It's difficult to celebrate Pride Month amidst an appalling legal and cultural regression of LGBTQ+ rights. During the first half of 2023, 46 states passed over 500 anti-gay measures. Even in 'Innovative Equality' states California and New York, a Pride flag was burned at an LA public school on May 31, and spring in NYC's famous Hell's Kitchen saw stabbings and armed robberies leaving several gay men injured or dead.
The theme for 2023 Pride is Strength in Solidarity, which has me thinking about one of the most isolating experiences that can happen: Sexual violence. The LGBTQ+ community disproportionately experiences sexual assault. That's a fact.
Sexual abuse, gay or not, is an inherently touchy subject. We aren't getting graphic, but this is your trigger warning.
Bisexual women are three times more likely to have been raped than straight or lesbian women; Half of those bisexual women experienced their first rape between ages 11 and 17
Gay and bisexual men experience sexual violence at double the rates of straight men
47% of transgender people are sexually assaulted in their lifetime. That stat increases among people of color (American Indian (65%), multiracial (59%), Middle Eastern (58%) and Black (53%))
More worrisome are the studies that show 1 in 4 of all children are are sexually abused before age 18. Worse, LGBTQ+ kids experience sexual violence at rates 3.8 times higher than straight ones. These statistics are astronomical. And it doesn't have to be this way.
"Child abuse occurs at every socioeconomic level, across ethnic and cultural lines, within all religions, and at all levels of education, but 95% of abuse is preventable through education and awareness."
Since sexual abuse impacts so many children, teaching them about respect may form a foundation to prevent future generations of abuse. A nonpartisan research nonprofit, Public Agenda, found the most important function of school is, "The teaching of cooperation, respect and problem-solving skills." But we can't teach respect in places that are blatantly disrespecting and discriminating against specific identities and cultural groups.
Before we can get to respect, we have to talk education. It is insurmountable to fathom censorship currently erasing LGBTQ+ history and stories from classrooms and libraries. The American Library Association reports LGBTQ+ themes or characters are featured in 7 of the top 13 challenged books of 2022. “It’s a way of telling young gay and transgender persons that they don’t belong in school, that they don’t belong to the community,” said APA Director for Intellectual Freedom. Book bans are the antithesis to respect. Banning books, stories, and education about particular groups is the very definition of disrespect.
While sexual abuse can be a trauma for anyone, the psychological damage is multiplied for individuals who are already constantly told they don't belong, there is something intrinsically wrong with them, and their stories don't matter.
The National Institute of Mental Health indicated that the higher rates of childhood sexual abuse in LGBTQ+ persons may subliminally cause higher rates of "mental health problems, substance use, risky sexual behavior, and HIV" reported by these groups in adulthood.
When it comes to kids and sexual assault, teaching respect is important for two key reasons. One, teaching young people to honor others' individuality and personal space is fundamental for their safety and that of future generations. Two, respect for oneself and others inherently fuels self esteem, which can bode for more optimal physical and mental health outcomes after sexual trauma - regardless of gender or sexuality.
I was sexually abused as a child. Anxious, selective mute me depended on books to dream and to escape. I recognize how fortunate I was to attend K-12 in progressive New York schools, and to have a supportive family. I didn't question my sexuality as a kid, because I so desperately wished to be anything but a sexual being. But puberty didn't care what I wished, and my self esteem and relationship with my body shifted from fear to shame. I was ashamed of all forms of desire my feminine body elicited.
Sexuality and any other identity-defining factors were an afterthought as my inner world scrambled to control my all-powerful and life-damaging anxiety. My sense of self felt centered around my eating disorder, and attempting to shape myself into the least sexual being possible.
From a societal perspective, this makes sense. I was a young woman coming of age amidst institutions which normalize shaming and denying identities and life experiences that don't fit an extremely exacting mold.
It's not surprising that many LGBTQ+ persons experience high rates of body dissatisfaction. Non-binary individuals, for example, tend towards restrictive behaviors to fit an androgynous thin mold. Gay men are seven times likely to develop binge eating disorder and twelve times more likely to develop bulimia than their heterosexual peers. Transgender people are four times more likely to develop eating disorders than cisgender people.
These are only examples relevant to eating disorders, but they could easily be replaced with stats about substance abuse, PTSD, and other mental health outcomes.
In mental health and eating disorder recovery, embracing bisexuality was far far less complicated than admitting and unpacking the shame and trauma piled on by sexual abuse at a young age. I couldn't feel sex-positive or empowered about much of anything until I recognized all the emotional voids left by those traumas. After unpacking serious questions about trust and worth I ended up with a long-term partner. I'm dedicated to advocating normalizing mental health issues because it felt isolating to struggle and then recover from things no one talks about.
I recently attended the Respect Awards gala for GLSEN, a national nonprofit dedicated to creating safe and inclusive schools for all, and for LGBTQ+ youth, by supporting programs like Rise Up, Day of Silence, Solidarity Week, and Changing the Game. There are other Gen Z LGBTQ+ youth normalizing mental health conversations through the nonprofit's National Student Council. Go read their stories. We're stronger in solidarity.
National Sexual Assault Hotline – can also refer you to a local rape crisis center 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) 24/7 or Online Counseling at https://ohl.rainn.org/online/
Love is Respect Hotline 1-866-331-99474 (24/7) or Text “loveis” 22522