Tips and Strategies for Creating a Safe Space for GLBTQ Youth Print

Recommendations from the Safe Space Resource Circle

Under the auspices of Girl's Best Friend Foundation, the Safe Space Resource Circle met regularly during 2004. Out of this ongoing work, participants came up with the following list of important questions and recommended solutions to creating a safe place for the GLBTQ youth in your program.

What are some concrete ways in which an organization or coalition of organizations can work to support safe space for GLBTQ youth?

  • Offer staff opportunities to receive training on GLBTQ issues, cultural competency, facilitation skills, working with the media, and conflict resolution.
  • Make being a safe space a part of the organization's declared mission. Create a values statement that appears on your Web site and on materials sent to donors, colleague organizations, and coalition agencies.
  • If your organization is part of a coalition, encourage the coalition to develop a values statement around safe space. This will also support member organizations in developing their own values statements around safe space. For example, a simple statement might read, "Serving every youth who walks through its doors, this organization is committed to valuing each young person, irrespective of sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, abilities, or background."

Why is it important to have a written declaration of values related to safe space?

  • Having such a statement lets GLBTQ youth know that your organization is a safe space.
  • Having such a statement empowers everyone to be authentic.
  • Having such a statement lets others know where your organization stands.
  • Having such a statement puts everyone on notice that homophobia and transphobia are not acceptable at your organization and in your programs.

Where should a written declaration of values appear?

  • You will find it useful to include a clear, unambiguous statement of your values and your mission in everything you publish, online and off.

How can you establish a safe space and foster open discussion when you are making a one-time presentation in a school or another organization?

  • Begin with a warm-up exercise that encourages participants to get up, move around, and work with someone new.
  • Be clear in your language and clear as to the intent of the workshop. This may set a more relaxed tone.
  • Enlist participants in setting the ground rules for the workshop. (See Establishing Ground Rules.)
  • Try dispelling nervousness by saying, to the whole group, the various words that people get hung up on. However, be cautious, particularly in schools, about using language that might be considered crude or vulgar, as this could backfire.
  • Offer definitions at the beginning of the workshop so everyone will know the proper language to use and will understand the concepts you are presenting.
  • Stop people in the moment when say something offensive. Often people speak without thinking and stopping them at the time can be very useful.

How can you create a safe space for youth to ask difficult questions?

  • Distribute identical blank sheets of paper and identical pencils. Ask everyone to write something, even if it is only "I don't have any questions." That way, everyone can safely ask questions.
  • Try raising issues in a general way. "A lot of young people have recently brought up this question in my workshops, so I think we should talk about it here, too."
  • Consider offering a general e-mail address, such as questions@ or answers@, so participants can follow up after the workshop. Youth who are also volunteers or peer educators might be able to follow-up with their peers' questions.
  • If you believe that the presence of a particular adult, such as a teacher or administrator, will make youth feel less safe, talk with her/him prior to the workshop about his/her being absent during the workshop. Explain that it will help you to create a situation in which young people can more freely ask their questions.

How do you talk with a young person in the program who is hostile toward GLBTQ youth?

  • A specific practice from the Safe Schools Project suggests that you handle the situation in four steps: 1) stop the offensive behavior; 2) publicly name the behavior and describe why it is offensive; 3) respond on behalf of the whole organization; and 4) ask for a change in behavior.
  • Make your response personal and positive. For example, you might say something like, "You are a leader, and it's important that you act the way you ask others to act. Otherwise, you look like a hypocrite, and your peers will know it."
  • Take these occurrences as educational moments. Remind everyone never to make assumptions about other people, their opinions, beliefs, or behaviors. Remind everyone that sexual orientation and/or gender identity and gender expression do not, in any way, define other aspects of anyone's personality, experiences, talents, or beliefs.

How do you address divisions and exclusionary behavior within a group (including a group composed only of GLBTQ youth)?

  • This behavior is, in essence, a type of bullying. Conduct some sort of power and privilege exercise to highlight the costs of such behavior.
  • Bring in outside speakers that represent a range of outlooks, lifestyles, and/or privilege and lack of privilege. Help youth to see the humanity that connects them to everyone else.
  • Use role playing.

How do you deal with prejudice and offensive comments that do not align with your organization's ideals of social justice, especially when these comments are from members of the GLBTQ community or its allies?

  • Use the steps for addressing harassment, namely: 1) stop the offensive behavior; 2) publicly name the behavior and describe why it is offensive; 3) respond on behalf of the whole organization; and 4) ask for a change in behavior.
  • Go back to basic values. Ask what values the youth are trying to convey with their comments. Talk about the core values (such as equality, fairness, and compassion) that are at stake in this discussion.
  • Remind youth that this type of oppression is just as bad as any other form of oppression. There is no hierarchy of worse or better. Say that racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, and ethnic discrimination are all bad, not just the form that affects you or me.
  • Help youth to connect offensive comments towards other groups with similar comments that might be directed toward them. For example, "Isn't saying 'that's so retarded' very much like saying 'that's so gay'?"
  • Take these occurrences as educational moments. Remind everyone never to make assumptions about other people, their opinions, beliefs, or behaviors. Remind everyone that sexual orientation and/or gender identity and gender expression do not, in any way, define other aspects of anyone's personality, experiences, talents, or beliefs.

How do you handle fund-raising when you encounter donors who either are not allies or else are openly hostile to GLBTQ issues?

