I was raised in a military family in Pinehurst. My parents were both loving, and they were both conservative. They took me to church, and I memorized the 10 Commandments.
But none of that has stopped me from being who I am: a queer, non-binary person.
Contrary to what some on the far right think, I am a queer, non-binary person despite little exposure to homosexuality while I was growing up, except through slurs by my classmates and the adults around me. I watched movies depicting mostly straight relationships, and I read books about straight people, but I still turned out to be who I am.
I and millions of other LGBTQ people who were raised by religious, conservative parents are proof that your upbringing cannot control your sexuality or gender.
Growing up in the Sandhills area did have an effect on me, though. Being surrounded by people who used “gay” as a derogatory term, people who used religion and morality as justifications for why being gay or transgender is wrong, made me hate myself as a teen. I struggled with depression and thoughts of suicide.
I hid who I was, and didn’t come out until well after college, because being raised in an area with little acceptance of LGBTQ people made it hard for me to accept and love myself.
My story isn’t unique. LGBTQ youth experience higher rates of mental illness and are five times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That number is higher for LGBTQ youth whose parents don’t accept them, the American Psychological Association found.
LGBTQ people in the South face additional struggles because much of the culture is rooted in religions that tell them their existence is immoral.
Exclusion can have a grave effect on LGBTQ youth; they make up 40 percent of all youth experiencing homelessness, despite the fact that they are just 7 percent of the total youth population in the United States, according to nonprofit the True Colors Fund. Half of LGBTQ youth said they were homeless because their families rejected them, according to a 2012 study by the Williams Institute. And though there are a number of reasons why LGBTQ youth might be rejected, one 2007 study found that many were forced out by their religious family members.
The climate is shifting, though. A 2019 survey by The Harris Poll and GLAAD, an LGBTQ rights nonprofit, found that eight in 10 Americans support equal rights for LGBTQ people, and an increasing number of religions and churches are accepting of same-sex marriages.
Representation of the 11.3 million LGBTQ Americans in the ranks of government is also continuing to grow; LGBTQ candidates were elected in record numbers in 2019.
Acceptance is growing in the Sandhills community, too, though much more slowly. Resources that I didn’t have growing up, like Sandhills PRIDE, now represent and support the LGBTQ people here.
Young people in the area are also leading the charge to support LGBTQ rights. Max Epstein, a ninth-grader at The O’Neal School, raised more than $7,500 to buy and hand-deliver diverse books to kindergarten through second- grade classes at 18 schools. The Pilot previously reported that the books included “populations that have been underrepresented in children’s literature — non-white characters, same-sex parents, blended and adoptive families.”
Pinecrest High School also has its own student-run pro-LGBTQ club, Spectrum, The O’Neal School has a diversity club, and Sandhills Community College has a Gay, Straight-Transgender-Alliance (GSTA).
Southern Pines Public Library also has diverse books in its children’s section, including books that represent same-sex parents and same-sex romance, just like they have books about heterosexual parents and heterosexual romance.
The far right often claims that young people are being “indoctrinated” into homosexuality or other parts of the LBTQ community. But, in reality, young people aren’t having anything forced on them. All youth have a unique sense of right and wrong that’s free from politics, so they are choosing to lead the charge for LGBTQ rights, especially in the South, where many are still rejected by their religious families.
Clubs like Spectrum, and books representing diverse families and gay or transgender people, offer LGBTQ youth here something I didn’t have when I was coming to terms with who I am — the chance to feel normal and safe.
Our community needs to push back against homophobia and transphobia, and embrace acceptance, because LGBTQ youth deserve to live free from violence, they deserve to feel safe, and they deserve love.
Jo Yurcaba lives in Seven Lakes, is a freelance journalist, and is a board member of Sandhills PRIDE.