I am a primary care physician for adults and children at a safety net clinic in Los Angeles. I also teach medical students. I am an out lesbian and am planning on becoming a parent.
I struggled with my LGBTQ identity as a teenager in the early 2000s. I did not hear much about LGBTQ people or issues at home or in school, and what I did hear was usually negative. I recently learned that my home state of Arizona just repealed its “no promo homo” laws in 2019, which placed restrictions on discussing homosexuality in a positive manner in K-12 public school sexual education curriculums. This structural homophobia had significant consequences on my self-worth and caused me to feel marginalized and isolated.
Today I am happy, partnered, and accepted in my community. There is national marriage equality and there is more LGBTQ visibility in the media.
Even though there has been a lot of progress, LGBTQ youth are still struggling with discrimination. I am disheartened that 40 percent of LGBTQ youth surveyed by the Trevor project in 2020 seriously considered suicide in the previous 12 months, and the amount of LGBTQ youth reaching out to the Trevor project crisis centers has doubled at times during the COVID 19 pandemic.
I have pediatric patients in my clinic tell me that they are nervous to reveal their sexual identities to family and friends. Many of my young LGBTQ patients have mental health issues. According to a recent Human Rights Campaign survey, only 26 percent of LGBTQ teens say they always feel safe in their school classrooms. Only five percent of LGBTQ teens say all of their teachers and school staff support LGBTQ people. Additionally, sixty-seven percent of LGBTQ teens report that they have heard family members make negative comments about LGBTQ people. Many LGBTQ youths are still homeless. It is clear that there is much more work that needs to be done.
LGBTQ teens are unique in that they are often minorities within their own families, and they need our support. We need to teach children early about the existence and acceptance of LGBTQ people in developmentally appropriate manners.
I believe children are old enough to learn about LGBTQ people as soon as they are old enough to learn about Disney princes and princesses. They need to learn that a prince or princess may have a same-sex partner in some cases, or maybe they were born as one sex but really identify as another gender. If we do not teach about LGBTQ people when we teach about straight people, we are really implying that LGBTQ people are taboo or inferior. Teaching children young will help straight children become allies and stand up to bullying. It will also help LGBTQ youth feel more empowered to be proud of who they are.
Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles recommends teaching children young about these issues in developmentally appropriate manners.
I want to conclude with the following recommendations:
1. Teach your children that I exist. Teach your children that LGBTQ people are from all races, religions, and work in all jobs in society. We all exist and are just as important as our straight counterparts.
2. Support programs to help place LGBTQ inclusive education in schools. A few states still have “no promo homo” laws. Please help to get rid of these laws if you can.
3. Teach your children that you will love them and their friends the same no matter how they identify.
4. Teach your children to stand up to bullies.
5. Be a supportive ally for LGBTQ youth who are struggling today. LGBTQ youths who report having at least one accepting adult were 40 percent less likely to report a suicide attempt in the last year than LGBTQ youths that have no accepting adults in their lives.
Let’s end the cycle of children growing up feeling inferior and rebuilding their self-esteem as adults. Let’s reduce the bullying, feelings of isolation, and mental health issues. Let’s be the best allies we can to the next generations of LGBTQ youth. We owe it to them.
Alexis Smith is a family physician.
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