Illustration by Lauren Nichols.

When Ali Brody, a 24-year-old self-identifying queer woman, moved from a diverse South Florida community to a more conservative North Florida one at age 15, the culture shock sent her reeling.

This was around the time that Brody was coming into her queer identity, making other queer friends and exploring her sexuality.

“I had a hard time adjusting and how I identified,” she said. “I felt held back.”

Her high school in North Florida did not have a Gay Straight Alliance; there were no LGBTQ+ friendly community organizations; and the queer youth population of her school could be counted on one hand.

Brody’s peers, being generally unfamiliar with queer sexuality, projected microaggressions toward her by reducing Brody’s identity to her sexuality, constantly asking questions about her sex life and her partners. Brody felt pressured to answer the uncomfortable and invasive questions.

“I felt like I was representing the whole LGBTQ+ community,” she said. “I was the only out person they knew.”

She also said that sometimes peers would use words like “faggot” or “dyke” when addressing her.

Not only that, Brody’s home life was difficult: Her parents were divorced, and only one parent supported her sexual identity. When Brody brought her first partner home to meet her father, he erupted into homophobic remarks.

“I just remember crying a lot and him yelling a lot,” she said. “And he told me that I needed to leave.”

Brody’s experience is not unique, and often LGBTQ+ youth living in Florida experience similar daily adversities and harassment stemming from peers, parents, and a lack of community support overall. A recent study conducted nationwide by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network that studied inclusivity and safety of LGBTQ+ children in public school systems gave Florida dismal ratings regarding school climate, student victimization and available LGBTQ+ student resources.

The GLSEN study made a point to open their research results with the statement, “Florida schools were not safe for most LGBTQ+ secondary school students.”

Florida’s statistics are more than alarming. A reported 87 percent of students feel deliberately isolated, 60 percent have been sexually harassed, 53 percent of students were victims of cyber bullying and 45 percent had experienced property damage or theft.

The most unsettling is that over 50 percent of students never reported incidences of bullying. And even if they did, the proper authorities effectively dealt with less than 30 percent of reported harassments. GLSEN attributes these results to a significant lack of queer-centric organizations, few anti-bullying policies and a desert of queer-identifying role models on staff.

Over the course of the past several years, various organizations have sprouted in Gainesville in an effort to facilitate a safe environment for queer kids, such as Gainesville Equality Youth (GEY), a number of Gay-Straight Alliances (GSA) and Students Teaching Open Mindedness and Pride (STOMP).

GEY is a relatively new program to the Gainesville community open to queer youth between the ages of 13 to 18. The group, which meets at the Alachua County Library on Wednesdays at 6 p.m., provides an inclusive space that is not always available in the public school system. For many of these children, this group of friends has become a home away from home, especially for those who lack familial support due to their sexual or gender identity.

Florida’s statistics are more than alarming. A reported 87 percent of students feel deliberately isolated, 60 percent have been sexually harassed, 53 percent of students were victims of cyber bullying and 45 percent had experienced property damage or theft.

Hiram Martinez-Cabrera, the executive director of Pride Awareness Month at the University of Florida, works with GEY administratively and has equated the work of GEY to his experiences in Orlando with the Zebra House, an LGBTQ+ volunteer-run homeless shelter.

Although GEY does not provide shelter for homeless queer youth, it does provide resources that are often taken for granted by those in stable and supportive home environments. According to Martinez-Cabrera, GEY has the potential to one day parallel the success of the Zebra House.

“The main goal is to give back to the teens,” he said. “Providing school supplies, backpacks, food, donations, toys, bikes, clothes and toothbrushes.”

Martinez-Cabrera identities as a gay cisgender male and openly shares his life story with anyone willing to listen. He said that it is important to connect with LGBTQ+ youth emotionally and build a lasting relationship by sharing his story. Having started the Gay-Straight Alliance at his high school in Orlando, he said he strives to encourage more youth to start their own organizations, get involved and support one another.

“The teachers, the advisors [and] the principles aren’t going to know what’s happening in the small interactions of [the] youth,” he explained.

Martinez-Cabrera said he realizes the necessity for students to gather and create an open channel of communication in a safe place when, often, administrative protection is dismal.

Gainesville High School’s Students Teaching Open Mindedness and Pride (STOMP), for example, is a dynamic and active organization that provides an open-minded environment for students to gather and discuss identities relating to race, gender, and sexuality.

“I like being in STOMP because you don’t need to be like everyone else in the club,” a student board-member said. “We’re bound simply by our common goal of making people feel comfortable with who they are.”

