SALT LAKE CITY — Local and national civil rights leaders gathered in Utah Saturday to shine a spotlight on individuals they say are marginalized in society, specifically youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
And they quoted survey results indicating a higher percentage of those teens are struggling in Utah than their counterparts nationwide.
In a report released Thursday, the Human Rights Campaign said more teens who describe themselves as LGBT in Utah feel bullied for their lifestyle choices than do their peers in other states. The numbers are "quite sobering," said Chad Griffin, head of the national Human Rights Campaign, a nonprofit group dedicated to achieving LGBT equality.
Both in Utah and nationally, just over a third of LGBT youth described themselves as happy, while 67 percent of straight teens report satisfaction, according to the report. Gay teens are also more likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol, and shy away from social activities, the survey results state.
"These numbers should serve as a wake-up call and a call to action to adults across this state," Griffin said. "Adults are supposed to be the mentors to our youth. Our institutions and our governments are supposed to be the protectors of our youth."
Nearly 70 percent of respondents in Utah said they had been verbally harassed, compared to about half of those surveyed nationwide.
Described as one of the largest-ever surveys to focus on the nation's LGBT youth, the Human Rights Campaign used social media to advertise a link to an online survey, as well as direct communication with LGBT youth centers across the country.
Responses from 10,030 self-identified LGBT youth participants, ages 13 to 17, were collected and compared with about 500 responses from a separate market research panel, which was used to represent the "straight" population in the country. The results of the survey may not be representative of the population as a whole, according to the surveyors.
Among the findings: 69 percent of Utah's LGBT survey respondents said their community was not accepting of them. Nationally, 42 percent report feeling disenfranchised by their communities. Respondents in Utah are also more apt to feel they don't fit in, according to the survey. Three out of four Utah respondents said they believe they need to move outside of the state to be accepted.
"It is a sad thing that so many people feel alone in their struggle and feel there is no place for them to turn," said Bruce Bastian, an openly gay Utah philanthropist and member of the HRC board. "These kids need to at least have a hope. They need to have knowledge and comfort (in knowing) that people are on their side."
The majority of respondents said churches in their community are not accepting of them.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the majority faith in the state, has publicly condemned "acts of cruelty or attempts to belittle or mock any group or individual that is different, whether those differences arise from race, religion, mental challenges, social status, sexual orientation or for any other reason. Such actions simply have no place in our society."
Griffin said that regardless of a person's faith or religion, "we were all taught the Golden Rule, to treat others as you wish to be treated.
"The survey shows that if we could all live by that, the lives of these young LGBT people would be dramatically improved," he said. "I don't believe that there is any church, any school, or any set of parents that want to intentionally inflict harm on our young people, particularly in their most vulnerable years."
In addition to the report, Saturday's gathering revealed that more local teens are visiting and using the resources made available at the Volunteers of America Utah Youth Homeless Drop-In Center than ever before.
The past five years have seen a 166 percent increase, with 65 teens dropping in each day. The center expects to help more than 1,300 teens by the end of this year, said Zach Bale, vice president of external affairs for VOA in Utah. He said that in 2007, the daily intake was around 25, and 400 teens visited within that year.
Bale points to physical and sexual abuse as the top reason that kids find themselves homeless. Trouble in foster care situations, economic and financial factors at home, as well as "coming out" to family members are also risk factors for Utah's homeless teens, he said.
"There is no reason youth should be on the street," Bale said. "As parents and guardians, we have a responsibility to provide them the right of a safe place, of shelter, of comfort."
The center provides a variety of services to help visitors transition to self-sufficiency. Just a month ago, it helped 21-year-old Devin Smith move into his own place.
After four years of living on the streets, Smith said that without the friends and knowledge he gained through the facility, "life wouldn't be any better now than it was then." He found himself homeless after his alcoholic mother ended up in jail.
Now, with a roof over his head and some stability, Smith said he can work on the rest of his future, which includes becoming a chef because he remembers enjoying cooking with his grandma as a child.
"This is a responsibility that we all hold, whether or not we have children, whether or not we are teachers, whether or not we are elected to public office," said Brandie Balken, director of Equality Utah. "We all have a responsibility and should be committed to making sure that all of our young people have the resources they need to grow up healthy, to grow up supported and to grow up to be strong, contributing members of our community."
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