This has been a landmark year in gay rights. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed, New York became the seventh state or territory to legalize gay marriage and key public figures like Lady Gaga, Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama threw their weight behind the It Gets Better campaign. Although these are significant strides toward equality, homophobia still lingers in our domestic policies, and Texas’ Rider 19 embodies the kind of bigotry and bias that gay teens still face.
Rider 19 is the Texas Department of State Health Services’ sexual abuse reporting policy for minors. Created in 2001, it requires all DSHS-funded doctors to report cases of statutory rape, nonconsensual sex, or any intercourse involving children under 14 to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
While it does work to protect teens from harmful or abusive situations, it also has a bigoted and potentially dangerous special provision for same-sex couples. If a medical, mental health or family planning doctor discovers that a patient under 17 slept with someone of the same sex, regardless of his or her partner’s age or consent, they must file a child abuse claim and report them to DFPS within 48 hours. If it is discovered that they did not file a claim, the doctor faces financial sanctions and could potentially lose their job.
This discriminatory treatment of gay or questioning teens can devastate the teen’s personal life and destroys the expected trust and confidentiality in the patient-provider relationship.
This stigmatizing clause equates homosexual sex with rape, incest, and child abuse, which means DFPS will launch an investigation and interview the teen’s parents to ensure his or her safety. During this meeting, the teen will be “outed” against their will, which, depending on their parent’s feelings toward homosexuality, could mean they get disowned, mistreated or abandoned. According to a 2006 study by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 26 percent of teens were kicked out of their homes when they came out. The Center of American Progress states that between 20 to 40 percent of homeless children are gay, while just 5 to 10 percent of the general population is homosexual.
Beyond potential disownment, premature outing can also impact the teen’s self-esteem and mental health. Disapproving peers and loved ones may harass or bully the outed child, leading them to depression or substance abuse. Suicide is already remarkably high among gay individuals; the added stress of an unwanted or unprepared outing could put more teens on the verge of taking their life.
A 2008 report by the Suicide Prevention Resource Center states that up to three times as many gay teens considered ending their life than straight teens, and as many as seven times attempted it. The wave of gay teen suicides in 2010 and 2011 demonstrates the fear and isolation still caused by homophobia.
“Children are particularly vulnerable to the hurt caused by discrimination and prejudice, and we’ve lost many young people over the years to suicide,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in her It Gets Better video. “These most recent deaths are a reminder that all Americans have to work harder to overcome bigotry and hatred.”
Aside from Rider 19’s damaging effects on gay teens’ personal lives, it also undermines the patient-provider relationship and discourages sexually active teens from being upfront with their doctor. Patients expect to have their medical and mental health kept in confidence, but the threat of sanctions forces doctors to break this trust and makes patients less willing to reveal personal information. With STD and HIV rates already higher than average among homosexual groups, the decreased rate of disclosure, education and testing could boost these numbers even higher.
Although originally penned to help protect children, Rider 19’s bigoted same-sex clause will devastate young lives and decrease confidence between patients and providers. Texas repealed its antiquated sodomy laws in 2003, and Rider 19 needs to follow suit. Gay and questioning teens should not have their family lives uprooted for consensual sexual activities that their straight peers would not be held accountable for. Lingering stigmas and bias must end before it can truly get better.