Abuse and Homelessness

In the National Lesbian Health Care Survey, lesbians who had been sexually abused, sexually assaulted, or victimized reported significantly more depression and alcohol abuse than lesbians who did not report these experiences (Descamps et al., submitted for publication). Other studies show victims of child sexual abuse are at increased risk for substance abuse (Dimock, 1988; Zierler et al., 1991), suicide (Briere et al., 1988), running away from home (Briere et al., 1988), and HIV infection (Bartholow et al., 1994; Zierler et al., 1991).

Homelessness is a particular concern for LGBT youth, because many teens may run away as a result of harassment and abuse from family members or peers who disapprove of their sexual identity. Still others may be thrown out of the home when their parents learn they are gay. Statistics are not available on the actual percentage of street youth who may be lesbian or gay, but youth service providers agree the percentage is very high, and reports from various studies show ranges from 20 percent to 40 percent (Kruks, 1991; Los Angeles County Task Force, 1988; Seattle Commission on Children and Youth, 1988; Stricof et al., 1991). Homeless youth are at high risk for exploitation. Without an education or job skills, they may become involved with survival sex (exchanging sex for food, drugs, or shelter), drug dealing, or other illicit activities (Clatts & Davis, 1999).

Like their heterosexual peers, LGBT homeless and runaway youth have many health and social problems, often as a result of abuse and neglect. These include serious substance abuse and mental health problems, being at high risk for suicide, sexually transmitted diseases (including being at high risk for HIV/AIDS), pregnancy, and many chronic health problems (Hoffman, Futterman & Myerson, 1999).

LGBT youth are at high risk for antigay violence such as physical attacks, verbal and physical abuse, and harassment (D’Augelli & Dark, 1995; Dean, Wu & Martin, 1992). Youth of color and those who are openly or stereotypically gay are more likely to be victimized, and anecdotal reports suggest that transgender youth may be at greatest risk. Antigay attacks heighten an adolescent’s feelings of vulnerability, often intensify a young person’s own inner conflict with his or her sexual identity, and may cause the youth and others to perceive the attacks as a punishment for being gay. Lesbians who are victims of hate crimes report significantly higher levels of stress, depression, and alcohol and drug abuse than those who were not victimized (Descamps et al., submitted for publication).

Ironically, while coming out to peers and adults may reinforce adolescents’ feelings of comfort about their sexual identity, it greatly increases their risk for violence and harassment, even by their families (D’Augelli, Hershberger & Pilkington, 1998).