Matthews: Rural LGBTQ youth hit hard by isolation

People think Oregon is a great place to live if you’re LGBTQ — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer. Of course, these people are thinking about Portland, with one of the top LGBTQ populations in the country.

Guest Writer

Guest writer Paige Matthews is a queer certified drug and alcohol counselor and licensed professional counselor intern based in Yamhill County. Holder of a master’s in counseling from Oregon State University, with a concentration in clinical mental health, Matthews focuses her professional efforts on LGBTQ identity development, the impact of oppression on mental health and healthcare equity for rural LGBTQ Oregonians.

The fact is, Oregon is not such a great place to be LGBTQ if you live outside metropolitan Portland. And Yamhill County is one of those places where being LGBTQ can still prove difficult. 

Here in rural Oregon, LGBTQ people are harassed at grocery stores. They have a hard time finding doctors who understand them. They live with families that don’t accept them. They can’t afford gender-affirming clothes, or, sometimes, even food.

Rural LGBTQ youth and adults face tough trajectories: isolation; lack of transportation, lack of access to LGBTQ-affirming social supports; and increased health care disparities, by nature both of being LGBTQ as well as rural.

Now with COVID-19, these trajectories are getting worse. COVID-19 amplifies the housing and health care disparities rural LGBTQ Oregonians have been experiencing all along. 

Sadly, rural LGBTQ kids are hurting disproportionately right now. 
They were already facing high rates of rejection and abuse. Now, under the Stay at Home orders for COVID-19, many are trapped at home with disapproving families.

These kids can’t get to their only refuge, their school LGBTQ club, assuming they have one, because school has been cancelled. They can’t see friends who support them. They can’t access LGBTQ resources in Portland, because they have no transportation.

This situation begs the question: How is being quarantined in Yamhill County affecting their mental health?LGBTQ youth have long struggled with mental health stresses. They were already prone to suicidal before COVID-19 struck.

The Centers for Disease Control reported in 2016 that LGBTQ youth were almost five times as likely to attempt suicide as their straight peers. Now these kids, already subject to bullying and harassment, may be quarantined without any visible means of support.

Could Stay at Home really raise the suicide risk for rural LGBTQ youth? Yes.

Elevated suicide risk for LGBTQ youth was already a public health crisis. And it just became worse.

There are ways we can help, and it starts with parents and caregivers. This is a critical time to offer affirmation to their LGBTQ charges.

Ways you can make LGBTQ youth feel safe at home include calling them by the name they prefer. Using the correct pronouns. Asking them if they need clothing better reflecting their gender identity. Helping them locate LGBTQ support resources online. Driving them to support providers still operating. Accepting their experience as real and they are who they say they are. 

As parents and caretakers, affirming your LGBTQ child or family member can actually prove lifesaving.
The Trevor Project reports only one affirming adult can reduce a LGBTQ child’s risk of suicide by 40 percent. Please be that affirming adult. 

This call extends not just to caretakers, but also healthcare providers. In times like these, we need LGBTQ affirming healthcare providers in rural Oregon just as much as we do affirming caretakers. 

Many rural LGBTQ Oregonians have had healthcare providers make them feel uncomfortable about their LGBTQ status. This happens in various ways: denying or debating gender or sexuality; raising the prospect of conversion therapy; and asking inappropriate and irrelevant questions about gender and sexuality.

Rural LGBTQ Oregonians were already hesitant to seek medical or mental health care, fearing discrimination and discomfort.  What happens if these individuals experience COVID-19 symptoms? Are they less likely to seek testing or treatment because they don’t trust a medical system that has historically harmed them?

We must make sure our rural medical and mental health systems are affirming LGBTQ patients so they feel comfortable seeking care when they need it.

Healthcare providers can do this by accepting and acknowledging LGBTQ clients’ experiences; asking clients their preferred names and pronouns, then using them; displaying LGBTQ safe zone signs; advocating for LGBTQ needs within their professional organizations; and seeking training in LGBTQ issues.

We must come together now to support our LGBTQ neighbors in Yamhill County. Are they hesitant to consult a doctor about COVID-19 symptoms? Are they feeling unsafe at home? We can all help them through such issues. 

Once this pandemic passes, we need to work toward longer-term solutions.

Let’s support our local LGBTQ community by building more affirming healthcare systems. Let’s give them more online and in-person social spaces — spaces where they can find refuge if home is a hard place to be. Let’s make sure they have food and clothes, and let’s help them feel safe and welcome in our businesses.

Yamhill County has already begun this journey, with LGBTQ-focused organizations like PFLAG Newberg, and a smattering of support groups, school clubs, affirming healthcare providers and accepting families.

Moving forward, let’s build more LGBTQ-affirming supports into our local infrastructure. Maybe then, when a pandemic like COVID-19 hits, our LGBTQ neighbors won’t have to endure it alone.


Who to call

If you are LGBTQ and struggling with mental health challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, you can call the Trevor Project at 866-488-7386 or

Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860. If you are an LGBTQ Senior and would like support, you can call the SAGE National Elder Hotline at 877-360-5428. You can also contact PFLAG Newberg at pflagnewberg.org. If you’re feeling suicidal, please call the Yamhill County Crisis Line at 844-842-8200 or 911.


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