Clare Madrigal has seen her fair share of young patients in mental health crisis during her years as an emergency nurse at Frederick Health Hospital.
Many of these patients identify as LGBTQ, she said. She wears a rainbow printed pin with her pronouns on it and asks each person how they would like to be addressed. Some of them open up to her when they realize she will agree, she says.
“They struggle to be accepted by their parents, their teachers, their classmates,” Madrigal said.
His observations are supported by data. Frederick County high school students who identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual in the 2018 Maryland Youth Risk Behavior Survey were almost four times more likely to consider suicide than their heterosexual peers. They were also less likely to report having supportive adults in their lives and more likely to experience bullying at school, among a host of other disparities.
Following a tense meeting over updates to the Frederick County Public Schools Health Program, which district officials say are aimed at making classrooms more inclusive, advocates and public health officials highlighted such disparities in their calls for change.
“It’s illogical to have a society that respects all people of all sexual orientations and gender identities and then hide those facts from people in the public school system,” said Kris Fair, director of the nonprofit. LGBTQ advocacy fund The Frederick Center.
Eleven percent of FCPS high school students surveyed in 2018 — the most recent year for which data is available — identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. In addition to significant mental health gaps between these students and their peers, lesbian, gay, or bisexual children were more likely to report behaviors that may affect their physical health.
They were also much more likely to report using drugs like heroin, cocaine and methamphetamines, according to survey data. They engaged in risky sexual behaviors at higher rates, putting them at increased risk of infections or sexually transmitted diseases.
“Inclusiveness, equity and justice all impact health and well-being,” Frederick County Health Officer Barbara Brookmyer said in a statement. His department is responsible for analyzing the results of the biennial survey, which was not conducted in 2020 due to the pandemic. “These are disparities that have persisted in our community for many years.”
Nationally, the data shows trends that mirror Frederick’s. There is also data to suggest that early and inclusive health education is correlated with better outcomes for LGBTQ children, according to the nonprofit GLSEN, which advocates for policies that protect marginalized and LGBTQ students.
The group’s 2019 National School Climate Survey includes research on the mental health and academic outcomes of LGBTQ students in schools with varying policies and programs. She found that LGBTQ students who attended an LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum were less likely to hear homophobic slurs at school, performed better academically, and were more likely to pursue post-secondary education.
These same students were also less likely to report feeling unsafe at school, GLSEN found. In Frederick County, lesbian, gay and bisexual students were about twice as likely to report being bullied or carrying a weapon on school property compared to straight students, according to the study on young people’s risky behaviors.
On Tuesday, before heading to the FCPS Family Life Advisory Committee meeting, Fair hosted the Frederick Center’s first-ever “Aging With Pride” group. It was a support group for LGBTQ seniors, and right away Fair noticed commonalities in their experiences.
“The stories they shared all started with, ‘I knew something was wrong when I was in elementary school,'” Fair said. “But they were left isolated and scared.”
Like Fair and Madrigal, the group’s participants said that as children, they didn’t really know gay people existed. They knew they felt different from their peers and they knew, for some reason, they shouldn’t talk about it.
As a result, Fair said, most of the people at the Aging With Pride reunion stayed locked up until they were in their 30s, 40s or 50s. A man was 70 years old and had only been out a few weeks before.
Later, Fair would show up to a packed FLAC meeting. About 10 other people from the Frederick Center accompanied him. Eight of them had signed up to speak in support of the curriculum changes proposed by FCPS. Only one did.
When a hundred parents opposed to the changes began yelling at school officials, Fair and his colleagues left. They had brought young people and they no longer felt safe.
Madrigal, who serves on the Frederick Center’s Board of Trustees, also offers educational consulting services to healthcare providers on best practices for treating LGBT patients.
She encounters a lot of repression, she said, which she says is often rooted in religious or cultural beliefs. Time and time again, she tells people the same thing: one person who supports her can make all the difference in a child’s life. They might even save him, she said.
“I felt really alone when I was a kid,” Madrigal said. “I really want kids of this generation to know there’s a huge community that loves them.”