ORLANDO, Fla. — More than half of LGBTQ youth have struggled in the past year, facing discrimination based upon sexual orientation or gender identity, according to the Trevor Project.

But, the stat comes as no surprise to Heather Wilkie, who serves as the Zebra Coalition's Executive Director.

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“They can experience an increased level of depression, anxiety,” she said. “Unfortunately suicidal ideation, which is five times more likely to happen for LGBTQ young person than non-LGBTQ young person."

The Zebra Coalition provides mental-health services and housing services to primarily LGBTQ plus youth, primarily between the ages of 13 to 24. They host social events, manage a drop-in center, staffed with case managers and counselors.

“It’s also a lot of times having to do with societal acceptance, that may be through their family, their experiences in school, their social situation," Wilkie said. "Many of our kids drop out of school or switch to virtual school because of the experiences they’re having. We want to make sure we’re providing that trauma-informed care lens."

Meanwhile, the LGBT+ Center, located both on Mills Avenue in downtown Orlando and Monument Avenue in Kissimmee, boasts counseling, programming, free STI testing and other resources. 

While Luther Dowe said that he always felt supported growing up, coming out to his parents after serving in the U.S. Navy, he sees the ripple effects of trauma upon the LGBTQ community firsthand.

Dowe started two Facebook groups, connecting LGBT community members in Orlando, as well as specifically in Seminole County, where he and his husband live.

While both groups see plenty of posts asking about recommendations for safe spaces to frequent — from nail salons to bars — there are also posts much more sensitive in nature. Some social media group members post dark and sad thoughts, leading others often to reach out, he explained.

“Some people come in because they need help,” Dowe said. “They may make a post that says that they’re stressed out, they’re sad or something’s wrong. We’ve had people reach out because they’re hungry, they needed food and hadn’t eaten in days. One of our members posted that he was leaving an establishment in Orlando and a group of people beat him up. Emotionally, he needed a support group, and he got that.”

Kindness can go a long way toward mitigating trauma many LGBTQ members face on a daily basis, Wilkie said. 

She suggested allies can show support in simple ways, from wearing a rainbow lanyard and putting pronouns in one's email signature, to attending a supportive event or walk. 

Wilkie also said having tough conversations, including about legislation and its impact upon the community, is key to progress.

“What we know is that organizations, like the Zebra Coalition, and national organizations, like the Trevor Project, are so important," she said. “Luckily, in Central Florida there are a lot of different groups doing this great work. No matter what we’re experiencing, we need to have a support system."

Support: It’s what Dowe sees as he fires up his laptop, signs on to Facebook and moderates discussions of community members. 

“It’s a real emotional support for a person. It could change a life," he said. “When somebody is not accepted, it’s harder for them to express themselves."

But, Dowe also said that he feels things are getting better and believes that generations to come, including his own three children, will come to understand the meaning of true acceptance.

“There’s always going to be somebody that hates, but the general population I believe will be there, accepting and supporting," Dowe said. "They’re going to see the love in it.”