“Mom, there’s something I need you to know: I’m gay.” The revelation from her 20-year-old son shook Eva Leiva-Andino’s world. “It was pretty devastating,” she said, remembering the day. “It was not the perfect picture I had for my family – I was so afraid.”
Leiva-Andino gave in to her fears – fears about what her friends would think, fears what those at her church might think, what others would say. For eight years she and her son tip-toed on their own patches of thin ice, afraid to risk saying more. “It’s when you know the communication is not authentic or complete, I was just afraid to talk about it,” she said.
They skirted the issue for years, until finally they sat down one day to talk, really talk. Her son shared what it was like to struggle with his truth – isolated, lonely, outcast – at times with thoughts of ending his life. The power of his honesty broke through; Eva heard and understood. “It was no longer about me, it was about him,” she remembers.
Not long after the heart-to-heart with her son, a friend introduced Leivas-Andino to the YES Institute, an organization just beginning its work at that time to encourage dialogue on issues of gender and orientation for young people, their families, and the community. She recognized her calling and got on board. Today, 17 years later, Leivas-Andino is the CFO at the institute.
YES and other organizations such as The Alliance for GLBTQ (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Youth), funded by The Children’s Trust, have helped to spur awareness and acceptance of youth who voice their sexual orientation and gender identity.
“Things are better, but it’s a slow moving train. The problem is societal – the stigmas, and indirectly homophobia and transphobia. Small inroads have happened, but to make systems change much more time is needed,” said Carla Silva, director for The Alliance for GLBTQ Youth.
In 2006 The Children’s Trust funded The Alliance to conduct a first-ever assessment of the community in regards to the issue. The analysis revealed a “desperate need” for advocacy on behalf of vulnerable youth, Silva said.
The first funding from The Trust came in 2008 for a service partnership involving The Alliance. A 3-year contract followed and the organization was recently awarded a new contract for the year ahead. The Alliance is about to celebrate its 5-year anniversary of providing services, and Silva applauds the hard-earned progress.
“Organizations, individuals and families now know that there are places to go to secure resources. Switchboard knows if someone calls in to call us,” she says. She highlights the fact that the school district now includes gender identity as part of its discrimination policy as another success.
A major part of The Alliance’s education and outreach focuses on the schools. Just as in the home, life at school can be miserable for youth who are not accepted for their sexual orientation or gender identity. They often face rejection, ridicule and worse due to the reaction of their peers.
Yet while there are more protections, many youth are still not aware of them. And homelessness is a particular problem for this population. As many as 20 to 40 percent of homeless youth – one in five – identify as GLBTQ, according to Silva.
“Many kids who come to us say they don’t feel safe at home, that they don’t have a safe place to live. They may be staying on friends’ couches with no place to go or have been kicked out, but still they don’t even realize or identify themselves as homeless.”
The federal government’s effort to reduce homelessness is expected to help the situation of this most vulnerable youth population. Silva and others will be part of a homeless Point in Time youth count. Efforts get underway in August to gauge the numbers of unaccompanied homeless youth in the Miami area; an official count is planned for January 2014.
The lack of data and accurate information regarding GLBTQ youth is a particular part of the problem, Silva points out.
“We know that there are problems, but we don’t know the full extent because no one is counting and no service system is asking questions. Without having an actual count and number, communities aren’t going to want to embrace changing the system.”
Other organizations such as Pridelines Youth Services have been working for many years to raise awareness and to provide services for LGBTQ youth. The organization is the longest existing LGBTQ youth service agency in South Florida and one of the oldest in the country.
“We’re a safe space for LGBTQ youth, many of them homeless or at risk of becoming homeless,” said Victor Diaz-Herman, executive director. “We do everything we can to reunite the youth with their families if at all possible.
The agency endorses a “no-youth-gets-turned-out” policy; services and a place to stay are located for youths whether they are safeguarded at the organization’s space or a hotel room is found for the night.
Pridelines is currently working with The Alliance and Citrus Health Network to secure funding for an emergency housing program.
In mid-May, Leivas-Andino, Maeidember Guemez of the Alliance, Kathy Padilla, foster parent; and Emily Cardenas, senior communications manager for The Children’s Trust, joined WQBA Radio talk show host Humberto Cortina to tackle the issue of sexual orientation and family reactions within the Hispanic community.
“The Trust believes that all children are our children – and these youth are so vulnerable. They hide their orientation sometimes for years out of fear of embarrassing their families, or being rejected or ridiculed,” Cardenas told the radio audience.
Guemez’s emphasized the importance of The Alliance’s effort to try to change policies, to support the youth and the trust counselors in the schools.
“These youth face so many issues in their families and in their communities. What they really want to know is: Do you see me? Do you know me? They’ve speaking through that lens.”
Padilla, foster parent to a GLBTQ youth, along with other children, pointed out that these youth are at greater risk – from two to four in 10 – of attempting suicide.
The conversation highlighted the efforts of PFLAG (Parents, Friends and Family of Lesbians and Gays), which provides support groups to help reconnect families struggling with the process.
The group suggested that Hispanic families may have more trouble accepting or dealing openly with a gay child, especially because of religious influences or other social taboos, but Silva disputed the notion.
“Across the board the youth that we serve at The Alliance mirror and match the demographics of the local community. Each of the kids that come to us has such unique stories – it’s important that we don’t try to generalize our youth,” she urged.
Still she admitted that The Alliance is challenged, for questions of language among others, to reach into certain communities, such as the Haitian-American.
Families and individuals are not mandated to seek The Alliance’s help; those seeking help come of their own accord. In an effort to reach those who need its help, The Alliance has increased its connections with other systems where families are engaged – with child welfare organizations such as Our Kids and with children welfare hubs. Silva sits on a curriculum committee in an effort to make information available to every staff member.
Most of all she encouraged the need for more education, awareness, and access to services.
“There’s a perspective in the media that we’re much more liberal and there have been so many representations of openness – 12 states now recognize same-sex marriage. People think this kind of progress will translate to the day to day but it’s not necessarily so.”
“Things are better. But there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done – we just have to stay at it,” she said.
For families and youth seeking support, contact:
Denise Hueso, Lead Care Clinical Coordinator at The Alliance: (305) 899-8087
YES Institute (305) 663-7195 www.yesinstitute.org
Pridelines Youth Services (305) 571-9601 www.pridelines.org