But it wasn’t.
“My family said they’d accept me, then they lied,” the intern at Mill Creek Farm and Attic Youth member said.
Even now, his mother verbally abuses him — he calls it “blacking out.”
His family’s rejection of his sexual orientation affects him now, reflected in how he feels about himself and his openness about his sexual orientation.
“When I am in Center City I can be myself, but when I get home, or around my home environment, I feel like I am in the closet.”
Malcolm’s experience unfortunately isn’t unique.
According to the LGBT companion document to Healthy People 2010, published by the Department of Health and Human Services, “Research suggests that LGBT individuals face disparities linked to societal stigma, discrimination and denial of their civil and human rights. Discrimination has been associated with high rates of psychiatric disorders, substance abuse and suicide.” Gay youth in particular face a lot of stigma and often don’t have resources or allies to support them, so identifying and accepting one’s sexual orientation can be a painful process.
Monique Walker, a Ph.D. candidate in the study of sexual and gender minorities and a therapist at The Attic Youth Center, said one of the ongoing challenges gay youth face is being bullied.
“People are still being bullied and young people are being teased,” Walker said. “It’s not necessarily that you’re identifying as gay — it’s the perception that you are, that’s what gets most people in trouble, when most people start disliking themselves.”
She continued, “Bullying impacts health in a multitude of ways, adds to the level of shame and guilt and the struggle you are already having. Bullying creates unsafe environments and so, for young people still in school, it takes a toll on your ability to focus, academics and desire to want to go to school.”
Dr. Cynthia Closs, manager of addiction services in the Open Door program at Mazzoni Center and has studied queer-identified youth, said she sees “trauma symptoms in relation to bullying” in the youth who come to Mazzoni.
Though she sees the consequences of not having support — of “not having an identified ally they can trust who would intervene appropriately and help the youth have a voice” — she also sees the strength of youth.
“I love working with queer youth,” she said. “They’re amazing, their ability to navigate hostile systems, they are resilient, fearless and courageous.”
Impact of family acceptance
Another issue LGBTQ youth face is acceptance. Parents and other family members may question their sexual orientation, which affects self-esteem. When others view their identity as a phase, it can heighten the sensitivity LGBTQ individuals feel about themselves. From societal conditioning, people believe that heterosexuals know they are attracted to the opposite sex at a young age, but that gay people know when they are older. This perpetuates the myth that LGBTQ youth don’t know their true identity until they are adults.
But a 2009 San Francisco State University report, “Supportive Families, Healthy Children,” stated that young people begin to feel sexual attraction or have their first “crush” on another person at about 10 years old — which applies to both heterosexual and homosexual attraction.
The degree of familial acceptance can have deeper, more lasting impacts as well.
In the SFSU 2009 report, researchers stated that family rejection affects mental and physical health and that gay and transgender youth who were rejected had lower self-esteem and were at a higher risk of mental-health problems at ages 21-25. In families that were not at all accepting of their LGBTQ child’s identity, only one in three youth thought they would have a good and comfortable life as a gay adult. In contrast, almost all youth in families who were extremely accepting thought they would have a good life. Family acceptance was also found to help protect against risky behaviors in LGBTQ youth.
When Marcus Berry came out at 16, he faced losing his family and endearing a lot of painful feelings. At a family gathering, an older cousin expressed her fear that he could make her son gay. To deal with the pain, he began cutting himself. Now 21, Berry has found healthier outlets and resources, such as visiting The Attic Youth Center regularly, working out and listening to music.
Nicole Portantiere, a 20-year-old Attic Youth member and graphic-arts student, said her mother was accepting when she came out, and it made a difference in her own acceptance.
“I knew she’d be comfortable about it because that’s who she is, and I was like, That was easy,” she said. “I didn’t have any internal struggles directly with coming out to myself and my family, but I mean there’s also a lot of stress that [is caused by] people’s views in the world. Like the Westboro Baptist Church, for example. My blood pressure rises every time I hear something from them. People like that really get under my skin, but I accept my sexuality even if they don’t.”
In her practice, Walker said, “personally and clinically what has stood out for me is depression and suicidality because there is a huge link. I see that more in people who engage in self-injurious behaviors, such as cutting, burning yourself, eating disorders, definitely depression and the linkage to suicidality.”
Pettiford said he used to cut and burn himself to “relieve my pain.” He added, “I would light the lighter and hold it against my skin until I felt the burn.”
LGBTQ youth who come from highly rejecting families are up to eight times as likely to have attempted suicide as LGBT peers who reported no or low levels of family rejection, according to a 2010 report by the Family Acceptance Project, “Family Acceptance in Adolescence and the Health of LGBT Young Adults.”
In general, LGBTQ youth are four times more likely and questioning youth are three times more likely to attempt suicide as their straight peers, according to the 2011 Centers for Disease Control report “Sexual Identity, Sex of Sexual Contacts and Health-Risk Behaviors Among Students in Grades 9-12: Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance.”
A 2007 report by the American Association of Suicidology, “Transgender Youth and Life-Threatening Behaviors,” found that nearly half of young transgender people have seriously thought about taking their lives and one-quarter report having made a suicide attempt.
Both Closs and Walker stressed having a strong support system and access to resources as vital to helping LGBT youth accept who they are and build their self-esteem.
Closs noted that “having a space to develop identity is key.” She also sees dating as an issue in the LGBTQ community, and believes youth need positive role models to show what healthy relationships look like.
Closs said there are numerous resources available to youth and it helps if they have Internet access. “In Philadelphia, it’s a great city to access resources. Youth are telling me about resources in the city, but as far as suburban youth, not so much.”
Despite resources being available, youth access to them can be difficult.
“One of the big reasons is cost,” Walker said, “because it costs [money] to get therapy, it costs [money] to get medication if diagnosed.”
She continued, “I think just accessing in terms of knowledge — knowing where to go, and knowing what resources are available [is important]. Most people in their youth rely on parents for that information, and if you’re not comfortable sharing what’s going on, then it would be harder to gain that information, about even who you should talk to. Transportation, getting there, not wanting to share what’s going on.”
While adults may have the ability to seek resources, Walker noted it can be more difficult for youth.
“In youth you don’t have those options because you have set communities, and places you have to go.”