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    Making a Difference for Queer Youth: Marriage Equality, Lil Nas X, and a First Binder

    By John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney–

    A few years ago, a remarkable study conducted by researchers from the prestigious Johns Hopkins and Harvard schools of public health revealed the profoundly positive impact that marriage equality appears to have on the mental health and well-being of LGBTQ youth. The study found that over 134,000 fewer adolescents attempted suicide annually in states that adopted marriage equality from 2004 to the beginning of 2015, while states that rejected equality saw no similar decrease.

    In marriage equality states, the rate of attempted suicide of lesbian, gay, and bisexual students dropped a stunning 14%. The study also found that reductions in suicide attempts were sustained over time with lower rates remaining two years after legalization. Significantly, the reduction in suicide attempts did not occur in the years leading up to the legal victory, but only after marriage equality actually passed.

    The implication of the data seems clear: Marriage equality saves lives. Equality and dignity under the law matter not just to the legal rights of same-sex couples and their children, but to the core sense of safety, happiness, and satisfaction with life of LGBTQ youth. The study’s lead author, Julia Raifman, observed, “These are high school students so they aren’t getting married any time soon, for the most part”; however, “[t]here may be something about having equal rights—even if they have no immediate plans to take advantage of them—that makes students feel less stigmatized and more hopeful for the future.” 

    Data released by The Trevor Project in 2021 and 2022 further underscores the importance of legal equality, respect, and acceptance to the well-being of queer youth. Tragically, however, this is because the data lay bare the devastating effect of the recent wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation. Persistent right-wing political attacks on LGBTQ youth, particularly transgender and nonbinary adolescents, have not only undermined students’ access to inclusive education and affirming medical care, but also have had a deleterious impact on their emotional health and sense of self-worth.

    Overall, 45% of LGBTQ youth aged 13–24 considered suicide and 14% attempted it, according to data The Trevor Project collected from September to December 2021. Rates appeared highest for transgender, non-binary, queer, questioning, and pansexual youth. Further, 36% of queer youth reported that they had been physically threatened or harmed based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Those who had were nearly three times more likely to attempt suicide that those who had not.

    The impact of recent political attacks and legislation was unmistakable. A staggering 94% of queer youth stated “that recent politics negatively impacted their mental health,” according to data collected in September–December 2020 and released in 2021. Data from both 2020 and 2021 showed that well over 70% of LGBTQ young people had experienced discrimination, and those who had were also significantly more likely to attempt suicide than those who had not.

    The 2021 data revealed that 93% of trans and nonbinary youth feared being denied access to gender-affirming medical care, 91% feared access to appropriate bathrooms, and 83% worried about being prohibited from playing sports. Trans and nonbinary youth who were not legally able to change legal documents were over twice as likely to attempt suicide than those who had actually done so, as well as being higher than those who were planning to change documents but had not yet, according to the 2020 data.

    The importance of supportive schools, which multiple legislative efforts seek to undermine, was also evident. In 2021, 55% of LGBTQ youth reported school as an affirming place, while only 37% reported the same of their families, with transgender youth reporting slightly lower numbers on each. Clearly, schools can provide a refuge to at risk queer students. Suicide attempts were higher for students who lacked affirming spaces, especially affirming families.

    Vicious anti-trans social media campaigns, such as the recent outrageous attack on a Boston children’s hospital, may also have a detrimental effect of LGBTQ young people. While the 2020 data showed that queer youth found LGBTIQ online spaces to be significantly more affirming than either school or home and 96% said that social media had a positive impact on their well-being, 88% also reported that social media had a negative impact on their lives.

    However, causes for hope may be found amidst all this disturbing data. Queer youth reported that “protective laws” and “victories for LGBTIQ rights,” along with everything from Lil Nas X and BTS to wearing a first binder to falling in love, were sources of joy for them. And 62% of LGBTIQ young people reported that they found their overall communities to be either very or somewhat accepting in 2021 data. “Seeing so much pride in others from being LGBTQ,” “connection to others who are LGBTQ,” and merely “seeing rainbow flags and stickers in public” make a difference, according to the youth.

    We know what to do to support queer youth, and we must keep on doing it. Their lives depend on it.

    John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, together for over three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. Their leadership in the grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA contributed in 2015 to making same-sex marriage legal nationwide.

    Published on August 25, 2022