On May 9, President Obama publicly stated his support for same-sex marriage for the first time. It was a milestone for the LGBT civil-rights movement: It marked the first time in our nation’s history a sitting president had voiced support for marriage equality. The announcement was met with debate and fanfare. USA Today called his statement “an important, even historic, marker of how far public opinion has shifted.” And it’s true — public opinion has indeed shifted — and in terms of LGBT civil rights, across-the-board marriage equality is absolutely the first issue we think of. As important an issue it is, it is by no means the be-all and end-all of LGBT civil rights. But it’s the battle we’ve chosen to fight most publicly, and we’re fighting it on a national level. But in the choosing of our battles, we must also become cognizant of those whose voices are not often, if ever, sponsored by celebrities or the President. And in the midst of our successes, we cannot dismiss those left behind in the process: homeless queer youth.
The numbers are startling: Of an estimated 600,000 homeless youth in the United States, about 40 percent identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, according to a study conducted this year by the Williams Institute. This is no coincidence either. Of that number, almost half report having been kicked out of their homes for coming out to their families. This means their decision to be open about their sexual orientation or gender identity is the reason for their homelessness. In Philadelphia alone, up to 1,300 LGBT youth are without homes, according to Foyer, a shelter based in Philly that provides beds to LGBT youth during the winter months. While programs like Foyer exist, they are uncommon, and as funding for shelters grows scarce, the future for homeless youth grows bleaker.
The extreme lack of legal protections for LGBT people in the United States does not help to realize the long-term goals of homeless queer youth who hope to find a stable financial and living situation someday: 29 states do not currently include sexual orientation as a protected class from discrimination, Pennsylvania among them. Without these protections, a person can be refused housing or fired for simply being an LGBT person. Employment and housing prospects are even shakier for transgender individuals; their rights are protected in only 13 states. No federal law exists to protect LGBT individuals from discrimination. In fact, President Obama passed up his chance to sign an executive order last spring that would have banned federal contractors from discriminating against employees based on sexual orientation. For the LGBT community at large, but young people in particular, these are troubling truths.
The lives of young, vulnerable people are at stake here. It is not enough to tell them, “We’ll come back for you.” And it is certainly not enough to say, “It gets better.” Because if that’s where we end the conversation, that might never become true for many LGBT youth in this country. A bright and stable future is not guaranteed to homeless queer youth. But what we can promise is something better than came before. Make no mistake, we can make it better — under the condition we sincerely devote ourselves to doing the work necessary. We need to bring this issue to our political platforms, our blogs, our newspapers, but first and foremost to our attention. We cannot continue to ignore the issue and leave queer youth behind. We’ve got to bring them with us.
— Sasha Faust West Chester University, class of 2013 President, LGBTQA