There have been at least 82 anti-LGBTQ bills filed during the 88th Texas Legislature’s session so far, from limiting access to gender-affirming care to banning classroom instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity.

And the kids — especially queer kids — are watching.

Alex Garrido, who identifies as non-binary, sees headlines about this legislation almost every day. That’s partially due to their activism for queer rights, but they said seeing anti-LGBTQ rhetoric has become part of life in Texas.

“So many emotions come up when I see these kinds of things, but I would definitely say the big ones are anger, exhaustion and fear,” Garrido said. “I would put an emphasis now on the exhaustion … I’m just so tired. Like, there’s so much, constantly — it seems like it’s never-ending.”

Garrido is not alone.

The CDC’s recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey “confirms ongoing and extreme distress among teens who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or questioning (LGBQ+).”

In 2021, more than half of LGBTQ students reported experiencing poor mental health, according to the survey. More than 1 in 10 said they avoided school out of safety concerns and nearly 1 in 4 experienced sexual violence.

Almost a quarter of teens who responded said they were bullied at school; more than a quarter were bullied electronically, according to the survey. Nearly 1 in 4 attempted suicide in the past year.

The mental health of Garrido’s friends who are transgender has been especially impacted in recent years, they said.

Last year, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered state child welfare officials to launch child abuse investigations into parents who seek gender-affirming care for their transgender kids.

Even international news impacts local youth, Garrido said, noting their mourning of Brianna Ghey, a transgender girl who was murdered in England last month.

Garrido, 16, was diagnosed with depression and anxiety at 14. “I think it’s safe to say that every single trans person that I know has shown [symptoms of] the exact same thing — which is insane, especially at our young age.”

Garrido hopes other queer youth will find good local or national resources like they did at The Trevor Project, which provides 24/7 crisis support services.

“I’m in a place now where I’m very happy with my identity and I feel very supported by the people around me,” they said.

But the Texas Legislature isn’t making that easy.

An ‘environment for bullying’

“It’s, unfortunately, another day in Texas … it’s a repeat at a more intensified level from previous sessions,” said Robert Salcido, executive director of Pride Center San Antonio, a resource hub for the LGBTQ community. “It obviously impacts their mental health.”

Mental health issues can take a toll beyond how someone feels day-to-day — especially for kids, Salcido said. “It impacts how they do in school and how they interact with their peers and how they navigate society. It impacts [kids] so much on a deeper level, [more] than what our legislators probably even understand or know.”

When Garrido came out as non-binary in 8th grade at the Advanced Learning Academy, they first came out at school — but not at home.

“I was just so scared and it bled into every aspect of my life,” they said, and their grades suffered. “It was very stressful as a 14-year-old, having to tell all my teachers, but I got the most supportive reactions ever [from] every single one of them and that just … I can’t express how much that meant to me.”

Alex Garrido, a 16-year-old student at the Advanced Learning Academy, found support among their school teachers when they came out at 14. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

The proposed bills that threaten the ability of teachers to provide that support are what scare Garrido the most, such as Senate Bill 1072, which could prohibit school district employees from discussing matters of human sexuality with students outside of class, or several others that would ban instruction on sexual identity in various grades.

Students and teachers need more education about the LGBTQ community, not less, Garrido said. “The only way we’re ever going to reach acceptance is through people not seeing us as a threat.”

Starting three years ago, the Pride Center began offering free group therapy and case management. They’ve had a wait list ever since, Salcido said.

The legislation, headlines and protests that target the LGBTQ community as “other” only adds anxiety, he said. “It angers me when I hear a politician say: ‘We’re doing this for the safety of our youth.’ I’m like, Are you really even thinking about the safety and the well-being of our youth? You’re not, because you’re creating an environment where you are literally putting their lives in danger.”

Straight and cis-gendered kids are watching, too, Salcido said. “It’s creating that environment for bullying and for people to be ostracized.”

Nearly half of the local teenagers surveyed in spring 2022 by the San Antonio Youth Commission and Project Worth Teen Ambassadors reported feeling “helpless, hopeless, numb or like nothing matters.” On average, LGBTQ youth reported those feelings 20% more often than straight kids.

The youth commission’s 2023 survey launched this week and will be open through April 9.

“I really would love if we could get the survey out to more people [this year] just to assess the needs of more youth in San Antonio,” said Anna Hurd, who represents District 1 on the youth commission. Last year, the survey recorded 846 valid responses.

Hurd, 16, will be on the San Antonio Report’s lunchtime panel on youth mental health on Tuesday, March 6 at Clarity Child Guidance Center and streamed online. Like so many teen girls, Hurd has struggled with mental health issues.

“What helped me the most was definitely therapy and being able to talk about what I was going through,” she said. “I know that that’s not an option for everyone.”

The CDC’s report found that nearly 3 in 5 teen girls reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless in 2021 — the highest level reported over the past decade. That’s double the number of boys and represents a nearly 60% increase from 2020.

Hurd expects the local survey will again track with the national data.

She attributes higher levels of anxiety and sadness in girls in part to social media, “which girls are on more at younger ages.”

Creating safe spaces

The CDC report identifies three key strategies to improve youth mental health: creating a sense of belonging and support at school, increased access to health care and implementing quality health education “that is medically accurate, developmentally appropriate, culturally and LGBTQ+ inclusive and grounded in science.”

These strategies would be impossible under much of the proposed anti-LGBTQ legislation in Texas.

Ultimately, what a lot of queer kids need is just a place to be themselves, said Chris Chun, president of Fiesta Youth, a volunteer organization that provides a support network of activities, training and events for LGBTQ youth in San Antonio.

“We provide a safe environment for LGBTQ youth to meet with their peers and just really just have a chance to socialize and be who they are, their true selves, as well as try to provide some programming to help them with general life skills,” Chun said. “We’re trying to make sure that the youth understand that their opportunities are just as unlimited as anybody else.”

He sees the political discourse seeping into their mindset.

“Every time you turn around, somebody’s trying to pass legislation that says that you’re not normal, and that your parents don’t care for you, or that your doctors are doing the wrong thing,” Chun said.

For the most part, however, politics and policy are left outside this safe space, he said. “They don’t [often] bring those topics up for conversation, because it just increases their anxiety and that’s not what they’re here for. … They just want to be a teenager and this is their opportunity to relax.”

Garrido attended Fiesta Youth’s LGBTQ prom last year.

“It was amazing,” they said. “It felt like a very safe space to express yourself.”

Though it may be exhausting, the fight is far from over, Salcido said. “One of the things the community can do is continue to be vocal and continue to make their voices heard. … There are opportunities to testify before our legislators … and I encourage people that are of the LGBTQ plus community [and allies] to do so.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing a crisis, call or text 988. The Trevor Project, which provides LGBTQ-specific help, can be reached at 1-866-488-7386 or online.

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org