An extremely vulnerable segment of our society is comprised of young people who identify as LGBTQI, especially those who are people of color and mixed race. Along with the urgent need for an inclusive society that supports their growth and development as people, access to technology is a crucial component to self-determination and success, whether personally, educationally and/or professionally. The LGBTQI youth community faces serious and ongoing challenges on a daily basis and when you layer on the unique challenges of being from a community of color, these challenges are compounded significantly and the odds of success become daunting.
Statistics suggest that the LGBTQI population comprises about 4% of the overall American population, however, an astounding 40% of homeless youth in this country are LGBTQI. LGBT Tech’s research has shown that mobile technology can play a crucial role in addressing the unique needs of LGBT homeless youth, and the overall homeless youth population, by helping them to keep in touch with supportive networks like family, friends, critical services like case workers and potential employers; gain access to preventative healthcare information; and ensure their personal safety. Clearly, access to communication technology such as connected smartphones and other devices as well as affordable, reliable access to broadband could mean the difference between having a warm place to sleep and a connection to a support community or becoming homeless or worse. Research entities are starting to recognize the vital role of technology in the lives of the homeless. For instance, a range of studies conducted by scholar Eric Rice and colleagues highlight the importance of communication technology for the mental and physical well being of homeless youth, with mobile phones and other devices allowing them to stay connected with supportive networks. In the context of preventative healthcare, online information on HIV and other STDs plays a central role for the sexual health of homeless youth. Finally, mobile phones are vital in ensuring the personal safety of homeless youth, helping them to locate safe shelters, call for help in emergency situations and record incidents of harassment.
For Latino LGBTQI youth, those problems can be even tougher given the cultural and religious stigmas associated with homosexuality in the Latino community. According to the Human Rights Campaign, the most difficult problems facing LGBTQI Latino youth are related to negative responses to their LGBTQI identity. Specifically, concern about family acceptance is the top problem identified by these young people. Slightly less than half of LGBTQI Latino youth have an adult in their family they can turn to for support, while 8 in 10 of their non-LGBT Latino peers have such an adult. LGBTQI Latino youth are more likely to face harassment and violence in the community than their non-LGBTQI Latino peers and much less likely to participate in a variety of community activities. LGBTQI Latino youth are twice as likely as non-LGBTQI Latino youth to say they do not “fit in” in the communities where they live. Two-thirds of LGBTQI Latino youth say they are more honest about who they are online, while about one-third of non-LGBT Latino youth say the same. For these youth, the odds of becoming homeless as a result of disclosing their identity are dangerously high and often technology, in the form of a mobile device or a computer at a gay youth center, is their only salvation.
For organizations like HTTP and LGBT Tech, the best approach to making a difference is to create strong and lasting partnerships, to educate and advocate on behalf of our mutually inclusive communities and to ensure that programs are in place so that members of these communities have access to technology and broadband.
In most cases, no two minority communities are mutually exclusive, nor do they struggle alone. For example, a lesbian Latina would embody the struggle of at least three communities. Many Latinos find it hard to come out due in part to a particularly conservative culture and within wider society face discrimination simply for being Latino and are constantly questioned about immigration status, language and other factors. For these reasons, strong partnerships between right-thinking organizations can ensure that a person who is a part of multiple communities does not have to choose with whom they identify but rather that these organizations understand their unique struggle and are working to educate and advocate on their behalf. Being young and discriminated against can be overwhelming for anyone, rather than ask these youth to figure out which aspect of their identity is more important or where to turn for help, it is our aim to work across organizations so that we, as service providers, can assist all of these youth effectively. It is crucial for organizations to understand the diverse make-up of their constituents and actively engage in partnerships that help bridge these gaps in understanding.
In conjunction with strong organizational partnerships, modern, properly-managed and sustainable programs that promote access to and adoption of technology and broadband are extremely important. These programs can take the form of government-run or NGO-run programs. For members of the LGBTQI and the Latino community, especially young people who are homeless or low-income, which is often the same group, programs like the Federal Communication Commission’s Lifeline program for low-income individuals and families can help provide technological resources in the form of subsidized phone and broadband services to help bridge the digital divide. Lifeline allows the federal government to offset some of the costs associated with broadband providers offering devices and broadband service to low-income users for free or reduced prices. Lifeline is eligible to anyone at 135% or less of the federal poverty level, or who is already enrolled in one of several existing state or federal assistance programs like Medicaid or SNAP (food stamps). Lifeline helps provide affordable phone service to about 13 million Americans. New modifications made to the program will provide about 5.5 million more people with both broadband and phone service.
Another type of private sector program offered by Internet service providers such as AT&T and others are the so-called free data programs. These programs offer free data for consumption while using services through certain content providers. For a low-income or homeless youth who often will have very limited resources, the ability to “spend” their data on essential activities (job searching, accessing healthcare, etc.) without having to give up their social-related content has the potential to reduce data overages and encourage use of resources more strategically. For those who are low-income and/or those who find themselves homeless with only a smartphone, not having to make that choice can have a significant positive impact on both quality of life and future success. Free data plans like these can represent one type of bridge across the digital divide.
Lastly, in addition to partnerships and programs, it is the duty of organizations that have the ability to do so to be strong advocates. Bottom line, its important to make people uncomfortable and challenge preconceived notions and norms. Certain things need to stop. One example is the popularity of turning words that have specific resonance within the LGBTQI community (for example “gay”) into something synonymous with negativity (for example using that word to mean weak or bad.) Similarly, it has become a punch line to call into question a Latino’s immigration status or threaten deportation. It is crucially important that organizations and individuals with a national voice use that influence to question and break these norms. In the middle of a heated presidential debate where the language and execution of discrimination and hate have become viable political tools, it is more important than ever to ask the tough questions of political figures and make sure they are clear about their positions on issues that impact vulnerable communities.
This type of advocacy and partnerships, along with the previously mentioned access to technology and broadband services, can give members of the Latino community, the LGBTQI community and homeless population (and the intersections of those groups) a better chance at equality, success, health, and self-determination in the U.S.