On Sept. 16, an LGBTQ student at Georgia Tech was shot and killed by a campus police officer. Scout Schultz (who according to friends identified as “bisexual, nonbinary, and intersex” and used the pronouns ‘they’ and ‘their’) had behavioral-health issues that were well-known to campus medical professionals—almost as well-known as their leadership as president of the Georgia Tech Pride Alliance, the school’s LGBTQ organization. The police officer noted that Scout advanced on him with a knife. What was later reported found at the scene was a multipurpose tool—a tool that had earlier been in the hands of a desperate young person in need, whom it is now reported left behind multiple suicide notes.
As an Army brat with a younger brother who rose through the ranks and is now a police sergeant I’m left with a knot in my stomach, plenty of anger, and more than a few questions, including ‘What more could we have done to support this vulnerable young person?’ and, ‘What more needs to be done to ensure our police officers secure the skills and sensitivity to honor their oath to protect and serve?’
Increased bigoted rhetoric from the highest offices in the land is taking its toll on all of us. I feel it every day, and I am surrounded by loving friends, courageous PFLAGers, and engaged and equally enraged allies. How must our most vulnerable young people—our LGBTQ kids, our kids of color, our undocumented kids, the ones who might not have access to the human safety net needed to mitigate negative outcomes—feel? Isolated, depressed, invisible, unloved?
For those with behavioral-health challenges, the feelings can be exponentially worse. Last month, a queer friend’s teenage daughter attempted to die by suicide. Thankfully, she lived and is getting counseling after a hospital stay. Are we giving that same care to children whose genders, sexualities, rage, and grief seem to collide just as they are learning to make sense of our system and themselves?
And what of our police? I know many good law enforcement officers at the federal, state and local levels. But there has been a growing wave of reports about bad actors. I’m talking about Officer Darren Wilson, Officer Daniel Pantaleo, Officer Jeronimo Yanez, the list goes on and on. The most recent addition is St. Louis Officer Jason Stockley, who was just acquitted by a judge in the death of Anthony Lamar Smith…despite a recording of him saying “I’m gonna kill…” just moments prior to shooting him.
Taken together—the heightened rhetoric and barrage of negative legislation; the vulnerability of marginalized youth; the lack of sufficient behavioral-health support and treatment; and the violence perpetrated by some in law enforcements (whether due to insufficient training or outright racism and bigotry)—these circumstances have created a perfect storm that lead to exactly what happened on the Georgia Tech campus to Scout Schultz.
It is time to connect the dots. If we are to survive these times in a manner we can stand by—if we want to build a world that is actually going to hold close and protect the people who are most targeted—we will need a much more comprehensive approach. The truth is that, like most marginalized people, LGBTQ youth of all races are on the radar of our police forces than their peers. Our kids are more often homeless, in the foster care system, in drug and alcohol treatment centers, and in mental health facilities. Worse, they are often rejected by their families, and relying on professionals and caregivers who can make treatment outcomes feel like a roll of the dice.
At this time, when many, many more of us have been in the streets, calling our elected officials, and passionately mobilizing our LGBTQ and ally networks, we have to ask ourselves: What more can we do? How can we provide better support? Where is the root of the violence? What are our best strategies?
I had the great honor of working with The Department of Justice Community Relations Service providing education alongside our law enforcement partners on how to serve the transgender community. I stood side-by-side with DOJ CRS to work with our PFLAG chapter in Orlando following the massacre at Pulse nightclub. I know this kind of learning is possible and available.
We must call for better care for our youth.
We must provide more education and support for families who are lost when their kids come out.
We must provide better training to well-meaning law enforcement officers, and demand justice when others act on base impulses and cause harm to good people.
As we mobilize for justice as loudly and proudly as ever, let’s build something better, more profoundly just, than we had in 2016. And let’s all commit to fortify our vulnerable populations—including our LGBTQ kids—so that they will thrive…and live.
— Diego M. Sanchez, APR, is the Director of Advocacy, Policy, and Partnerships at PFLAG National