By Vanessa Falcon
Urban Health Media Project
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Heidi Ellis, 36, was taught to love reading, to love her culture, and to love herself. Ellis, who identifies as lesbian and came out at the age of 19, knows she was lucky — lucky to be loved for who she is.
Still, as a Black and Latinx woman who has struggled with severe depression and suicidal thoughts over the years, she knows how hard it can be for others like her. That helped convince the former Environmental Protection Agency senior advisor in the Obama Administration to launch a company to help people who are LGBTQ+, especially those in communities of color. Last February, she also joined the board of directors for Strength In Our Voices, a D.C.-based nonprofit dedicated to mental health advocacy and suicide prevention.
The struggles faced by LGBTQ+ youth have been amplified amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Ellis said. Some young people have lost their “safe spaces,” due to quarantine regulations, and others never had help or safety in the first place and are suffering even more in isolation.
A poll released in October by The Trevor Project found 75% of transgender and non-binary youth feel even more lonely compared to the beginning of the pandemic. More than one in three LGBTQ+ youth also can’t rely on their parents for COVID-19 updates and safety, according to the poll.
Ellis’ work includes programming with public school systems and local nonprofits supporting LGBTQ+ youth to provide safe spaces and empower the youth.
“With COVID happening, it has forced us to adapt and make changes to our process and how we reach out,” Ellis said. “I aim to reach a goal where mental health is on the same level as your physical health.”
Isolation can follow coming out
When Ellis came out at 19 years old, relatives in her Catholic multicultural household started to pull away, she said. The former athlete, dancer and all-around good student found the looks of admiration and pride she had received in the community seemed to wane.
Ellis and her mother didn’t even speak for three months after she came out.
Still, Ellis did not regret her decision: “I wanted to walk in my own truth,” she said. Her mother eventually came around, Ellis said, because she loved her daughter regardless of tradition and the church’s teachings.
“My mother, despite being Catholic, stayed with me because she decided she wanted me in her life,” Ellis said. “I know other people who didn’t get that.” Now, she said, her mother is her biggest advocate, her “ace.”
Many LGBTQ+ youth have far more traumatic experiences — being shunned by parents, kicked out of the house, beaten, abused, ostracized, or even sent to “conversion camps.” Ellis is grateful that she was spared these.
LGBTQ+ youth between the ages of 18 and 25 are 120% more likely to experience homelessness compared to their cisgender heterosexual counterparts, according to True Colors United, an organization focused on solving LGBT+ youth homelessness. For these homeless youth, sometimes even finding a shelter is not a guarantee of comfort and safety, despite rules passed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development aimed at preventing discrimination and harm in shelters based on gender identity.
The Trump administration proposed a rule in July 2020 that would give homeless shelters the right to turn away transgender people from single-sex facilities that correspond to their gender identity. Advocates believe it’s unlikely the Trump administration would finalize it because the Biden administration would likely reverse it when they take office.
The ‘dark moments’ for LGBTQ+ youth
The constant threat of discrimination, physical and verbal assault, and inequity for those in the LGBTQ+ community is what drives Ellis in her work, she said.
Studies show there are many factors adversely affecting LGBTQ+ youth. The Trevor Project’s 2020 National Survey on LGBTQ Mental Health states that 40% of LGBTQ+ respondents seriously considered attempting suicide in the past 12 months; 48% reported engaging in self-harm in the past 12 months, including over 60% of transgender and nonbinary youth. Unfortunately, the likelihood of self-harm increases by more than 2 times for every physical/verbal onslaught committed, according to the American Journal of Public Health.
Strength in Our Voices, where Ellis serves as the board member in charge of partnerships and development, helps empower students and teachers to tap their inner resources during challenging times. SIOV helps youth learn to love and care for themselves, she said.
“I see myself in the kids I work with, there’s a sort of kinship between us,” explains Ellis. “The youth I work with open my eyes and teach me lessons. From them, I have learned to not make assumptions, to open my mind.”
Ellis’s greatest hope is to make the world a better place for those who are unaccepted, she said.
“I’m thankful for the support and love I received from my family and friends throughout my journey,” said Ellis, smiling proudly. “It gave me the strength to overcome obstacles, and the humility to do the work and fight for others.”
Editor’s note: Vanessa Falcon is a senior at Miami Lakes Educational Center in Miami. She was a participant in the Urban Health Media Project’s fall 2020 workshop “Surviving and Thriving Despite Trauma.” The workshop was sponsored by The National Council for Behavioral Health (www.thenationalcouncil.org).