Shortly after becoming the Executive Director at the Bridge, I was interviewed by Greg Lewis who was traveling the country seeking information and advice from organizations that had successfully worked with gay youth.
Since 1970, The Bridge for Youth has been one of those organizations that has, sometimes quietly, served, respected, and honored LGBT teens across Minnesota and their families and the broader community. There is a sign at the entrance of Bridge that says, “A safe place for everyone” and has a multi-colored rainbow to let kids know that we are open regardless of who you are or want to be.
Greg was doing this work on behalf of a group called The True Colors Fund which was co-founded by Cyndi Lauper to raise awareness about and bring an end to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth homelessness, and to inspire everyone, especially straight people, to become active participants in the advancement of equality for all.
Homelessness knows nothing of age or race or gender. It can happen to anybody. But when statistics show that 3-5% of the overall youth population is LGBTQ, compared to as many as 40% of the nation’s homeless youth that are gay or transgender, then we have to acknowledge that we’re facing a crisis.
The disparity suggests that gay and transgender youth stand a much higher chance of becoming homeless because of abuse, neglect and familial rejection due to sexual orientation or gender identity that drive them to the streets.
From that interview, and dozens of other interviews, Cyndi Lauper’s 40 to None Project was born. The 40 to None project’s goal is to reduce youth homelessness among LGBTQ from the nearly 40 percent to 0.
In 1974, one of our local heroes, Vice President Walter Mondale, helped to champion the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act. This act supported funding for shelters like the bridge to provide housing and services for homeless youth. While this act has been a great resource for funding for many of our organizations, it never required inclusionary language that would require services to all youth regardless of gender orientation or sexual preference. Amazing, isn’t it? This bill does not currently have protections for certain youth to protect against discrimination.
The reauthorization for this bill calls for nondiscrimination clause to ensure that all youth are treated fairly, including LGBT youth. This ensures that the programs and services provided by the Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act will benefit homeless LGBT youth; and that they benefit fairly and equally from these services. The reauthorization also provides best practice guides for culturally and competent care for all youth seeking shelter, including LGBT youth and victims of human trafficking, violence, and exploitation.
My friends, on the 40th anniversary of this law, this language must be changed and the law must include these protections. This would require that all programs that receive federal funding to prevent youth homeless must have best practice plans to provide services to LGBTQ youth.
Recently, a partnership with 40 to None and Covenant House, the largest homeless youth organization, with programs in 27 cities across the nation, was announced that will make sure that they are following best practices when it comes to serving LGBTQ youth. This will ensure that thousands of youth in their shelters will not be turned away because they are gay.
Two years ago the Bridge received generous funding from the United Way to support our programing for LGBTQ youth across the Twin Cities. Because of that funding from the “Arise Project”, we created a brand new position at The Bridge called the LGBTQ Outreach Manager. Kristan Clow who has worked at the Bridge for 5 years, was the natural candidate for this position. We were proud to support this new initiative of our programming. However, not everyone was as enthused about this new project as we were.
One day, a long-time donor to The Bridge for Youth stepped into my office with a message. He sat across from me and told me that “The Bridge for Youth was becoming too gay.” He had been seeing too many messages in the past year that supported and acknowledged gay youth and their struggles.” The donor concluded our meeting by telling me that this would probably be the last year that he and his wife would be supporting The Bridge for Youth.
As Executive Director, you might think that I was sad to see this man’s funding leave. But in fact, I felt proud. I felt glad that the message that we were sending about youth was reaching an audience that obviously needed to hear the stories that we were telling.
Friends, I will trade dollars every day, for justice and equity. This friends, champions, and allies, is the right decision for youth!