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Making It Better: What I've Learned From Talking With Young Queer People Across The U.S.

"The young people of today are proof of something they have not yet had the opportunity to prove -- something that’s coming."

11/06/2017 16:35 EST | Updated 11/07/2017 11:13 EST

It’s been a busy year at The Trevor Project. The Trevor Lifeline (the only national 24-hour suicide prevention and crisis intervention lifeline for LGBT and Questioning youth) has seen the highest volume of crisis contacts and social media outreach since it began taking calls almost twenty years ago. The number of crisis contacts in the 24 hours immediately following the November 2016 presidential election was four times higher than it was following the massacre in Orlando in June 2016. And in the weeks right after the election more than 95% of callers expressed anxiety about the possibility of their civil rights being taken away. A year later and The Lifeline is still receiving far too many calls from LGBT and Questioning youth expressing their worry about marriage equality, conversion therapy, healthcare, Title IX, to name just a few of their concerns.

Since the election, I’ve been traveling around the country with my solo show (The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey) and finding opportunities to talk with students as the co-founder of The Trevor Project. We gather in school libraries, auditoriums, storage rooms, churches and community centers to talk about issues pertaining to the LGBTQ community, but what I’ really want to do is listen. I want to find out what these young people see with their 20/20 vision, and what they make of the world around them. And yes, they are the lucky ones, the kids with homes, at least one supportive parent and a GSA (Gay/Straight Alliance or Gender/Sexuality Alliance) in their high school. But after years of listening to kids in crisis, I’m eager to hear from young people who are receiving the support and encouragement to be exactly who they are. I want to find out if it has indeed gotten better for this generation of young LGBTQ young people.

They gather like lesser gods, these young adults, cross-legged on the carpet during first period, still unaware of their full-on fab factor and holding back their brightness. Though each of them yearns for some attention, not one of them is ready to be noticed. Not yet. A few dare the green or blue or magenta hair, the flash of some forward fashion statement loudly announcing a desire to be seen and counted as the cumulative effect of their own cause. But even the brightest among them seems to have been dulled down a bit. Maybe working within the current school curriculum has taught them to hide who they actually are, convinced them that what they know will not fit into the books written fifty years ago, will not withstand the test and refuses to submit to a grade. So why dare? Why bring it up? Who they are, what they know about themselves, their peers and the world around them hasn’t yet been written. They are becoming. And like Divinity itself, they’re big on invisibility and avoiding early detection.

Since 1998 when I co-founded The Trevor Project, I’ve been fortunate to be close to the front lines as several generations of young people have come of age. Often the kids I speak with are in crisis, but regardless of their current circumstances or frame of mind, most of them want to live and have a strong determination to better the world that they’ve inherited from us. I’m aware that as young people they still have plenty to figure out, but I also know that they have a lot to offer – if only we would listen. And to my ear, this current generation of teenagers seems especially equipped to deal with the challenges ahead of them.

Whereas the generation immediately preceding them grew up during a time of water-boarding and unsanctioned foreign invasion, this current crop of kids came of age when diplomacy, diversity, civility and possibility seemed to dominate the news. It’s as though the principles of human decency and mutual respect have been quietly installed in their personal hard-drives. For them Marriage Equality wasn’t a so much historic milestone as it was the affirmation of what they already knew in their young hearts – love is love. The acceptance of transgender people became a signal to them that they were now free to live truer to themselves – whoever that turned out to be.

The Internet dissolved geographical boundaries for them and the idea of nation-states has begun to look more and more like the business of old men in suits. And they are the first generation to have grown up with the answers literally at their fingertips (smartphones, Google, Wikipedia, etc), a habit that has given them an outsized confidence in their ability to solve any problem that comes down the pike and a natural impatience with the old order.

Like every generation, these young people behave as though they have discovered sex. But they are unusual in that they’ve had unprecedented access to sexual content and information via the Internet. Their curiosity coupled with this access has excited in them a willingness to consider any form of consensual sex as acceptable and their ideas of sexuality are as liberal as they are fresh. Old labels don’t apply as neatly as they do for those of us who fought for those labels in the first place and who grew up in a world where the binary ruled. Man/Woman, Straight/Gay. The world has exploded beyond the binary for this generation, and they are doing what young people do best - forging ahead and making the future to their specifications.

In the same way that they are less bound by the binary, they seem less convinced by values that our culture is continually trying to foist upon them through advertising and entertainment. They are onto us, and there’s a lot that they’re not buying. And this is true not just in the big cities, but everywhere.

I visited a LGBTQ support group in Arkansas where about fifty kids gather every Friday night in the basement of a local church. They eat pizza, swap war stories, share resources and watch a movie together. When I arrived they were wearing nametags (for my benefit) announcing gender-neutral names like Kagen or Gray or Hunter along with their personal pronouns (they/them/theirs or she/her/hers etc.) When I asked them how they like to identify themselves, whether they preferred to be called gay or queer or gender-neutral, one of them told me, We’re not that big into labels, but we sometimes call ourselves Queerblings. I mean, we’re not fully queer, not yet, and some of us don’t identify as gay so maybe Queerbling is a good word for us.

