June marks Pride month, an annual celebration by and for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and our allies. For LGBTQ (Q is for questioning) youth, the ability to be honest and open and proud of who they are, without facing rejection, harassment or physical harm is essential every day, not just one month out of the year.
While the LGBT community as a whole has made tremendous strides these past few years, our youngest community members continue to face significant challenges at home, in school and in their broader community.
HRC’s groundbreaking 2012 report, “Growing up LGBT in America,” summarizes the results of more than 10,000 LGBTQ teenage survey respondents. The key findings paint a mixed picture of their lives: In the positive column, LGBTQ teens feel empowered to come out earlier, they are increasingly optimistic about their future, and most have support from at least a few close friends. When compared to their non-LGBT peers, however, LGBTQ teens are less happy, experience twice the level of verbal harassment and bullying at school as their heterosexual peers, and are less likely to participate in after-school recreational and social activities.
The top three biggest challenges faced among LGBTQ respondents were non-acceptance by their families, being bullied at school, and fear of being out or open about their sexual identity. In contrast, non-LGBTQ teens reported their top three problems as getting passing grades, getting into college or finding a career, and financial stability.
I view the results of this survey as a call to action for all adults who want to help all young people thrive and succeed. Acceptance and inclusion are essential to the overall safety, health and well-being of all kids — especially LGBTQ kids. When I ask older teens and young adults to reflect on what helped them cope with some of the challenges identified above, the consistent theme is that having at least one supportive, affirming adult standing by them is life-changing, and sometimes life-saving.
What would it take for you to be in that role, to be an ally for a young LGBTQ person? On a broader scale, what would it take for your organization, school, or agency to become a truly welcoming and affirming place for all youth, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression? Here are some concrete steps any staff member or agency can take toward this ideal:
First, acknowledge that children and teens in your program, classes or care may be LGBTQ — regardless whether they have self-identified as such. Many young people may feel they have to hide this part of themselves and may have already faced rejection or ridicule.
Explore your own attitudes and beliefs about sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and how they might affect your ability to support LGBTQ youth. Many of us grew up with negative messages about gay and lesbian people and gender non-conforming people, and we may carry those internalized messages into our adulthood. Remember your professional responsibility is to help young people feel safe and accepted. Sometimes that means setting aside some of our personal beliefs when we step into our offices.
Be honest about your own knowledge gap and educate yourself on LGBTQ issues. Learn the meaning of the terms lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender — and use the terms correctly. Are you comfortable having conversations with young people about LGBTQ issues? Your comfort level and knowledge on this subject will send a strong message to all youth that you are a safe person to talk to and will convey to LGBTQ youth that you respect and support them.
Be an upstander, not a bystander if you see or hear anti-LGBT bullying or harassment. We know that LGBTQ youth experience the highest rates of verbal and physical harassment at school and in their broader community. Youth workers can make sure the young people around you know that you will not tolerate hurtful words or actions.
It takes a lot of courage for LGBTQ youth to come out to adults, and most have had at least one negative experience when coming out to family members, friends or other adults. If a young person discloses to you that he or she is LGBT or questioning, handle that information with the highest level of privacy and confidentiality. You can ask whether the young person is out to other people and help him/her assess when and if it is safe to come out to others. And if you cannot do this personally, find someone in your agency who can.
Learn about community resources that may be helpful to LGBTQ youth. Do you know of local support groups for LGBTQ youth? Are there particular pediatricians, mental-health providers or programs that are LGBTQ culturally competent and affirming? Are there safe places LGBTQ youth can congregate and develop positive peer relationships with other LGBTQ youth? What about homeless services for young people who are kicked out of their homes?
Finally, take the temperature of your own organization to determine whether you are doing what you can to welcome and affirm LGBTQ youth and their family members. Review your organization’s written policies and practice guidelines: Do you have a non-discrimination policy or statement that includes sexual orientation and gender identity for staff, volunteers and clients? Do you provide staff training and professional development opportunities to prepare staff with the skills and competencies to support LGBTQ youth? Are there any posters, magazines or other materials in your space that would signal to LGBT teens that they are welcome? Creating a welcoming environment is an essential first step to ensuring that LGBTQ youth can fully participate and benefit from the services and programs you provide.
Ellen Kahn, M.S.S., is the director of the Family Project at the Human Rights Campaign, America’s largest civil rights organization working to achieve lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality.