There are real-life costs to exclusion. Just ask someone who often deals with it.
I’ll never forget an interview I did with a group of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teens just after a Texas ballot initiative to limit marriage rights to “one man, one woman.”
A high-schooler said that her community was not accepting of who she is: “I saw all the proposition signs in a row along my neighborhood street, and I’m like: Whoa, this is not the place to come out in. It’s very discouraging to see that,” she told me. She went on to talk about what it meant to grow up in a community where she could not be herself, and where she had to hide. “It can shatter the soul, I mean, really hurt someone’s self-esteem and just make them not want to live anymore.”
Fast forward to last week when the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, or HERO, was defeated. I thought about what these teens told me and worry that many more transgender or gender nonconforming teens and youths in Houston will share this experience. The effects could be daunting.
For more than a decade, I’ve studied why some LGBT teens thrive yet others struggle with risky behaviors, depression and even suicide. One strong finding that has emerged is that the very public legal and policy battles about LGBT lives can be toxic.
Hearing your identity openly questioned and debated on a regular basis undermines mental and physical health. In fact, one study after the 2006 election found that in states that passed amendments to limit marriage rights, LGB adults reported more psychological distress.
That’s part of the reason why the debates about HERO have been especially toxic for transgender people. It’s not a stretch to think LGBT teens going to school this week will have trouble focusing on school work, or that they will not feel safe in the hallways and bathrooms after hearing those messages of hostility and exclusion.
As adults we often assume that children and teens are unaware of these public and policy debates, so we don’t talk with them about it. But youths hear and see the same media and messages that adults hear, and some will act on the hostile rhetoric that they’ve heard about transgender people.
Research has shown that school-aged students do hear and talk about these issues — and those conversations matter: When students hear unsupportive messages, they feel less safe at school. But most often those conversations happen with other students — not with adults.
The reality is that youths will be thinking and talking about this. Parents, teachers and other adults will have “teachable moments” to talk with youths about the HERO debate. Regardless of personal feelings about HERO or the way people voted, adults should talk with youths about the need everyone has to feel safe and respected. The Houston Independent School District has one such document on how to talk to teens about prejudice and discrimination.
But despite all of this, there is strong research evidence that inclusive anti-discrimination ordinances, laws and policies create safe and supportive communities for everyone, especially those who have been the targets of discrimination.
It’s true that inclusive nondiscrimination and anti-bullying laws and policies are associated with safer school climates for LGBT and other minority youths. Not only are schools safer when they have inclusive policies, students in those schools score higher on academic achievement tests and report fewer risky behaviors, including suicidal behavior.
Exclusion translates to real-life costs and hardships for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths. Yet we know that inclusive public policies and laws provide an even playing field and create strong communities where all people feel safe, valued and respected. Isn’t that what we want for everyone? Apparently in Houston, the answer is “no” for the time being.
Stephen T. Russell is Priscilla Pond Flawn Regents Professor in Child Development in the College of Natural Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Houston Chronicle.
To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.
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