Confronting LGBTQ Youth Suicide in America

with David Johns of the National Black Justice Coalition

For LGBTQ people ages 10 to 24, suicide is a leading cause of death. David Johns, Executive Director of the National Black Justice Coalition, sheds light on efforts to advance acceptance and empowerment of black LGBTQ students.

Posted on:

May 31, 2019

Hosted by: Paul Lisnek
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Lisnek: You may not know that LGBTQ individuals are about three times more likely than the general population to experience a mental-health condition. The fear of coming out and being discriminated against for sexual orientation and gender identities can lead to depression, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts. Hi, welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers". I'm Paul Lisnek. LGBTQ youth are more likely to not only consider suicide, but sadly, to attempt it, as well. Joining me to discuss youth suicide in the LGBTQ community is David Johns. He's the executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition. David, it's good to see you again.

Johns: Good to see you again, as well.

Lisnek: What is there about the struggle of being born into the LGBTQ community that leads to those kind of stresses beyond other groups?

Johns: The challenge is not being born into the community. It's being born into spaces that are not accepting, affirming, and equipped to handle the diversity that has always existed in the world even before these words existed. And so, what happens now is that for students who are racial, ethnic, or sexual minorities, schools are hostile spaces. There are states where people are passing legislation to dictate where trans kids can go to restrooms, restricting the rights for LGBTQ parents to adopt, and they send signals to kids that say, "You're not welcome here. You're not worthy."

Lisnek: Can we maybe pull that apart a little bit with you? Because oftentimes when people have these discussions, they say, "Well, young people, it's a different time today." And young people get it and they're more supportive, but then, of course, you put your finger right on it, which is we go into an educational environment. We're told what bathroom to use or whatever. So are the young people the issue, are they part of the concern?

Johns: No. Young people -- there's no such thing as a problem child. They just deal with problems that adults have created, right? Just think about the reality that often in schools, we tell kids to line up -- boys on one side, girls on the other, without even acknowledging that there are kids that don't fit neatly into either of those categories. I think there's more thoughtful ways to separate them.

Lisnek: You recently testified before Congress, and I read what you had to say. And I pulled something out of it, and I just want to get your reaction to it because I got you here. And what you said was, "Not only do I careabout our babies, I listen to them." And I thought, "That's it. That's the key."

Johns: Yeah, because too often, adults don't listen to understand. We listen to respond because it's really difficult to have a young person say that things are still challenging and that on the way to and from school, I face challenges that would break the average adult, and so for me, it's really important to listen, to find ways to understand what they're saying, and not to have them jump through hoops to try to communicate in ways that make us feel comfortable.

Lisnek: New research says that when we first meet somebody, there's kind of an assumption that they're straight. That's the first thing people assume. So if you were giving advice to young people who deal with these suicide issues or just these mental-health challenges, what words of comfort do you have for them to basically say, as we often say to young people, "It will get better"?

Johns: Yeah, I hate the phrase "It will get better" because --

Lisnek: Yeah, that's what I'm asking.

Johns: Yeah, in particular, because absent meaningful thought and actions on behalf of responsible adults, things <i>won't</i> get better. Just this month, in April, we lost a young man, Nigel Shelby, who was a freshman in high school, and I wish I could say to him, "I want you to fall in love. I want you to go to college and find friends that will affirm the most important parts of yourself. I want you to know that it is our fault that we failed you in not creating spaces where you feel safe, engaged, and comfortable and that you're perfect just as you are." And then, I want to say to the teachers, the adults in that space, that they need to do better to ensure that all kids who show up in some way unique and different don't feel like they are not a part of a community that they otherwise are.

Lisnek: It's a challenge for young people who are part of the LGBTQ community as we're saying. What happens when I layer on something else to that, like being a person of color?

Johns: Yeah, it changes the game dramatically. What we know generally in the country now is that hate crimes, reported hate crimes, are increased, for both people of racial, ethnic minority, as well as sexual identity and gender orientation, so when you think about intersectionality, you have two multiple oppressed categories that are impacting how somebody shows up or has access to opportunities. It is incredibly difficult for most people to even have this conversation because too many people think that black people can't also be LGBTQ at the same time. And we spend too much time in spaces where civil rights are thought to be exclusively beholden to people that are assumed to be heterosexual, and then, conversely, that anything related to LGBTQ people means it affects people who are white.

Lisnek: We're on the cusp of the 2020 census, and I know you've got an important message about that. We need inclusion.

Johns: We definitely need inclusion. A part of the conversation we were just having before is that it's difficult to really talk about the experiences of black LGBTQIA or same-gender-loving people because we don't really have data. We don't collect data that allows people to identify as both a racial minority and a sexual minority in the general sense, so it's really important for us, especially as this administration is using the census to play political games, to lie to people about how they will use the information to have us be counted. There are so many resources that are dedicated to communities based on the census. Our ability to have access to hospitals and public services are predicated upon it, and so we really want all black people and all black LGBTQ people to participate.

Lisnek: And when we look at those numbers and we look at funding, as you talk about, my mind goes to workshops, creating safe space, mental-health professionals.

Johns: Yeah.

Lisnek: That's where it all goes, has to go.

Johns: It definitely goes, and it also goes back to broader things like the Equality Act, which would ensure that in states like Alabama or in the South, the places where black people, black LGBTQ, are disproportionately populated that you cannot deny us access to housing or employment based on <i>perception</i> about our sexual identity or gender orientation.

Lisnek: David Johns, the work you do is so important. Please keep doing it.

Johns: Thank you.

Lisnek: David Johns from the National Black Justice Coalition. Appreciate your time. Appreciate your time, too. And for more great conversations with leaders in your community and across our country, just go to You'll find interviews there. I'm Paul Lisnek, and thanks for watching.

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