Adolescence is a time for transformation and self-discovery — and for many, that includes exploring and understanding sexuality.
Over time, the topic of sexuality has slowly become less of a taboo subject and millions of people have been able to fully embrace their identity. However, even with the advancements made on LGBTQ rights, many teens who identify within the community still feel at odds with society.
According to a survey conducted by the Trevor Project, a nonprofit dedicated to suicide prevention for queer youth, at least 71 percent of teens who identify with the LGBTQ community report feeling “sad or hopeless for at least two weeks in the year,” and as many as 39 percent of youth “seriously considered attempting suicide.”
Many negative experiences feed these statistics. The 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found discrimination and bullying are far more likely to happen to members of the LGBTQ community than to straight cisgender people. Hate crimes against the LGBTQ community are also very common, especially against transgender individuals. In 2019, the Human Rights Campaign reported at least 27 deaths of transgender and gender nonconforming people in the U.S., most of whom were Black trans women.
Feeling like an outcast is one thing, but to face fears of bullying — even being murdered — amplifies the struggles LGBTQ teens face at a critical time of development. This is why providing resources and a sense of community is so important to helping them feel accepted by others — and perhaps more importantly, by themselves.
Revely Rothschild, a senior at Santa Fe Preparatory School, took the coronavirus pandemic-related quarantine as an opportunity to start an LGBTQ club in Santa Fe to help provide that type of camaraderie. Rothschild says the mission of the club is to “provide support and resources to local queer teens, build community and establish an active voice for change.” She says she wanted to create the club because, despite feeling that Santa Fe is “very accepting,” she observed the city lacked a youth-led group for LGBTQ teens.
One of the club’s semiweekly virtual meetings is discussion based. Recent topics have included the use of different words for specific identities, such as pansexual or bisexual; queer figures in history; and the role and responsibilities of queer artists to advocate for the community.
The second meeting each week focuses on activism and community outreach, which members plan to enhance once public health regulations relax.
Like Rothschild, Kevin Bowen, president of the Santa Fe Human Rights Alliance, also has been planning the future of LGBT community efforts after the pandemic. He says the alliance is working to reestablish its mission and “not only run Gay Pride, which we of course feel is important for the community, but [also to] do more outreach and … stay involved [from] a political standpoint.”
After the pandemic, Bowen would like to engage more with LGBTQ youth. He plans to conduct an oral history project in which queer and questioning youth could ask older generations questions about being LGBTQ — from their coming out experiences to their struggles and triumphs with spurring LGBTQ rights in a place like Santa Fe. This would be a continuation of a project the group already has in the works: a timeline that spans from 1870 to 2020 and documents the history of the LGBTQ community in New Mexico.
The Santa Fe Human Rights Alliance also hopes to host monthly meetings at Santa Fe Public Library sites and to initiate LGBTQ groups at Santa Fe High School and Capital High School.
While Bowen says he thinks “Santa Fe is quite accepting, it’s been a great place for the [LGBTQ] community,” he adds that “everyone can always do better. We think we can do better by expanding our services.”
The New Mexico Genders and Sexualities Alliance Network also is working to increase its LGBTQ teen outreach.
The organization was founded in 2005 because of a desire “to help advocate to make the school environments feel safer and more affirming for the young folks,” says Karen Dugas, the network’s program manager. Currently, there are at least 90 GSA clubs across New Mexico that the network supports, and several network programs offer overnight camps with specific focuses. Amid the pandemic, these have been offered via regular virtual meetings.
Luke Aughenbaugh, 21, is part of the youth counsel at the New Mexico Genders and Sexualities Alliance Network and says the shift online was especially difficult because “a lot of the youth around New Mexico who do depend on the network do depend on the in-person [offerings] as their safety net … and [a place] to be who they are without any fear of judgment.”
One positive of shifting online, however, is that the organization has reached LGBTQ youth in more rural areas, Dugas says. Moving forward, she says, she hopes to continue to bolster the organization’s online presence, to cast a wider net to teens in need. In addition, she’s working with the organization to “address systemic oppression like racism and white supremacy, the patriarchy and transmisogyny,” as well as the intersection of transphobia and misogyny.
A big focus for LGBTQ groups is to teach self-care and how to interact positively with the community. Beyond providing a safe space, it’s critical that youth feel empowered in their own skin outside of these networks as well.
Hendrix Olson, program coordinator for the New Mexico Genders and Sexualities Alliance Network, says one of the organization’s main missions is working “to increase resiliency, positive identity, development, self-efficacy, community mutual aid, mental health and positive coping skills, prevent suicidal thoughts and behaviors, problematic substance use, bullying and school push out.”
Taliyah Cintron, a sophomore at Santa Fe High, says it’s important LGBTQ teens not only feel supported by other LGBTQ kids but by their straight peers as well. As a straight ally to the LGBTQ community, Cintron says she feels responsible to voice concerns revolving LGBTQ issues.
“From a young age, my parents taught me to treat everyone from any background with respect and dignity,” she says. “Seeing the injustices today taken upon [people of color] and LGBT people, I feel obligated to speak up and share what I’ve been taught.”
Cintron identifies key skills to practice as an ally, saying it’s “not just about accepting; it is about supporting your LGBT friends throughout all of the good and bad things that may come with their life.” Part of this is recognizing that allyship is not being a savior.
“You are not a straight person saving your LGBT friends; you are just another person giving your support, working towards an equal future,” she says.
Dugas says that although 2020 has presented issues that have hit people in marginalized communities particularly hard, it’s allies like Cintron and activists working to stir change who give her hope.
“While there are many challenges that our community faces, we have such a wealth of strength it makes my heart swell,” she says.