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Giving Hope to North Dakota Queer Youth

News | January 19th, 2022

By Faye Seidler

fayeseidler@gmail.com

The queer youth in North Dakota continue to be failed by our state and experience disproportionately worse outcomes related to bullying, homelessness, mental health, and suicide.

There is hope so long that we as a community can come together and work towards making a difference in these youth’s lives. When queer youth have one person who accepts them, supports them, and loves them unconditionally, then suicide attempts drop by 40%, according to research by the Trevor Project.

The problems our queer youth face are systemic and can feel overwhelming, but they are manageable. We do have the tools to solve these problems and keep our queer youth safe. We can give them hope, we can see smiles on their faces, and we have the power to give them a better future than they have today. What we need is individual people to step up in any way they can.

Before we get into that, it is important to understand the problem. In 2018, I wrote the article “North Dakota is Failing Our Queer Youth”. This article looked over the Youth Risk Behavior Survey that showed that 61% of our queer youth thought about suicide and 33% attempted it. Further, 84% of these youth were not turning to adults when feeling sad, empty, hopeless, angry, or anxious. This means these kids were largely suffering in silence. They were being mistreated, discriminated against, felt unsafe, were bullied, and did not trust that adults could make their life better.

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“A QUEER KID LIVING IN A RURAL TOWN DOESN'T NEED SOME STATE LEADER TALKING ABOUT INCLUSION. THEY NEED SOMEONE IN THEIR LIFE WHO WILL LOVE THEM. SOMEONE WHO WILL TELL THEM IT'S OKAY TO EXPLORE THEIR IDENTITY."

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When I wrote this article, it was intended as a call to action. It was years of work honed into a single point of focus. It was everything I had to get people to care. When I wrote it, I also wrote about the efforts I went through to get queer youth support and the discouraging response from school leaders at the time. I felt that if people simply knew how bad it really was for these kids, that we would talk about it. That the only problem was that the issues were invisible. That once we realized the struggle, we would rush to find meaningful solutions.

As the months went on after publishing the article online, there was no outcry. When it was published in the paper, it was buried under the lead story featuring drag queens. When I tried to organize around it everyone seemed busy with other things. When I brought it up to human rights leaders the conversation turned into how difficult it was for religious leaders to talk about queer issues because it could mean losing donations. With nobody left to talk to, with my throat scarred from screaming, there was nothing more I could do but weep.

It took me a year to recover from this, but I took every lesson I learned to heart. People needed more than data, they needed the tools to create change. I worked with the Community Uplift Program to write and get approval for a grant to do research into school policy from the Consensus Council. This project involved communicating with every school district across North Dakota and learning what policies they had relating to LGBTQ+ Youth.

If you contact the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction (ND DPI) to ask them questions related to school policy, they will tell you North Dakota is all about local control. Each district is more or less in charge of which policies they adopt and enforce. The ND DPI and no other state organization, to my knowledge, keeps track of these policies. If one wanted to know what school districts had policies about transgender students, then there are about 200 phone calls to make. This means if someone had a transgender child they wanted to make sure would not be harassed, they will be flying completely blind while trying to keep their child safe.

Policy is extremely important, because it sets the tone for a school. Research conducted by GLSEN’s 2019 School Climate Survey showed outcomes of students compared to the policy of the schools they attended. There was a direct relationship between inclusive policy and student outcomes related to mental health, grades, attendance, and social belonging. This, conversely, means that schools without inclusive policies are more likely to have hostile climates.

Research into school policy was codified into the ND LGBTQ+ School Climate Report that individuals can access here:www.communityupliftprogram.org. What this report adds is a comprehensive understanding of how our current inaction and lack of policy is creating this landscape. It is not a mystery why these students struggle so much with mental health or suicidal thoughts. It is in fact the likely outcome of the system we currently have. We are responsible for these outcomes and we can change them.

This report isn’t simply data on outcomes. It also features material ways to improve. It includes state policy recommendations, education around LGBTQ+ issues, and ways for individuals to get meaningfully engaged at every level. The report features resources for parents and youth, tools for teachers, and data-driven policy recommendations for administrators.

The main thing to understand is that we must all be part of this change or it won’t happen. A queer kid living in a rural town doesn’t need some state leader talking about inclusion. They need someone in their life, who will love them. Someone who will tell them it’s okay to explore their identity. That they won’t get kicked out or beaten if they do. This charge has to be taken up by people all over this state, because our state is not safe.

North Dakota came dead last in a state safety index rating for LGBTQ+ individuals. In our state we’ve failed to pass LGBTQ+ anti-discrimination legislation for over a decade. Last year we introduced an anti-trans sports bill that effortlessly passed both our house and senate, ignoring expert testimony from schools and healthcare organizations, before being vetoed by our governor because of the financial risk it posed to the state.

