From homelessness and isolation to bullying and substance abuse, Orlando's LGBT+ youths are invisible casualties of a society in transition. The Zebra Coalition®, whose mission is "supporting lives of a different stripe," is leading Orlando by example.
How did you get involved with the the Zebra Coalition®?
In 2010, I was overseas working for a Fortune 500 company. During my business travels I came across many articles and statistics on LGBT youth: gay youth are four times as likely to have attempted suicide; more than 50 percent of transgender youth have had at least one suicide attempt; 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT; LGBT youth are two times more likely than their peers to be assaulted at school. I was horrified as I read these numbers. How could I be so unaware, so ignorant to the scope of these issues?
The exposure to those alarming numbers angered me. I began reading more and as I was introduced to these real-life scenarios, my frustration turned into a goal to do something about it and get involved to help those that need our help most: our LGBT youth. Little did I know at the time that this new commitment would lead to a journey that would change my life completely.
Leaving the corporate world for a non-profit must have been quite a leap of faith. What were your initial challenges and what kept you going?
I had minimal experience working with youth, my background was not in mental health counseling, nor did I know anything about social work. All I had to assist me on this new mission was the anger and frustration that ignited this new passion to help our community’s LGBT youth. I wasn't going to let lack of experience stand in my way.
As my journey began, I quickly learned that statistics don’t adequately express what these youth face. The suffering; the psychological trauma of being rejected by family and friends; the pain from sexual and physical abuse; the hunger and chronic sleep deprivation from living on the streets are things these young people are dealing with daily.
I saw how these vulnerable kids are placed in harm’s way. My anger intensified as I realized that these LGBT kids were being completely failed by their families, the adults in their lives, and our overall community. But I was most frustrated with the lack of awareness of and response from the broader LGBT community. If LGBT organizations--donors and political leaders--did not demand protection for these kids, then who else would possibly advocate for them?
You mentioned some of these kids have been completely failed by their families. Why is family acceptance so important?
At Zebra Coalition® we hear horrifying stories from the LGBT youth of violence and rejection from their families simply because of who they are. Family acceptance has a profound influence on the lives of LGBT youth. An LGBT young person whose family does not accept them are at a significantly greater risk for suicide, depression, substance abuse, and homelessness.
Why is the Zebra Coalition so needed in Orlando?
In Central Florida, homeless shelters do not have the protocols or the staﬀ in place to safely take in these young people, unless they are with an adult. It is extremely diﬃcult for any young people, of any age, who are openly LGBT+ to ﬁnd emergency or long-term shelter. The Zebra Coalition® is the only organization in Central Florida that can shelter, assess, and oﬀer resources to homeless LGBT+ youth.
In addition to the immediate services you provide to the youth, what's the Zebra Coalition's role in creating awareness of these issues?
We are working with various agencies, schools, and organizations to provide prevention education and cultural competency on LGBT+ youth. Our hope is that by providing this curriculum, our community will become a safer and more welcoming place for these young people. Where we really want to do some work is in faith-based communities. There needs to be deeper dialogue on equality and acceptance for LGBT+ youth so that we can build a diverse faith-based support system for our community’s youth.
I would like to see Zebra Coalition® be a national model for how communities come together to care for and serve LGBT+ youth. Community partnerships have been key in our success and I truly believe that collaboration is the only way to create and drive change.