According to the Trevor Project, suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for young people ages 10-24, and LGBTQ youth are four times as likely to attempt suicide as their straight peers.

High school is a difficult time for a lot of young people, and LGBTQ youth especially. It can be easy to feel isolated or alone, like there is no one else having the same experiences. Even in schools with GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance) programs, there can be issues of LGBTQ youth not feeling safe enough to be out publically, or the GSA program being so populated with allies LGBTQ youth still paradoxically feel alone.

But what if there was a social media network targeted specifically towards LGBTQ high school youth? Anna Weingart, a current Psychology major at UT, is the founder of just such a resource: SanghaLink.

Weingart said her work with SanghaLink developed out of her own experiences as a gay teen at Austin High. “I had no one to reach out to,” Weingart remembered. “I didn't know any LGBT people in my school or in Austin. The people I found on-line were not geographically close.” Weingart admitted she was also hesitant to reach out on-line because she didn't know who she was talking to, and it felt potentially dangerous.

It wasn't until Weingart went to college that she discovered there were actually a lot of LGBTQ people in her area. She just hadn't known how to find them. Weingart noted that another difficulty with high school GSA programs is that there might not be a lot of LGBTQ individuals in a specific school, and high school students don't have a lot of resources for finding other youth who live in their geographic area but attend a different school.

Weingart hopes SanghaLink will serve to bridge the two experiences: providing LGBTQ youth a safe on-line community and giving young people the resources to foster a supportive community both on and off the Internet. A confirmation process ensures all SanghaLink members are registered high school students, preventing adults or predators from gaining access to the website. SanghaLink accounts are also time-sensitive, being removed once students turn 18 or graduate (whichever comes first).

After the private confirmation process, SanghaLink automatically matches users with others in their metro area, rather than users having to individually “friend” people like on Facebook. SanghaLink users will also have the option to view other metro areas in their state – a useful feature for LGBTQ youth who may be moving to other areas, or who might be on the geographic outskirts of a particular school system's boundary map.

In addition to profile pages, SanghaLink will provide members access to blogs and community question boards, as well as a public resource page filled with both national and local organizations. The site will also monitor content, including posts which include bullying or references to suicidal ideation. “If the community doesn't know, we can't help,” she said. Weingart also said users don't have to necessarily self-identify as LGBTQ to become a SanghaLink member. “What about straight people with gay parents or family members?” Weingart said. “We don't want to exclude. SanghaLink is geared at connecting that community.”

Weingart says SanghaLink users can remain as private as they want. “They don't have to post pictures or list their high school on their profile,” she explained. SanghaLink link partners with high schools and any pre-existing GSA programs, doing their best to work with the organizations already present in schools.

Weingart plans to officially launch SanghaLink in schools across Texas for the 2015-2016 school year after a successful pilot program in Pflugerville and Westwood High Schools last spring. Weingart said she received incredible feedback from students all across Texas after the pilot program, and has repeatedly been asked, “When will it be in our school?” Weingart said the program has not received any pushback as of yet, but she expects it at some point. “No matter what you're doing, you will get pushback from some people.”

Weingart said the benefit of SanghaLink is that it's local, but also public enough to find people in your surrounding area for support. “There are not always as many like-minded people in your area,” she said. “I grew up in liberal city,” Weingart remembered, “and it was difficult being out 5 years ago. High school cultures can be very different than the surrounding culture. Teens in conservative areas have it more difficult, but it affects those in liberal areas, too.”

Weingart hopes SanghaLink can serve as a community preventive for LGBTQIA+ teens. “40% of homeless youth are LGBT,” Weingart explained. “With all the hate culture spreading across our culture it's important that our youth connect and find each other for support. They won't always get that from family.” Weingart added that SanghaLink exists to help prevent those kinds of issues. Speaking of the recent anti-LGBTQ legislation in Indiana, Weingart mused, “What kind of message are they sending to their teens?” She added of SanghaLink's launch, “The timing is crucial. It's perfect timing.”

This article was originally published by The Horn on 04/16/2015.

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