  • Educate funders to the importance and value of supporting inclusive programs and policies regarding GLBTQ youth.
  • Keep focused on your core goals, so that you can clearly see whether accepting money or donations from a given source will help or harm progress toward your goals.
  • Seek out funding sources that support GLBTQ issues. Work with national organizations to build a list of such funding sources. Be sure your list remains private and secure.
  • Print your mission, values statement, and vision on materials that you hand to funders, so they know where you stand.
  • Be selective in what you present to funders while, at the same time, remaining true to your mission and vision.
  • Set criteria for where your organization will draw the line. For example, many organizations will not accept funds, advertising, or in-kind support from abstinence-only-until-marriage groups. (For more information on the effects of abstinence-only on GLBTQ youth, see Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Education: Abandoning Responsibility to GLBTQ Youth.)
  • Join in national campaigns that educate funders and that bring public pressure to the issue. For example, public pressure strongly encouraged some major chain stores to stop buying goods from sweat shops.

How do you maintain a safe space when youth in the program need external resources from people and/or agencies that may be indifferent or hostile to GLBTQ youth?

  • Problem-solve, in advance, so that you are ready to address various situations such as, for example, a young person coming to you because of having been assaulted for being transgender.
  • Seek out allies** in the agencies and institutions with which you work. A GLBTQ liaison can do advance work to identify allies in each organization.
  • Encourage your organization's executive director to have frank discussions with the executives of colleague organizations. These discussions should center on the importance of safe space and on your organization's commitment to working with other organizations that also provide safe space.
  • If a colleague organization is openly hostile to the concept of safe space, seek out other organizations that can offer the same services and/or resources in a supportive manner to the GLBTQ youth in your program.

What do you do if you are accused—organizationally or personally—of having a 'gay agenda'?

  • Say clearly, "Our agenda is human rights." Tying GLBTQ rights into larger movements for human rights and human dignity can sometimes aid people in seeing the connections that they, too, value.
  • Say that you are open to and serve every young person in need of your services. Emphasize that the organization's value with respect to GLBTQ youth underscores its commitment to all youth, irrespective of their sex, race/ethnicity, religion, language, OR sexual orientation or gender identity.
  • State forthrightly, "Equal rights, protection under the law, and respect for GLBTQ people are priorities for our organization. If that constitutes an agenda, then yes, we do have one."
  • If someone raises religion as a reason for discrimination, say that you respect people's religious beliefs and that you firmly believe that every youth has value and that every teen has a right to be safe and to receive services at your organization.
  • If program youth have raised this charge, then encourage youth who are participants or staff, especially the peer educators, to respond. Youth-to-youth dialogue may be far more effective than one that is carried out between youth and adults.
  • Be careful about language that may raise people's anxieties or strengthen their belief in myths. For example, don't talk about 'recruiting' youth for a GLBTQ event. Instead, talk about inviting youth to attend the event or sharing information about the event with youth in other places, such as schools, clubs, etc.

How do you encourage youth to be good allies?

  • Use the activities in the Creating Safe Space for GLBTQ Youth: A Toolkit. (We most strongly recommend Introduction to Sexual Orientation, Panel Discussion on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, and Addressing Discrimination.)
  • Praise youth's courage in standing up for their rights and the rights of their peers.
  • Provide youth with resources that make taking action as an activist or an ally fun, easy, and non-threatening.

What will help in using activities and other tools regarding GLBTQ issues?

  • Be sure that facilitators are well prepared, not only to guide the exercise, but also to facilitate discussions, even when they include resistance and hostile questions.
  • Remember to facilitate, not lead, the process. Step back, and let the process happen.
  • In small settings where colleagues work together frequently, consider using an outside facilitator.
  • When working with large groups, use a variety of activities. Even if a few participants make offensive comments, you can still define the dialogue by engaging the other participants in a constructive way.
  • Adapt workshops so that you are not using an activity or exercise that is too challenging for the group. Be flexible and meet the participants where they are. [Sometimes, it may be a good idea to present issues that the group isn't quite ready to deal with; but be prepared for resistance and be prepared to handle resistance constructively.]

How do you establish and maintain appropriate boundaries between youth and the adults who work with them?

  • Set clear guidelines about interactions between staff (irrespective of their age) and youth served by the program. Look to other organizations, like social work agencies, for examples and guidelines. Health centers will have guidelines on privacy, confidentiality, and boundaries that may also be applicable to your program.
  • Be consistent in language and in handling any incidents that arise. Use explicit, clear language that allows no 'wiggle room' for people to interpret the rules to their liking.
  • During training of staff and volunteers, devote a significant amount of time to boundaries and values. Be very clear that it is inappropriate for staff or volunteers to have outside contact with program youth. Be sure to talk in general terms so that individuals attending the training will not feel that you are talking personally about any one of them.
  • Ask staff and volunteers to sign a contract that reiterates the boundaries set on interactions between youth and staff.

* Adapted from Creating a Safe Space for Exploring Sexuality and Gender Identity (Q&A from Dialogue among Youth Workers), Developed during Safe Space Circle, May–September, 2004. Chicago, IL: Girl's Best Friend Foundation, © 2004.

** An ally is a person or organization that actively helps another with a specific issue—in this case one who actively works to support the rights and dignity of GLBTQ people.


This publication is part of the Creating Safe Space for GLBTQ Youth: A Toolkit.
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