Tracy Morgan is rightly facing a storm of criticism for a number of hostile statements he made against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in a recent comedy show in Nashville. Particularly alarming was his statement that, if his son were gay, he would stab him to death with a knife. Obviously we must condemn what Morgan has said, as well as make clear that there must be appropriate consequences for promoting violence against a child for being gay. However, we are mistaken if we think this is just about Tracy Morgan. Tragically, from my vantage point of working with thousands of LGBT youths who have experienced family rejection, Tracy Morgan made a joke out of an everyday reality we face: rejection and hostility towards LGBT youth that is shared by far too many parents in our society.
I firmly believe those of us who care about these kids do have a choice in this moment: do whatever we can to ensure that Tracy Morgan understands the impact of his words, but also, while we have national attention focused on these comments that we put a face on this under-discussed issue and get the public to understand the tragic scope of this problem.
I have heard too many LGBT youths tell horrifying stories of violent abuse and rejection from their parents. The teenage boy from upstate New York, who, when his father learned he was gay, he beat him to a pulp, then threw him out of the house and told him that if he tried to come back, he would kill his son and bury him in the backyard. Or the boy from Florida whose father put a gun to his head and said "You are no longer my son. Leave the house now." The 17-year-old transgender child whose mother attacked him when she learned of his male identity, ripping out a piece of his scalp, and screaming homophobic abuse as her child fled. Or the 15-year-old boy who came out to his family at a picnic in rural Delaware. His father, a Christian minister, jumped on him and tried to strangle him. That evening he gathered his belongings into a few garbage bags and banished his son from his home. Or the family that drove their daughter out into the backwoods of New Jersey and tossed her from the car for being a lesbian. This is clearly not something to joke about.
Research now documents the terrible scope of this crisis. Approximately 50% of LGBT youth whose sexual orientations and gender identities become known to their families experience some degree of family rejection. A recent report published by the Center for American Progress estimates that there are over 100,000 homeless LGBT youth on the streets of our nation, and that LGBT youth make up to 40% of our nation's homeless youth population.
Nine years ago, I founded the Ali Forney Center, the largest organization in the United States dedicated to homeless LGBT youth. I have seen the terrible effects of parental homophobia on youth firsthand. Thousands of hurt, abandoned youths have flocked to us for the housing and support we offer. 75% report to us that they were abused and assaulted in their homes for being LGBT. They come to us feeling profoundly hopeless and unloved. The effect of being rejected by their families is traumatic and devastating. A recent study documented that LGBT youths who are rejected by their families are eight and a half times more likely to commit suicide than those whose families accept them. At the Ali Forney Center, we have to be on constantly on the look-out for signs of suicide ideation and have hospitalized over 50 youth who were acutely suicidal.
Research coming from the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University documents the profound influence that family acceptance plays in the lives of LGBT youths. While documenting that LGBT youths whose families do not accept them are at significantly greater risk for suicide, depression, substance abuse and homelessness, their research also reveals the protective impact of accepting parents on the safety and emotional health of their LGBT youth. One of the most hopeful aspects of their research is the finding that, when parents are presented with information about the terrible harms that befall youths who are rejected, it makes them less likely to reject their own children.
If Tracy Morgan is truly sorry for what he has done, then he should make the effort to learn the damage that is caused by homophobic parents and help to educate others about the terrible harm caused by parental rejection. He heard the crowd cheering him on. What if one of them has an LGBT child? I would advocate that his employer, NBC, join in this effort. Their power to reach millions is obvious. There is no more valuable effort that can be done for LGBT youth than to work to help them be loved and protected in their own homes.
Carl Siciliano is the Executive Director of the Ali Forney Center in New York, NY. For more information go to www.aliforneycenter.org.