Rachel Evelyn Sucher came out as bisexual at 12 years old. Throughout elementary school, they knew they liked both boys and girls. But Sucher, now 18, says they didn’t have any queer models to look up to or any guidance in terms of what a queer relationship looks like.
And they aren’t alone.
“I know lots of queer folks who’ve been in unhealthy, toxic relationships and that was their first time being in a queer relationship. They didn’t have any reference for why that was unhealthy,” says Sucher, who graduated from high school this past spring and uses both she/her and they/them pronouns.
It’s been a year since the #MeToo movement took the internet by storm. As cases of sexual violence have continued to surface, not enough attention is being paid to the disproportionate impact of sexual harassment, assault, and relationship abuse on LGBTQ youth, who may not feel safe coming forward to say #MeToo because of social stigma and discrimination.
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LGBTQ youth experience relationship abuse at rates comparable to those of cisgender heterosexual couples, according to LoveIsRespect.org, an organization dedicated to ending dating abuse among youth. But in a society that already often considers teen sex and relationships taboo, the added barriers of homophobia, transphobia, or fear of identity disclosure can create an even more hostile environment for LGBTQ teens to share their experiences.
Experts say it can be difficult for LGBTQ youth experiencing sexual violence to identify or report the incident. That’s because sexual harassment and dating abuse are largely treated as a heteronormative issue—in school curricula, in news media, and in pop culture. Television shows, for instance, most often depict heterosexual cisgender couples in relationships. There are few models that help LGBTQ youth understand how to engage in sex and what it means to have healthy relationships, said Dr. Darnell Motley, lead researcher on LGBTQ health at the Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry & Innovation in Sexual and Reproductive Health at the University of Chicago.
So when it comes to identifying the issue in the first place, lack of comprehensive sex education and information about all types of healthy relationships means young people may not recognize relationship violence or harassment for what it is. Too often, they are socialized to make assumptions about gender, sexuality, and relationship violence that don’t reflect reality—like the fact that same-sex harassment exists or that women can also be perpetrators.
That was the case for Sucher. Earlier this year, Sucher was sexually assaulted during group sex with two other participants, a straight guy and a bisexual woman. Sucher had consented to have sex with the woman while the man watched, but soon, both of them began to pressure Sucher to have sex with him as well. Sucher believes the boy fetishized their open queerness.
“I wasn’t comfortable and I said no, but they just said, ‘No, come on, it’s OK,’ and it just progressed from there,” says Sucher, who’s based in St. Paul, Minnesota.
After the assault, Sucher says multiple areas of their mental health began to decline. They struggled with their eating disorder and depression, and they stopped going to therapy.
“I was denying the assault and the impact it had on me,” Sucher said, adding that she didn’t want to admit the girl had also contributed to the assault. “The fact that a woman could do that was really difficult for me. She was also someone I considered a friend, so that was a really confusing experience.”
Even when unacceptable behavior is recognized as such, authority figures often dismiss it or shame the victim. When girls make unsolicited comments about each other’s bodies, for instance, the behavior may be viewed as a joke rather than sexual harassment.
“Young people that are LGBTQ are less likely to report when these things happen because they are less likely to believe something will be done about it,” said Alesha Istvan, president and chief operating officer of Break the Cycle, a nonprofit that helps young people of all genders and sexualities foster healthy relationships.
At a recent “Real Talk” group discussion hosted by Break the Cycle, LGBTQ youth reported that they felt like their dating experiences weren’t taken seriously by teachers and other adults, Istvan said. Instead, they felt defined solely by their identity—to the extent that any sort of abuse they experienced must somehow be connected to their gender or sexuality rather than an issue of general relationship violence.
Additionally, queer youth are often penalized “for simply expressing their identities in much the same way that heterosexual and cisgender youth are encouraged to,” Motley said.
Ten years ago, Motley worked at a residential treatment facility for young people, many of whom engaged in same-sex relationships. In several instances, Motley said, instances of sexual harassment, assault, or other non-consensual behaviors resulted in victim blaming, which led to depression and internalized shame in these youth.
“If there was a woman who went to another young woman’s room without [her] permission, the concern wasn’t about boundaries, but about the same-sex attraction,” Motley said. “Instead of treating it as sexual harassment or assault, they implied that this wouldn’t have happened if the youth hadn’t been ‘experimenting.’”
Nearly three in five LGBTQ students have been sexually harassed at school, and yet the majority of students who reported their harassment said school staff did nothing, according to the 2015 National School Climate Survey published by GLSEN.
While most schools have anti-harassment policies, only about one in ten students reported that their school had a comprehensive anti-harassment policy that included sexual orientation and gender identity or expression, the survey found.
To create a more open and supportive environment at schools for LGBTQ children, Istvan told Rewire.News, “teachers and educators should check their own biases, throw out any ideas they might have about these kinds of relationships, and just take the time to listen to the young people and what their experiences are.”
Jimmy James, 22, says he faced those kinds of biases after being sexually assaulted in his preteen years.
“When I first shared my assault story, I was told, ‘No, how could they do this to you? It just doesn’t happen. There’s no way. It’s not rape if you liked it,’” said James, who has worked with the Houston Health Department and the National Youth Advisory Board on health campaigns for young people. “Dude, just because I’m homosexual doesn’t mean that I wanted somebody to violate my body in a way that I was uncomfortable with.”
Nicole Smith, 17, a queer high school student in Queens, New York, said her sex education class at school “wasn’t inclusive at all” and did not include any mention of LGBTQ identities. Examples given in class mainly involved heterosexual couples, and the main takeaway about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) was “don’t catch them”—which further perpetuates stigma around STDs, particularly among the LGBTQ community.
“There’s still this whole stigma of you’re living a wrong life so whatever happens to you, it’s kind of your fault,” Smith said.
Schools should have a department or guidance counselor to whom LGBTQ students can specifically turn for guidance, says Smith, a member of the Young Women’s Advisory Council, which empowers cis, trans, and gender nonconforming girls of color to create positive change. While training in gender and sexuality is important, hiring LGBTQ adults for those roles is ideal.
Addressing LGBTQ teen dating abuse is part of a much larger push toward expanding LGBTQ rights and protections in society, says Heather Frederick, an advocate and spokesperson for LoveIsRespect.org. That includes providing comprehensive sex education, teaching young people about the red flags of dating abuse (such as jealousy and controlling behavior), and changing harmful state legislation that specifically targets members of the LGBTQ community, such as anti-trans bathroom laws.
“It’s just a matter of getting people to really understand the implications of these policies and putting a human face to it,” they say. “These are real people, real lives that are affected by the fact that they don’t feel safe reaching out.”
Some LGBTQ youth have felt empowered to join in the #MeToo movement. When it took off, James said he was “relieved with happiness” because that’s when he started finding more people he could identify with in the Black and LGBTQ community.
Similarly, Sucher called the #MeToo movement a “necessary conversation” about sexual violence that uniquely affects LGBTQ people. But more attention needs to be paid to people of marginalized or underrepresented groups in order to truly reduce stigma and create an open dialogue about consent as it pertains to all different types of relationships.
That means more inclusive health and sex education, which doesn’t just teach Sucher to take care of themself—it shows LGBTQ youth like them that their identities, hopes, and goals in life matter.
“Throughout my life and my different identities, I felt like the future and the life I wanted weren’t things that could happen. I couldn’t find happiness or love,” Sucher says. “I think having conversations about sexual health and queer identity is a great way to show all people of marginalized identities they have a place and a voice, and they’re valued.”