LGBTQ youth commission eyes ‘lighthouse’ role with call for legislation

By ALISON KUZNITZ

State House News Service

Published: 05-01-2023 12:43 PM

BOSTON — A state commission charged with advocating for LGBTQ youth is calling on Massachusetts lawmakers to support an array of bills meant to ensure access to gender-affirming care, curb discrimination and harassment, and install new safeguards in the child welfare system.

In its new nearly 300-page annual report, the Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth urged Gov. Maura Healey and the Legislature — plus about 20 state agencies and departments  — to enact the new policies and training opportunities to protect a growing community that’s facing rising attacks around the country.

About 470 anti-LGBTQ bills have been filed across the U.S. targeting gender-affirming care, school curriculum and books, said Noemi Uribe, co-chair of the commission. In Massachusetts, 43 school districts have logged anti-LGBTQ incidents in recent years, such as removing pride flags and banning drag shows, Uribe said during a recent State House event as the commission unveiled its recommendations and swore in new members.

“As the state with the only commission on LGBTQ youth in the country, we believe it is our responsibility to be the lighthouse for LGBTQ youth, to uplift underserved populations across the commonwealth,” Uribe said from a podium draped with a pride flag.

“At every level, and within every institution, the commission calls for the commonwealth to say, ‘Not in Massachusetts.’ But in order to do so, the commonwealth must continuously address its own negligence toward ensuring comprehensive care for LGBTQ youth.”

Some 22% of Massachusetts youth identified as LGBTQ in 2021, compared to 12.6% in 2015, according to the report. Just over 5% of youth identified as transgender in 2021, compared to 2.9% in 2021.

The commission found that about half of LGBTQ youth couldn’t access mental health care that they “desperately wanted” after being bullied or threatened at school, among other types of harassment and violence. Eighteen percent of LGBTQ youths attempted suicide in 2021, and 41% seriously considered suicide, according to the report.

Sen. Julian Cyr, who is openly gay, said it was “invigorating” to see so many LGBTQ youth leaders at the State House. He also invoked elected officials like Healey, the state’s first openly lesbian governor, as well as other allies and “co-conspirators” who can implement the commission’s recommendations.

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“While yes, some mornings we can take comfort to live in a state like Massachusetts, we absolutely cannot rest on our laurels,” Cyr said. “There is this moment where our community, where queer people are increasingly taking the full reins of our power back to demand justice for our people in our community.”

Lawmakers last year strengthened protections for gender-affirming care within a bill — signed into law by former Gov. Charlie Baker — meant to shield abortion providers and patients in Massachusetts in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. But the commission recommends that MassHealth now review its policies to enable more transgender youth to receive gender-affirming health services, reduce racial disparities in care within marginalized communities, and expand trauma-informed care.

To bolster child welfare, the commission urges lawmakers to approve a foster child bill of rights, and to pass a bill that would provide a $1,000 monthly cash stipend, spanning five years, to youths who are aging out of the foster care system. The report also endorses a parentage equality bill, which would clarify parental relationships for same-sex parents who aren’t married and for children born through assisted reproduction or surrogacy.

Gender ‘X’ bill

The commission is pressing lawmakers to advance the Gender “X” bill, which would allow individuals to revise their birth certificate with a nonbinary designation— without providing a court order, proof of a name change, or medical documentation. Sen. Jo Comerford, who filed the legislation, thanked the commission for its guidance, particularly by infusing a racial justice focus into the bill.

“I’m sure that my colleagues here could account time, after time, after time, where the youth commission has said, ‘We’re going to hold you accountable, Massachusetts Legislature...” Comerford said. “Our young people, our entire LGBTQ community deserves that. We deserve, in the face of everything that’s happening across the nation, we deserve to be held accountable here.”

Other proposals in the report include updating the state’s plumbing code to allow more multistall gender-neutral bathrooms, increasing funding for sex education and for more research surrounding LGBTQ mental health, expanding access to public health resources in rural swaths of Massachusetts, creating safe places and shelters for LGBTQ youth who are homeless, and spurring better collaboration among agencies that serve youth.

“We are just getting started,” said Shaplaie Brooks, the commission’s executive director. “We are all engaged in the purest acts of resistance — freedom for those with the most to combat but are armed with the least, the marginalized community within our marginalized communities.”

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