I came to the realization about my sexuality when I was in middle school, but I didn’t have the courage to come out and tell anyone about it at the time. Instead, I covered my true self up and pretended to be someone that I was not. Hiding my true self was the most painful experience that I’ve been through, but I was terrified to be found out. And so, I continued to force myself to “fit in” — act, dress, and behave in a certain way — to be as “normal” as possible in the eyes of friends, family, and society at large. This is perhaps the most familiar recount of many LGBTQ+ individuals. For those of us who struggled with acceptance, staying in the closet meant not being judged, teased, bullied, or hated for who we really are.
In the struggle for equality, acceptance is not only receiving it from others, but also coming to terms with one’s own identity and making peace with it. The latter is made easier as societal acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community increases. At the time of my coming out, messages about the LGTBQ+ community were far from positive, and for a young person hearing these messages while navigating his identity and the normal growing pains of being a teenager, all while having no one experiencing the same thing to turn to, it was a painful journey.
In recent years, the U.S. has hit several significant milestones in the fight for equality, and this has brought major improvements in the lives of many LGBTQ+ people and how they are viewed in our society. Yet, despite this progress, stigma, negative messaging, and violence toward the LGTBQ+ community remain. In a 2012 Human Rights Campaign survey, 92 percent of LGBT teens had heard negative messages about being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender while nearly half of LGBT youth (47 percent) said they do not “fit in.” Negative messages play a huge role not only in diminishing the self esteem of LGBTQ+ individuals but also in perpetuating prejudice, rejection, and bullying. This puts people, particularly young teens, in physical and emotional danger. According to a CDC report that looked into the 2015 national Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), LGBT youth are put at an increased risk of violence, including bullying, teasing, harassment, and physical assault due to negative attitudes against them.
Moreover, the problem of discrimination is far worse for LGBTQ+ people of color in the U.S. Particularly, transgender people of color experience devastating levels of discrimination in the country. Meanwhile, at a global level, public opinion on the acceptance of homosexuality remains divided for political and religious reasons, leaving the community much more vulnerable to discrimination and violence. These are indications that much remains to be done to achieve equality for the LGBTQ+ community, both in the U.S. and globally.
Mental Health and the LGBTQ+ Community
The physical and emotional challenges of coming out and living as LGBTQ+ has challenges. However, this is even more complex for LGBTQ+ youth who are often dependent on parents for care and well-being and are in their critical development and identity stages. As a result, LGBTQ+ youth are often prone to developmental health illnesses, such as stress, anxiety, depression, or sucide. In fact, studies show that young LGBTQ people have sucidal attempts three times higher than hetrosexual peers. Young people with high levels of family rejection are also found to be eight times more likely to report having attempted sucide, nearly six times more likely to report high levels of depression, and more than three times likely to use drugs or have unprotected sex.
Growing up, I did not have the support of people around me to help me feel confident in who I was. I led a very isolated life, often describing it as though I were living in a box inside of a box. Eventually, I drifted apart from everyone and found a way of coping with my loneliness and sadness in alcohol and drugs, as early as my young teens, and eventually became an addict. Sadly, many LGBTQ+ teens often resort to using drugs and alcohol to numb themselves of the stigma, harassment, and rejection they face in their lives everyday. Studies show that LGBTQ+ teens are twice as likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol.
Human Connection is Key
It wasn’t until I was in college that I started to find support, meet gay people like me, and later joined a support group to recover from my addiction. At the meetings, people listened and helped me find my own voice, which was liberating and empowering. There, I was able to connect with people of similar experiences who I felt understood me and wouldn’t pass judgment. This was central to my recovery. The human connection and empathy I received from these groups later became my inspiration to start HearMe.
Human connection is important in deepening our relations with others. It embodies the commitment of people to establish relations with others by paying attention and putting oneself in the place of others. This is the driving force for empathy — the ability to listen, understand, and share the feelings of others. As human connections and empathy are stronger, so are our ability to empower ourselves and others.
In HearMe’s channels, including the LGBTQ+ Identity channel, we work to create human connection through empathetic listening. Our innovative approach — providing human connection through anonymous chat — has helped our users to be able to reach out to listeners without fear and judgement. I believe that such initiatives are imperative to address the concerns of many LGBTQ+ youth and provide them a safe space to be heard, accepted, and feel empowered. As we celebrate Pride Month, it is my hope that we will have many more milestones in the future where inclusivity and empathy preside over stigma and discrimination, and love triumphs over hate.