Support offered for gay youths
Being a teen-ager is difficult enough. But being a gay, lesbian or bisexual teen-ager can be dangerous, says Eli Stevenson of the El Dorado County Public Health Department.
Studies show that homosexual or bisexual teens are up to three times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual counterparts – and they succeed more often.
“One of the sad things about gays and lesbians is the high level of depression – we see it a lot,” Stevenson said. “Many are trying to escape from who they are. It takes so much energy to stay hidden – many are living in constant fear.”
The increased risk among gay and lesbian teens is not associated with the sexual orientation in and of itself, Stevenson said, but with problems related to accepting their sexuality.
“Homosexual kids must wrestle not only with the usual identity crises and struggles for independence common to all teen-agers,” wrote David Fassler and Lynne Dumas in their book, Help Me, I’m Sad, “but also with society’s stigmatization of anyone who is not heterosexual. These kids don’t want to be feared or disliked, and they certainly don’t want to lose the respect and love of friends and relatives.
“When (they) feel ashamed, confused, different and socially isolated, it’s hard for them to develop the kind of self-esteem and resiliency they need to defend themselves against the emotional problems, particularly depression, that increase their risk for suicide.”
Not knowing where to turn, South Tahoe’s gay and lesbian teens have a tough time finding a safe, supportive environment, Stevenson said. That’s why the health department recently hired her as the new county gay and lesbian youth outreach worker. Stevenson’s position is funded through a grant from the California Office of AIDS.
“It’s harder in a rural place like South Tahoe to find an underground support system,” Stevenson said. “High-risk activities, like alcohol, other drug use and unsafe sex are often a result of hiding. AIDS education is also an important part of my job. Teens tend to think they’re invincible.”
A gay hot line (541-GAYS) is now available to anyone who wants to talk, and Stevenson hopes to work with churches, schools and counselors who may not have had training in this area. Support groups and other meetings facilitated by Stevenson may soon be starting up at Lake Tahoe Community College.
“Do schools have adequate policies for gay, lesbian and bisexual students? Most have policies for racial or sexual harassment – even at the elementary level,” said South Tahoe AIDS Educator Chuck Newport. “The question is, ‘Do the schools need specific training for their teachers and policy modifications?’ That’s one of the things we’re looking at. The gay revolution hasn’t changed things that much.”
While a county-funded gay/lesbian advocate may look like a stretch in terms of prevention, Newport says there are direct correlations.
“If people feel bad, they tend to take more chances,” he said. “People with higher self-esteem tend to do better than those who don’t. These teens feel the discrimination, the alienation and a sense of not belonging.”
Although the health department is targeting youths, Stevenson says she is also available to offer resources to adults, many of whom feel equally isolated.
“A lot of gays fabricate double lives, otherwise they’re on guard all the time. In many crowds, it’s still socially acceptable to hate gays,” said a 41-year-old gay South Tahoe man. “It just takes one person in the group to attack you. It’s not an irrational fear, because you know it happens – we’ve all experienced it.
“Good jobs are hard to find – people are willing to lie about who they are to protect their jobs,” he continued. “Even with anti-discrimination laws to protect us, it’s the emotional price you pay daily if you’re alienated from the group. Even if someone is joking, you don’t know if there’s danger attached to it.”
“Being gay or lesbian is different from cultural or racial differences,” Stevenson said. “You can lose your family, friends, church or job.”
“There are many long-term gay and lesbian couples in South Tahoe, but very few are out,” Newport said. “They have joint checking accounts, joint mortgages, they’re essentially married. But there’s the fear of gay-bashing and name-calling. They don’t hold hands when they walk down the street – this is a don’t ask, don’t tell town.”
“There is a major underground here in South Tahoe,” echoed Stevenson. “Many people are afraid of backlash. They absolutely don’t want anybody to know.”
In addition to offering support, Stevenson sees her role as that of an educator.
“We’re hoping to educate the community and dispel fear. Discrimination is fear,” she said. “By accepting gays and lesbians for who they are we have an opportunity to help create healthy people. We want kids to accept themselves early on so they can go on with their lives. One of these kids could be the next president.”
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