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LGBTQ youth and homelessness: We can all make a difference

Updated Thursday, 8th October 2020

While so much progress has been made regarding the rights of the LGBTQ community, it might come as a surprise that young people in this community are at considerable risk of becoming homeless. Dr Mathijs Lucassen explores this issue and how we can overcome it.

We have experienced rapid social progress in terms of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender/trans and queer (LGBTQ) people including, for example, marriage equality in the United Kingdom (UK) and in many other Western countries. It would therefore be logical to assume that life has got considerably better for all LGBTQ individuals. Especially when considering that this social progress has been underscored by legislative changes, which means that sexual orientation and gender reassignment are protected characteristics in the Equality Act 2010. This means that it is unlawful to discriminate against a person because of their sexuality, whether they are lesbian, gay, bisexual (or heterosexual) and a person cannot be discriminated against because they are transgender. But despite this social progress, LGBTQ youth often still experience distressing bullying and victimization.

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In fact, the UK’s nationally representative longitudinal Millennium Cohort Study of almost 10,000 14-year olds reported that sexual minority (e.g. lesbian, gay and bisexual) adolescents had twice the odds of being verbally and physically assaulted in the past 12 months compared to their heterosexual peers. The statistics in terms of trans people are even more sobering, with the UK’s LGBTQ charity, Stonewall, concluding “Hate crime and discrimination against trans people, on our streets, in our hospitals, in workplaces and at universities, is widespread” (p. 3). Unfortunately, abuse and hostility towards LGBTQ youth also occurs in the home, in an environment where all young people should feel safe and cared for. The mistreatment these LGBTQ youth frequently experience then understandably negatively impacts on their wellbeing, particularly their mental health.

LGBTQ youth cannot easily leave toxic social environments, including a challenging school and/or home context, due to for instance their financial dependence on their families. Although a disproportionately large percentage of LGBTQ youth do ‘run away’ from home, as evidence by the population-based research that has established that LGBTQ youth are at a significantly higher risk of homelessness (see for example Morton and colleagues’ 2018 paper). A recent estimate provided in the prestigious journal, Pediatrics, reported that between 20 and 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ (when LGBTQ youth make up approximately 4 to 10% of the overall adolescent population).

Based on the research literature, these ‘runaway’ or ‘thrown away’ LGBTQ youth are thought to become homeless for three key reasons, specifically:

  • The LGBTQ youth ‘selects’ to run away from home because they are rejected by their family due to their sexual orientation and/or gender identity (i.e. their family’s acceptance of them is conditional on the young person being exclusively heterosexual and cisgender/not transgender);
  • The LGBTQ young person is actively forced out of their home because of their sexuality or gender identity; and/or,
  • The LGBTQ youth’s homelessness is attributed to escaping the physical, sexual, and/or verbal abuse they experience at home.

Clearly more can be done to develop evidence-informed
interventions and appropriate supports for LGBTQ young
people that are homeless (or at risk of becoming homeless). 

Morton and colleagues have recently reviewed studies to date which have sought to address youth homelessness in their paper Interventions for youth homelessness: A systematic review of effectiveness studies. After checking almost 3,000 studies in the field, they concluded in relation to LGBTQ youth that there was an “especially notable absence of evidence on interventions to prevent homelessness among LGBTQ youth” (p. 10). This is despite the fact that these youth are at a substantially higher risk of homelessness in comparison to their non-LGBTQ peers. So, this begs the question: what can be done to help address the issue of LGBTQ youth homelessness?

Clearly more can be done to develop evidence-informed interventions and appropriate supports for LGBTQ young people that are homeless (or at risk of becoming homeless). Those working with young people can also better assist LGBTQ youth and their families, particularly around the process of ‘coming out’ regarding their sexuality and/or gender identity, including when a young person is gender non-binary. But what we can all do is to strive towards creating a world where no child is rejected or thought of as lesser because they are LGBTQ, which can include challenging homo-, bi- and trans-phobia when we are confronted by this in our day-to-day lives. A ‘harmless expression’ to denote something as feeble or useless, such as ‘that’s so gay’ – well what message does that send to young people and society at large? LGBTQ youth homelessness is an on-going and complex issue, but we can all still make a difference.

 

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