Youth Take on Violence, Suicides



Nearly 100 LGBT youth and their allies joined with elected officials on the steps of City Hall on October 21 to speak out against recent suicides and anti-gay attacks in the city and nationwide, and to stress the pressing need for effective solutions.

Members of FIERCE, a youth-led organization for queer young people of color, accepted a Mayoral Proclamation naming October LGBTQ Youth Empowerment Month. The group’s aim was to raise awareness about safety and about its struggle to open a 24-hour drop-in center in the West Village. Organizer John Blasco said the tragedies affecting gay youth that had gotten such widespread media attention recently are issues FIERCE has long worked on. “We know that these suicides happen on an everyday basis, and we want to highlight and make visible the voices of LGBTQ youth and show the work they are doing to change their society,” he said.

Organizer Ellen “Manny” Vaz emphasized the need for gay youth to join forces with city leaders in tackling underlying problems, saying, “Services and advocacy are really important, but we know there are a wide range of issues these youth deal with on a daily basis… and they need to be involved in creating solutions to these problems.”

Michelle Riddle, a homeless transwoman, agreed, saying, “We really don’t have that many resources. I am a homeless teen, and I spend my day running around town trying to access these services, from Williamsburg to 123rd Street. We don’t have a safe haven, so when we go down to the West Village, that’s where we feel safe, where we call home. We are trying to get a 24-hour youth center within the West Village. If we get the help of elected officials to build that, it will really show us that LGBT youth do have a say in what goes on.”

Veronica Tirado, a FIERCE member who led her fellow youth in chants, said, “Part of the reason we are here today is to continue the dialogue, to continue to work with elected officials to create these safe spaces.” Tirado emphasized FIERCE’s ties to other community-based organizations, explaining the group shares space in Chelsea with the Audre Lorde Project, a community center for LGBT people of color begun in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene; Queers for Economic Justice; and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, which advocates for the transgender community. As well, she said, FIERCE works closely with a broad range of groups, from the Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project to Gays and Lesbians of Bushwick Empowered (GLOBE), and has representation on the Mayoral Commission for LGBTQ Runaway and Homeless Youth.

Elected officials at the press conference included Jackson Heights City Councilman Daniel Dromm, a former public schoolteacher and longtime advocate for gay youth. “For the last 19 years we’ve been fighting for our youth to get the message out that gay is good, gay is great, I wouldn’t want to be anything else than gay,” said Dromm, who added, “That youth are still dealing with these issues of suicides and hate crimes is very heavy. Just growing up is a difficult thing to do as you go through your teens, but to have these extra added burdens makes it even more difficult, and that’s why we have to come out as LGBT people. LGBT youth are our youth, too, and we need to speak out for them.”

Brooklyn Councilman Lew Fidler heads up the Council’s Youth Services Committee as well as the Mayor’s Commission for LGBTQ Runaway and Homeless Youth. He told the City Hall crowd, “It’s important to empower all of our young people –– particularly those who need shelter and a safe environment, that have been targets of hate –– that society is with them, not against them. Society has got to end the hate and embrace our children, whoever they are and wherever they come from.”

Carl Siciliano, the founder and executive director of the Ali Forney Center, which provides housing and services to LGBT homeless youth, said that the most significant thing about the recent anti-gay bias crimes and the suicides was the fact that the media and the LGBT community itself were finally paying some attention.

“Recently, there were six suicides that made the press,” Siciliano said, “but if you look at statistics of how many LGBT youth that are committing suicide every year in our country, it’s over 1,000. These are kids that have been bullied, hurt, tormented in silence and oblivion… I don’t think we can emphasize strongly enough what a tragedy homophobia is to our youth.”

Siciliano noted that this homophobia often starts at home, with about 50 percent of gay teens experiencing family rejection, with as many as one quarter forced to leave their homes. “There are dimensions to this tragedy that are not being recognized,” he said, adding that the LGBT community usually puts its primary focuses on adult issues, such as marriage equality. “We have to join together and fight to make sure that our tax dollars as gay adults are going to support our youth,” Siciliano said.

One after another, the LGBT teens who spoke emphasized that the battle against homophobia could only be won if youth leaders teamed up with the community at large to make schools and communities safer. “I think elected officials, leaders, community groups, and schools need to come together and tell everyone about their commitment to creating safe space in and outside of schools,” said Blasco. “We know that funding for LGBTQ spaces are being cut on an everyday basis, and we want to make a commitment to restoring funding for LGBTQ youth services.”

Tirado said that in addition to official proclamations, “There definitely is a lot more that can be done for LGBT youth, especially in schools, because there really isn’t any kind of curriculum teaching tolerance and respect in the schools, and that’s where a lot of the issues start. We learn from society, the streets, the harassment, intolerance, homophobia, and transphobia. We need curriculum in schools teaching youth how to be with each other.”

Dromm — who came out in his job as a Queens schoolteacher in 1992 in response to the backlash against the proposed Children of the Rainbow Curriculum aimed at teaching tolerance –– agreed that further efforts needed to be made in the schools.

“We do have the anti-bullying curriculum, but it’s just not enough,” he said. “We need to go beyond that, to make sure LGBT heroes are infused into history books, integrated into the overall curriculum. The accomplishments and contributions by LGBT people have been broad throughout history, and that’s not even acknowledged. “