Increasingly today, people come into regular contact with individuals from different cultures and it's important to learn to talk with people who may not share a common language, background, and/or worldview. Each of us participates in at least one culture, and most of us are products of several cultures. For example, youth in one program might be mostly native-born Americans, Westerners, Hispanic, and Roman Catholic and participants in each of those four cultures. In another program, youth might be mostly first-generation Americans as well as the children of immigrant families from various countries in Asia, Latin America, and/or Africa. These youth would share a culture common to first-generation Americans and, at the same time, belong to the cultures and religions of their families' disparate homelands. Young people also share a youth culture. This is only a sample of the cultures to which each person belongs. It is important to understand this because culture and cultural issues matter.
It is also important to understand that each culture has its own language and its own spoken and unspoken rules. These rules define what is and is not acceptable within that culture. The first step to dealing with people of different cultural backgrounds is to be clear about your own cultural background and how it defines and limits your worldview. Being culturally fair or just means that you hold certain beliefs, attitudes, knowledge, and skills:
Beliefs and Attitudes
- You are aware of and sensitive to your own cultural heritage and respect and value different cultural heritages.
- You are aware of your own values and biases and how they may affect your perceptions of other cultures.
- You are comfortable with the fact that there are differences between your culture and other cultures' values and beliefs.
- You are sensitive to your own personal biases, racial/ethnic identity, and other cultural factors that might require you to seek the help of someone from a different culture when you interact with another person of that culture.
- You understand the power structure of society and how less powerful groups are treated.
- You acquire knowledge about the particular group(s) with which you work.
- You are aware of the institutional barriers that prevent members of disadvantaged groups from benefiting from organizational and societal resources.
- You use a wide variety of verbal and nonverbal responses when dealing with differences, and you give and receive verbal and non-verbal messages appropriately and accurately.
- You intervene promptly and appropriately on behalf of people when they receive negative attention due to their sex, culture, race/ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or gender expression.
So, how does cultural justice apply to working with GLBTQ youth?
Step One: Be Clear about Your Own Attitudes and Biases.
Become educated about sexual orientation and gender identity/gender expression as well as about culture, homophobia, racism, and sexism. Learn what you need to learn in order to deal fairly with all the youth in your program.
- What sexuality-related issues (here specifically, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual relationships) make me feel uncomfortable?
- What sexuality-related issues are difficult for me to talk about?
- In what sexuality-related issues does my discomfort show up as hostility or as negativity?
- What do I need to do in order to be able to deal comfortably and respectfully with sexuality-related issues?
Step Two: Understand Homophobia's Impact on GLBTQ Youth.
Learn as much as possible about the connections between homophobia and the health of GLBTQ youth. Prejudice and discrimination have a powerful impact on vulnerable youth. Recognize that:
- GLBTQ youth face persistent inequality, violence, and invisibility in American culture.[2,3,10]
- Homophobia seriously damages the health of all young people. Prejudice and discrimination contribute to high morbidity and mortality rates among GLBTQ youth. Institutionalized homophobia results in high rates of violence toward GLBT youth in schools and communities; violence and verbal abuse result in feelings of isolation as well as high rates of suicide and suicide attempts, substance use, and risk for HIV/STI infection among these youth. At the same time, homophobia forces straight youth to take serious risks in order to 'prove' their heterosexuality.[2,3,6,7,10]
- Prejudice and rejection lower the self-esteem of teens and leave them with fewer resources and skills to face normal developmental challenges. For high self-esteem and a strong self-concept, teens need to feel that they belong (peer identification), and they need positive role models. Teens whose self-esteem has been lowered by homophobia may be unwilling to take important steps to protect their health and their future.[11,12,13]
- Widely accepted cultural stereotypes of gay and lesbian people affects the self-concept of GLBTQ youth who often report relying on television to learn what it means to be lesbian or gay. Many believe media stereotypes that depict gay men as effeminate, lesbians as masculine, and all homosexual people as unhappy.
- What central values guide the mission, programs, and daily work of this organization?
- Am I (are we) committed to serving all the youth, including the GLBTQ youth, in our programs?
- Where is my (our) commitment easy to see? Where is it not easy to see?
Step Three: Take Action to Ensure a Safe Space for the GLBTQ Youth in Your Program.
Work to ensure the safety of all the youth in your program, irrespective of whether you know that any GLBTQ youth are participating in it. Assess the cultural fairness of your program. Assess the environment in the organization, including its:
- Mission , vision, values, and activities;
- Levels of cultural justice among board members, staff, and volunteers;
- Policies and procedures on discrimination and harassment;
- Staff training;
- Cultural match between the program and the participants; and
- Reading levels and appropriateness of the program's materials.
- Is staff representative of the target population in regard to race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender identity?
- Who conducts community outreach and how?
- Has each staff member assessed his/her attitudes towards adolescents and adolescent relationships, particularly with regard to sexual orientation and gender identity/gender expression?
- Where does the climate in this organization ignore or suppress the realities that face GLBTQ youth?
- Does staff have biases or hold stereotypes?
- In what subtle or blatant ways might staff be communicating these biases to young people?
Step Four: Empower Youth and Staff in Your Agency to Be Activists and Allies of GLBTQ Youth.
Encourage youth and adults in your program to take positive and continuing action to ensure that everyone feels safe and supported. Take action to ensure that policies are appropriate; staff receives training and support regarding cultural justice; and youth know what to do if they encounter or witness homophobic, racist, or sexist words and actions.
- Support peer education and leadership by youth. Teens exert a powerful effect when they speak out for themselves, define the issues that matter to them, and craft an agenda to address those issues. By drawing on the lessons of other social movements, GLBTQ youth and their straight allies can create initiatives that address inequities.
- C reate opportunities for youth to talk openly and frankly about racism, sexism, homophobia, class discrimination, and other forms of oppression.
- Create a place where teens can feel comfortable talking about their individual identity, experiences, hopes, and fears.
- Offer interactive and experiential exercises, such as case studies and role-playing, to help teens think through the barriers and obstacles created by oppression.
- Do gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth feel safe in this program? Do straight youth feel safe?
- Do youth in the program receive respect for their talents and abilities? Do they respect others for their talents and abilities?
- Are youth fully and actively involved in creating safe space?
- Are youth fully involved in identifying the issues that affect them and in providing leadership to achieve social justice?
Cultural justice is about recognizing and dealing with the broad social, economic, and political framework within which teens live. Focusing on the right of all youth to be treated with dignity and respect can also empower young people, including GLBTQ youth and their allies, to demand respect, to treat others respectfully, and to envision a more hopeful future.
* Adapted from Adolescent Sexual Health and the Dynamics of Oppression: a Call for Cultural Competency [Issues at a Glance] Washington, DC: Advocates for Youth, © 2003; and from Culture matters in health education for young people, Transitions 2000; 11(3):1, 6, 8; © Advocates for Youth.
This publication is part of the Creating Safe Space for GLBTQ Youth: A Toolkit.