I think about myself at age 10 as I write this, without the words to articulate my new understandings of who I was. I think of who I am and who I was as plural because my queerness was and is not a monolith; it is an amalgamation of multiple shifting identities I hold within me and those that manifest in how I engage with the world around me.
This knowledge came to me far too late in life.
As a fat queer child, how I navigated the world and myself was complex and isolating. I did not have the representation I needed to understand myself better, nor did I have adults around me with exposure to what I was experiencing.
As I grew up, I realized that this was an experience common to hundreds of children and young people around me. Almost every LGBTQ+ person I have known has faced isolation, stigma, bullying and harassment – even within our own families. Our identities have been denied, and we have been pushed to conform.
It shouldn’t be surprising then that the mental health of LGBTQ+ children and youth is often low. This is not a result of our identities. Our mental health is put at risk by insensitivity, prejudice and oppressive structures that deny us our human rights.
One Future Collective, the organization I founded, works with young LGBTQ+ persons to develop their knowledge and advocacy skills. We provide safe spaces and mental health support. Many of the young people we work with are often faced with deep trauma. Even experiences within families leave LGBTQ+ children feeling that they are not normal – that they are not deserving of love and care.
This lack of acceptance often manifests as neglect, abuse, violence, abandonment, forced homelessness and poverty for many of us. This reduces our access to any form of care and further worsens our mental health. It starts an oppressive spiral and launches us on an eternal quest for an independence that allows us to leave abusive homes.
In the face of discrimination and marginalization in other spheres, support from family members, especially parents, can play a pivotal and transformative role in the lives of LGBTQ+ children. Sometimes, this support can be as simple as affirming children’s identity and accepting them as they are.
Providing support is an evolving process for parents and children. Oftentimes, due to widely held cultural beliefs or conflicting social norms, it may be difficult for some parents to get used to the idea that their children may live a lifestyle that is different from what they had envisioned.
For parents, this is where it becomes important to question whether this dissonance is coming out of love and concern for your children or because of your own personal discomfort. Dismissing children’s identity as a phase or something that needs to be cured can lead to children feeling rejected and add to their distress.
Parents, there are a myriad of ways in which you can support your children and build a safe harbour for them, including:
1. Learning what your child needs by creating a safe space and having a two-way dialogue with them to understand their experiences and concerns.
2. Making efforts to educate yourselves more about the unique joys and challenges that LGBTQ+ children face.
3. Seeking peer support and reaching out to communities of other parents who have LGBTQ+ children to process your experiences.
4. Advocating for LBGTQ+ issues by initiating difficult conversations with family and the community.
5. Taking a stand for your children, whether at school, in college, in a family setting, or even in a public space. It's important that they see you not only accept them in private but that you do so publicly.
Policymakers and decision makers, you can also make a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ children and young people. You can prioritize the safety and mental well-being of LGBTQ+ children and young people; you can build knowledge about LGBTQ+ identities through outreach to families, communities and in school curriculums; you can ban conversion therapies that deny our identities.
Maintaining the mental health and well-being of LGBTQ+ children and young people requires policy and infrastructure changes. But we also need parents and families who understand us, educators who accept us, and peers who respect us.
About the author:
Vandita Morarka is the founder and CEO of One Future Collective, a feminist non-profit dedicated to inclusive social justice and compassionate youth leadership. Vandita is a human rights lawyer, feminist researcher and rights-based consultant whose work has impacted over 2 million lives. The research and editing was supported by Anvita Walia, an activist, mental health practitioner, social justice educator and Senior Program Officer at One Future Collective.
Republished from On My Mind: How adolescents experience and perceive mental health around the world – a companion report to the State of the World's Children 2021.