Everyone talks about queer youth.
We know, for example, that young queer people experience violence and bullying at higher rates. We know many of them are hearing homophobic and transphobic remarks from their teachers, and we know they face an increased risk for suicidal behavior.
With each new study, queer youth become another statistic. But no one really talks to them. I wanted to change that. I set out to understand what it truly means to be a queer young person living in the US in 2023. Is the data faithful to their experiences?
I spoke with six queer teens and young adults across six different states. Some were very open with their identities while others felt the need to mask their true selves. Their experiences vary drastically, and even those who noted living in inclusive communities still report difficulties with their identities.
The following stories feature queer youth living in Democrat-controlled states, and even so, they still struggle with their identities, especially in regard to their families. The states they live in may guarantee certain rights, but queer youth still struggle to find themselves.
Queer youth are living at a pivotal time, witnessing the changing tides of a nation on edge. As right-wing legislators continue to push partisan attacks against queer youth, targeting access to gender-affirming healthcare and banning talks of sexuality or gender identity, queer youth feel betrayed and abandoned by the adults elected to protect them.
In part one of this exploration, Audrey, Victor, and Sabrina tell their stories.
Sexuality is a balancing act: Audrey Gudino, 19 (San Diego, CA)
“I wish the whole world was as accepting as how I feel, where you don’t have to mask who you are,” said Gudino. Living in California her whole life, she feels a certain guilt for the “privilege” of authenticity that others often aren’t allowed. She identifies as bisexual.
While her family and neighbors are supportive, she feels a sense of shame when expressing herself because she realizes others cannot. This becomes clear whenever she ventures beyond her own community.
“There are neighborhoods that are not okay with [my sexuality],” said Gudino. She keeps a mental map of where she can express her true self and where she has to mask. In these unaccepting neighborhoods, she often walks on eggshells and her sexuality becomes a balancing act.
But now, she’s learning to stay in areas that accept her, where she feels free. As a college sophomore, Guidino wants to become an elementary school teacher and help others feel that same freedom.
As Republicans seek to ban books and discussions about LGBTQ+ people, she hopes to provide a safe and nurturing environment for her future students.
But Gudino has a message for right-wing legislators attacking the rights of queer youth in education.
“What [Republicans] want to ban isn’t going to stop the community of youth, they’re just gonna make all these things go underground,” Gudino said, visibly enraged. “They’re still the same child.”
Our conversation was cut short by her mom calling her to leave for church.
A life of code-switching: Victor Hinojosa, 16 (Waukegan, IL)
“I pass the Missouri-Illinois border and I feel it: I just have to hide it,” Hinojosa said. When living in Illinois, he feels “freer than any other state in the union,” but that all changes whenever he travels out of the relative safety of his state.
The tension is palpable across state lines. Seeing an abundance of confederate and Trump flags in southern states, Hinojosa code-switches to conceal his queer identity.
“I have my straight voice that is two octaves lower,” he joked. “I have to do that to protect myself.” But his experience is universal among queer youth who are forced to identify where and to who they can be their true selves.
I asked him a strange question. If Hinojosa were to reunite with a hypothetical long-lost twin who grew up in a conservative state, what would be the difference between the two of them?
“My hypothetical twin in Alabama would be confuzzled if they came up to [Illinois],” said Hinojosa.
There would be far too great of a disparity in their mindset and what each would consider normal, Hinojosa reasoned, to the point where reaching a consensus would be difficult. It’s a question he ponders often, wondering if there could ever be a middle ground among such drastic viewpoints between political parties.
As a politically active teen, Hinojosa expressed his frustration at the right-wing attacks against queer youth.
“What are you so scared of, exactly?” Hinojosa asked. He invites Republican lawmakers to discuss with the queer community and explain their so-called concerns.
But they aren’t willing to talk, Hinojosa explained, and they’d much rather just impose bans before any discussion ever took place.
Danger from inside the house: Sabrina, 16 (Baltimore, Maryland)
“I don’t have to consider how my identity will be perceived by my government,” Sabrina said. “I don’t give it a second thought.”
Despite living in such a welcoming state, Sabrina chose to go only by her first name out of concerns of retaliation among conservative family members. Liberals outwardly support the queer community, Sabrina said, but there’s less “impressed acceptance” when it comes to their family.
Sabrina doesn’t feel a need to come out or label herself. Rather, she’s content to continue exploring her options in a way that feels safe to her.
But she still feels conflicted with her identity.
“I don’t want to have a conversation with a relative about what it means to be queer,” she said. With such a general term, she wouldn’t even know how to go about explaining it to her family members, let alone the conservative ones.
An aspiring journalist, she feels abhorred by the right-wing attacks on her peers and has a message for Republican lawmakers.
“No matter what is said, they will never be convinced that what they’re doing is wrong,” Sabrina said. “It’s a waste of my breath.”
Instead, Sabrina is focused on her reporting, hopeful that her career as a journalist will influence meaningful conversations in her community.
It was surprising to find such turmoil among queer youth who live in seemingly accepting areas. Audrey, Victor, and Sabrina’s home states all have low rates of bullying and harassment, yet the teens still report the same experiences of fear and intolerance.
Despite their relative safety, they all expressed anger and disgust at the onslaught of Republican attacks against their friends and family.
And they all agreed that the attacks will only worsen over time.
It doesn’t take a genius to see hatred in disguise. All it takes is some young people, and we’d all be wise to lend our ears.
Editor’s note: This article mentions suicide. If you need to talk to someone now, call the Trans Lifeline at 1-877-565-8860. It’s staffed by trans people, for trans people. The Trevor Project provides a safe, judgement-free place to talk for LGBTQ youth at 1-866-488-7386. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.