MERCED — A free health forum for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youths is scheduled to take place from 5 to 8 p.m. Thursday at the Italo-American Lodge, 1351 W. 18th St., Merced.
The forum, which is open to people of all ages, will discuss the important role of families and the community in preventing suicide and other risks among gay youths. The event also is geared toward fostering and supporting the emotional, mental and physical health of gay youths, according to organizers.
The scheduled keynote speaker for the event is Caitlin Ryan, a clinical social worker who's addressed issues related to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender adolescents, according to her biography.
The event is being organized by Merced Full Spectrum, a group geared toward raising awareness about gay rights and issues.
Andrea Cano, a member of Merced Full Spectrum, said the primary aim of the event is to galvanize families in Merced County to create a safe, accepting environment for gay youths.
Cano said gay youths who have family support and acceptance are far less likely to commit suicide, drop out of school or get involved in drugs.
According to the Ryan's Family Acceptance Project, gay youths who experience rejection during adolescence are at a much higher risk for attempting suicide, compared with those don't experience as much family rejection.
The research determined that gay youths who face a lot of rejection from families are eight times more likely to take their lives by the time they are young adults.
Cano said she hopes the forum will lead to more events that encourage inclusiveness and a safe, accepting environment for gay youths.
She said many gay people are afraid to "come out" and reveal their sexuality in public because they might have been bullied, kicked out of their homes, or been the target of slurs and taunts.
Groups joining effort
Fortunately, Cano said more groups similar to Merced Full Spectrum are helping to change that situation for the better.
"Community here is coming together. I'm seeing some changes, and I also respect others' rights to question what they don't understand, what they don't know," she said. "By giving them these facts and by giving them these numbers, they can see how being supportive can make the community grow even more positive."
Jeremy Jenkins, who also belongs to Merced Full Spectrum, said he's met many gay youths in need of family and community support. "I feel like this first step is going to help LGBT youth that are in need," he said.
The event will include a panel discussion on the importance of community support for gay youths and the resources that are available locally to help them and their families, according to organizers.
Additional sponsors of the event include Parents, Families, & Friends of Lesbians and Gays, the Family Acceptance Project, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Central Valley Journey for Justice and Building Healthy Communities.