No matter the sexual orientation of a child or teen, sexual abuse is often hard to detect. Physical abuse may show signs of bruising or wounds, but can be hard to discuss. For gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender youth the conversation can be equally harmful if approached in the wrong way.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth experience abuse rates higher than heterosexual individuals. LGBT youth also experience higher rates of homelessness, lack of supportive networks, and mental health issues as a result than their heterosexual peers. LGBT individuals are no more or less likely to be an abuser than any other individual.
Recognize the signs and their privacy
- Respect the boundaries set by kids and teens who have not openly discussed their sexual orientation with you. If they haven’t told you, or you don’t know for certain, don’t ask. In relation to the abuse, it’s not important anyway. Avoid hinting you suspect them of being gay, like in saying, “Someone I work with is gay…”
- Listen to what the child is saying. Some common phrases that may indicate something is wrong include:
- “I don’t want to go home”
- Using words or phrases that are “too adult” for their age
- Unexplained and prolonged silence
- Physical bruising, swelling, blood, and broken bones are the most obvious and critical physical signs and demand your attention.
- Behavioral changes such as regression when being touched, thumb sucking, excessive or absent bathing, sleep trouble, age-inappropriate sexual behaviors to others, and sudden changes in mood or anger are signs you should talk to the child.
Talk to the child
- LGBT kids and teens are often afraid to come out for fear of alienation. Coming out and saying they’ve been abused can be an intense conversation. Reassure them they are not in trouble, you love or care about them, and can help.
- Remember abuse can happen online, not just in person. LGBT youth are more likely to be involved in online communities out of sheer need for connection with other LGBT people.
- Be patient with them and be direct in an age-appropriate way. For instance, ask “Has someone been touching you?” Depending on the child’s age, asking if someone is “hurting” them may not give you information you’re looking for.
- Avoid judgement and avoid “You” statements. Instead of “You told me he was touching you” say, “I’m concerned because I need to make sure he’s not touching you inappropriately.”
- Be aware of your tone and keep conversations free of opinion and other people where possible. If a child feels accused, threatened, or worried they may be outed to others like church leaders, they can feel afraid and shut down.
- Talk to them in a safe and comfortable place. Avoid forcing discussing anything in public, at school, or even in their bedroom — it could be where the abuse has occurred. Ask the child where they’d like to talk. Recognize they may want someplace that is accepting of their sexual orientation and that may not feel like their school or church to them. If they don’t know, suggest some favorite places or a quiet room, like a backyard, in the car on a drive, or other part of the house.
- Remember LGBT youth struggle with sexual development and other issues at different speeds than others. They may feel confused about their attraction to others, and further confused by their abuser.
Know when to ask for help
- In Indiana everyone is a mandated reporter of abuse. Call 1-800-800-5556 or 911 in an emergency. Failure to report can mean a child is further harmed or killed.
- If you want more help understanding what might be happening, do not talk to the alleged abuser. Instead, ask a physician, principal, or other professional. Remember that asking or telling other family members, neighbors, or family friends can alienate them if they think you outed them or embarrassed them.
- Before you report it, tell them you’re going to talk to someone who can help. Be clear you’re not asking for permission because they may be frightened, often because abusers threaten to hurt them if they do. Remind them by involving authorities they will be protected.
- Prepare for the call by writing down their name, age, address, nature of the abuse, your relationship with the child, and how they disclosed. You may report anonymously, but identifying yourself increases prosecution rates.
- Continue to play a supportive role in the child’s life to the best of your ability.