STOMP members are active in their school and community, participating in Gainesville’s Pride Festival parade and volunteering their time with special-needs kids on campus. STOMP members hope to represent all students who are excluded or marginalized by bullies on campus.

“We’re not just an ally group,” another student said. “We’re run by successful LGBTQ+ students.”

LB Hannahs, the director of LGBT Affairs at the University of Florida, is actively involved with GEY and has studied LGBTQ+ bullying and harassment at the Queering Education Research Institute currently located at Hunter College in New York City.

Hannahs said that although programs such as the GSA and STOMP provide a positive environment for queer youth in the public school system, they are also not sufficient by themselves to tackle the beast of LGBTQ+ harassment.

“I think [GSAs] prevent schools from looking at the other barriers for LGBTQ+ youth,” Hannahs said. “They think, ‘We created a GSA, we’ve done our job, we’re done,’ versus ‘What are the many avenues that are not accessible to LGBTQ+ kids or teachers or parents that make their lives harder?’”

Hannahs said she does not mean to discredit the presence and accomplishments of these organizations. Their existence, historically, is monumental for LGBTQ+ advocacy, allowing for recognition and acceptance of LGBTQ+ youth in a public and affirming environment. However, Hannahs drove home the point that we are far from accomplishing a truly safe space for these youth in school.

Hannah’s point is not unfounded, especially when one addresses the current statistics available on the subject of LGBTQ+ harassment. For example, the Center for Disease Control has dedicated an entire webpage to LGBTQ+ youth and the effects of harassment. According to the webpage, queer youth are at double the risk of attempting suicide compared to heterosexual youth.

The CDC also cites a national study that estimated 61.1 percent of LGBTQ+ youth feel unsafe or uncomfortable in their school environments.

Although there are national and statewide statistics for Florida, Alachua County has yet to conduct a successful study regarding LGBTQ+ youth harassment.
Hannahs, who has, alongside UF’s LGBT Affairs, attempted to study local LGBTQ+ youth, added that Gainesville is such a transient population that conducting long-term research is a challenge; not only that, disclosing your sexuality can be dangerous. Because of this, simply gaining compliance of the subjects makes conducting such a study incredibly difficult.

It has been estimated that there are about 300 LGBTQ+ homeless youth in Gainesville, Hannahs added. But this number is simply an estimate based upon anecdotal and qualitative information, and not the result of quantitative data.

Martinez-Cabrera said that the most common cause of LGBTQ+ youth homelessness is the lack of support from family,

“If the parents don’t accept the child,” he said, “they get kicked out.”

Once kicked out of a household, youth are difficult to keep track of, especially if they fear prejudice or discrimination from family and friends. Martinez-Cabrera also said that homelessness can bring financial benefits as well.

“There’s a lot sex work, prostitution and drug work for money just to live off to eat and breath,” he said.

This money is also important to trans folks who need money to undergo transitioning, an expensive and lengthy process, he said.

Beyond the scope of student control and quantitative studies, the School Board of Alachua County addresses LGBTQ+ youth harassment in 5515.01 of its bylaws and policies under “Bullying and Harassment.” The statute states that “the District will not tolerate bullying and harassment of any type” and extends the terms of harassment to “sexual, religious, or racial harassment.”

The mention of “sexual harassment” is short and ambiguous.

Both Hannahs and Martinez-Cabrera offered several steps to dealing with this issue. Hannahs recommended seeking not just one solution, but to address the cultural influences at large and how the harassment of this community is a reflection of deep set prejudices and phobias that must first be rooted out.

Martinez-Cabrera said that young people are the country’s next leaders. Their actions and beliefs reflect our culture’s progress in dealing with discrimination. He stressed to LGBTQ+ youth who are in unsafe conditions to, foremost, maintain their safety first.

For Martinez-Cabrera, the most important support system a child can have is the personal connection and support that comes from having queer-identifying role models. He said it is important for those who can to volunteer, contact local advocacy groups and talk to their directors. Find out what supplies are needed, he said, and if you are able, donate your time and money–the results could be life-changing.

After all, he added, the “things that last longer in life is that emotional strength and perseverance that a child needs.”

Places to contact for volunteering and donating resources:

  • Gainesville Equality Youth: Olivia Potter / LBH@multicultural.ufl.edu
  • Pride Community Center of North Central Florida: Terry Fleming / pccncf@pccncf.org
  • The Civic Media Center: 433 S. Main St. / 352-373-0010
  • Wild Iris Bookstore: 22 SE 5th Ave Ste D / 352-375-7477
  • Pride Awareness Month: http://www.creatingchange.org

Correction: In the print version of this article Brody was identified as a University of Florida student.