One student in Connecticut told me recently that they found the whole LGBTQIA thing exhausting. But the real reason it didn’t work for them was because by definition it excludes members of the queer community who don’t necessarily identify as L or G or B or T or Q or I or A. What about those who consider themselves Pansexual or Asexual/Romantic or Demisexual? Are they invisible? Less acceptable? Not deserving of a letter in the alphabet? In some places, the term Plus has been added to the LGBTQIA moniker. But what about those who identify as fluid, those who are changing their identity from one day to the next? A new word is needed, I was told.

What many people don’t understand is that the struggle to be one’s self as a young queer person is not primarily about the right to have sex how and with whom we want, or to pee where and when we please. These aspects are important, but it’s really about our right to be fully and totally our selves – to be love - and then to be able to share that love with others. This seems as true today as it was for me back in the early 1970’s when no one was talking about the rights of LGBTQ people and the idea of gay youth simply did not exist. And though there is so much more acceptance nowadays for young people who are just discovering their identities, it’s always been this urge to express and feel our love that fuels the movement and encourages us to find acceptance where we can.

In Andrew Solomon’s groundbreaking book, Far From the Tree, he writes about how some of us are born into families that don’t share a trait that is essential to our selves. As a result, we have to venture out beyond what he describes as our vertical families and find our horizontal families. “Vertical identities are usually respected as identities” writes Solomon. “Horizontal ones are often treated as flaws.” And really, who wants to be identified by their flaws alone?

I was fifteen years old when I first went looking for my horizontal family, a tribe that didn’t see my essential self as flawed, but instead saw me as fabulous. I was offered a job working as an apprentice at a summer stock theater on the Jersey shore. The opportunity was almost too good to be true - fourteen musicals in fourteen weeks, living in a room with ten other boys including my then best friend, working with actual actors, housing provided, meals as well. I might even get the opportunity to perform in a few of the shows! But when my parents heard that I’d be working for no money, they refused to let me to go and insisted that I work another summer doing inventory at my father’s Ford dealership.

For the first time in my young life I realized that nothing gets better unless you do something to make it better. And so on the appointed day, while my parents were at work, I dared to climb into the backseat of a waiting station wagon with my suitcase in search of my new tribe. Eventually, my parents must have realized that they’d lost this particular battle, and blessedly I’ve forgotten what surely must have followed – the fights on the phone, ultimatums, tears, threats, bargaining and finally acquiescence to my plan.

It might sound overly dramatic to say that my experience at the Surflight Theater shaped my future, but that summer certainly changed the course of my life. The choices I made regarding money, sex, integrity, friendship, work, style, success, and my fellow human beings were the first ones I had to make on my own, and though many of those decisions were ill-advised, impulsive, disastrous and surely could’ve been avoided, for better or worse, they were patently my own. It was then that I began to orient my life and livelihood toward my heart’s desire. I found my tribe in the theater and not surprisingly the tribe was floor to ceiling full of queers. I came to understand for the first time the value of belonging to a community and through that community I found my purpose. I located a secret portal through which my self (small s) could be transported, enlarged, enriched, be-sparkled and transformed into a bigger, better Self (Big S) flaws and all. I said yes - not only to my own joy, but also to the business of causing joy in others. In other words, I found the love of my life.

Sadly too many young people don’t live long enough to find the love of their life. Suicide remains the second leading cause of death among young people ages 10 to 24 age group. According to the CDC, LGB youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth, and in a national study, transgender adults reported having made a suicide attempt. 92% of these individuals reported having attempted suicide before the age of 25. These are unacceptable statistics about the mental health and well being of LGBT youth by anybody’s standards. We must do better if we want it to get better.

Most of us tend to think of an adolescent as someone not yet fully baked. Fuck that, they say. They know themselves to be more than we can possibly imagine. And because we can’t imagine the future in which they are already living, we’re unable to see them clearly, speak their language or value their becoming wisdom. Who they are is too far out beyond our ken. They are the future after all, a future most of us won’t live to see.

When I was their age, I was painfully aware of the fact that homosexuality was considered a crime, a mental disease and a sin. Not only did I know this was wrong, but I also considered it untrue. I was sure that it was just a matter of time before the situation was made right. I don’t know what gave me such confidence. All I really knew was that my desire to love was something sacred and true, and even people like Anita Bryant with her mad campaign to Save The Children, couldn’t make me straight or convince me that who I was was wrong. I wasn’t a criminal or crazy or a sinner; I was a lover. And though for the most part I kept my love to myself, my head down, my heart concealed and my sexuality on the down-low, I continued to believe in the power of that love no matter what. The world is never quite ready to know what a younger generation sees or feels, and nothing changes until that generation ages up and starts to make it happen. I’m proof of that. The young people of today are proof of something too, something they have not yet had the opportunity to prove, something that’s coming.

My suggestion: find out what that something is by spending time with young people, pay attention to them, listen closely. Don’t be fooled by what people say about their social media habits or their sense of entitlement or their seeming inability to communicate or their alleged cluelessness. Many of them are doing fine the way they are. Perfect, in fact. And yes, maybe they are not quite fully formed, a little rough around the edges, they may be in need of our attention and protection, but they are lit for sure and from within by that holy forward moving spark of life that promises tomorrow. See it. Encourage it. Make it grow brighter in them or get out of the way. They’re happening. They’re here. And so is the future over which they rule like lesser gods. Serve them well. Lift them up. Make them the love of your life.