In 2021, School Board Representative Jennifer Benson, during a recorded board meeting, talked about the dangers of transgender youth and hormone therapy. In 2022, Representative Rick Becker wrote to the Dickinson Press ridiculing the affirming practice of identifying pronouns, saying “I’m supposed to care. I’m supposed to think a certain way, act a certain way, speak a certain way. But I don’t care.”

Also in 2022, the University of North Dakota proposed a gender-inclusive anti-bullying and harassment policy that was publicly opposed by the Mayor of Grand Forks, Brandon Bochenski. Who called such a policy “Compelling speech and forcing an ideology on our students, our children, and our community is abhorrent.” This Facebook post garnered hundreds of comments, likes, loves, and shares, including an endorsement by Senator Janne Mydral and a comment by Senator Scott Meyer, who welcomed “healthy debate.”

The “healthy debate” we saw was referring to the LGBTQ+ inclusive policy as evil, disturbing, depraved, messed up, sick, and indoctrination. We got so many folks attempting to cancel UND and put social and political pressure on the institution for daring to try to make the university safer for trans people by aligning with state and federal law. What these events have in common is they are indicative of our hostile climate, where queer human rights can be the subject of debate and hundreds of people can cheer that on.

So many of our queer kids are on the edge, waiting for some event to give them hope or something to finally push them over. Every time these topics come up parents talk around the dinner table about these events with language they don't use online or in respectable crowds. Most queer adults in this state have a story about the negative messages they’ve heard from their parents. Messages like gay people should be shot or trans people are delusional freaks.

This is language parents use in front of their kid, because they assume their kid isn’t queer. And the kids that hear those messages, the kids who are questioning their identity, don’t come away thinking their parents have reasonable positions on top level policy. They come away thinking that their parents would hate them, beat them, or kick them out if they were ever honest about their identity. Some of these kids are right. These youths get depressed, anxious, suicidal, and we end up losing them without the parent ever knowing what’s going on. With 16% of generation Z identifying somewhere in the LGBTQ+ community, this is significantly more likely than most people realize.

When I wrote the 2018 article on queer outcomes in this state, it was just months after we lost a trans youth to suicide in such a graphic way that it made national news. As I write this in 2022, it is just months after we lost a trans youth to suicide that was so heart breaking it made national news. There are dozens more that we never hear about. The top leaders in our state don’t respond to this. They show up to vote against queer people or chill every effort possible to keep them safe. I really appreciate Representative Rick Becker’s statement that summarizes this entire issue so perfectly, “I don’t care.”

Suicide prevention for queer individuals will not happen through our state government and our leaders have made that extremely clear. This change needs to come at the community level and the first thing to do is make sure each person lets the youth in their life know that they are a safe person to talk to about LGBTQ+ identity. These kids aren’t turning to adults right now when they have problems or are dealing with thoughts of self harm or suicide. If they don’t know it’s safe to reach out, they won’t.

If it is too awkward to start that conversation, talk about famous LGBTQ+ individuals in casual conversation. If a kid is into Minecraft, find a queer Minecraft streamer and ask if the kid knows about them. Talk about movies featuring queer people in positive ways. Talking about queer issues will not make someone LGBTQ+, it will only give the kids who are queer the tools to communicate the things they are going through. Ultimately it doesn’t even matter how they end up identifying, what matters is that kids know they will have their parent’s support regardless. That the love really is unconditional.

After that, speak to the school districts about the ND LGBTQ+ School Climate Report. Advocate for the school to look at the research-driven data around best practice and policies. Nothing within the report is based on feelings, it is based on research, outcomes, data, experience, and ethics. It gives schools every tool to be successful in reducing suicidality for queer youth. This doesn’t require millions of dollars, most of the work has already been done. Health professionals also need to be aware of this while treating patients, because if we don’t know our patient is part of the LGBTQ+ demographic, there are so many health factors we’re missing.

Most folks in North Dakota grew up with negative messages about LGBTQ+ people. Some folks in this state think LGBTQ+ rights are controversial or up for debate, but at this point it’s like debating using horse drawn carriages or cars. The debate has been over for a while; it’s now time to listen, learn, and grow.

It is easy to read an article like this and have a lot of feelings that are difficult to process. Make some time, set it aside one night during the week to create an action plan that can be followed. Simple steps are talking to youth or sharing the report with the school district, other parents, or a representative.

Reach out to me at fayeseidler@gmail.com to be added to a listserv that includes community events, research, and best practices. These little things can work to make this state a safer place for our queer youth. These tiny actions can save lives and maybe even the people in your life.

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YOU SHOULD KNOW

Trevor Project Suicide Hotline: 1-866-488-7386

Trevor Project Text Support: Text “START” to 678-678

Firstlink Help Line: Dail 2-1-1

Firstlink Text Support: Text “Zip Code” to 898-211

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