Here’s a statistic that surprised us: Recent studies find that nearly 40 percent of homeless youth are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. That’s an astonishing number, given that sexual minorities are a vastly smaller percentage of the population as a whole.
It’s not hard to imagine why these groups of youth would be over-represented in national statistics about homelessness. There are a lot of parents who are intolerant and abusive of nonconforming kids, a lot of bullying and ridicule for LGBT kids in schools, and a lot of confusion, angst and isolation for kids who differ from their peers. But the scale of these kids’ suffering and homelessness is stunning.
Locally, we’re glad to know that Rosie’s Place, the Community Youth Services shelter for homeless youth, is responding to the needs of these young people by providing a place where they are welcome, accepted and understood. This is vital for lesbian, gay, bisexual and questioning youth, and even more critical for transgender young people, who are the most over-represented in the homeless population and likely to remain homeless longer than others. Sexual minorities who are also racial or ethnic minorities are also more likely to become homeless and to stay homeless longer.
This is a measure of how far our society has yet to go to achieve full equality for both LGBT people and people of color.
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It’s also a window into a reality few of us have fully grasped: the immense variation of gender identity and sexual preference in the human species. These variations have always been part of the human condition, and in many cultures, they are accepted as part of the natural order. Our culture has a lot of work to do to come to terms with this reality.
Our usual way of thinking about gender — that we are either male or female and that’s the whole story — turns out to leave out some key chapters. The massive publicity surrounding the transition of Bruce Jenner to Caitlyn Jenner has opened the book to one of those chapters, but there are others. Some people identify as a blend of both genders; some are living in a transitional state on the journey from one to another; some are struggling to create new pronouns to describe themselves that break out of the binary choice between “he” or “she.”
If this bends your brain, you are not alone. But it’s important to keep an open mind about these challenges to conventional wisdom for two reasons. First, understanding variations in gender identity and sexual preference can help us create a more fully inclusive and accepting society — a society in which young people are not rejected by their families, bullied in school and forced into homelessness. Acceptance is also a powerful antidote to alienation, drug and alcohol abuse, and anti-social behavior.
Second, understanding the diversity of gender expression and sexual preferences helps even those of us who are heterosexual realize that we vary a lot, too. Some heterosexual women like to wear makeup and ruffles; some are comfortable only in jeans. Some heterosexual men like to cultivate six-pack abs; some like to cultivate orchids.
Understanding all that as part of normal human gender variability might help us understand those differences in a new light — one that illuminates just how richly diverse we humans are and how much we have to gain by appreciating rather than judging our differences.