Transitions: Working with GLBTQ Youth
Volume 14, No. 4, June 2002
This Transitions is also available in [PDF] format.
From Research to Practice
Whether or not you know of any GLBTQ youth in your program, it is essential to create a safe space for young people who are, who believe that they might be, or who have friends or family members who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or questioning. The organization's responsibility is to all of the youth in the program. Even if some youth-serving professionals feel uncomfortable about sexual orientation and gender identity, you owe it to the young people you serve to educate yourself and to help connect youth to the organizations, role models, and resources they need. Creating programs that are inclusive of and sensitive to GLBTQ youth is not difficult, but it does require conscientious attention. The following suggestions will help.
- Assess your own values and beliefs regarding sexual orientation and gender identity. Taking stock will help you to address your own internal biases, recognize your personal limits, identify areas for personal growth, and enable you to serve all youth, including GLBTQ youth, in an open, honest, respectful manner.
- Make it clear that homophobic sentiments and actions have no place in the program. Develop a 'zero tolerance' policy regarding discriminatory words and behavior directed at GLBTQ youth, just as you would toward racist or sexist remarks. Post the policy in public areas and develop clear guidelines for disciplinary actions. When training students or staff to lead or facilitate workshops, include opportunities to practice responding to unacceptable language and behaviors. At the same time, work proactively to address stereotypes and misperceptions that may exist among the youth in your program. For example, "What you just said implies that you think all gay men must be effeminate. Alexander the Great wasn't effeminate; and he was arguably one of the greatest military leaders in human history."
- Consider posting a Safe Zone sticker, available from the National Youth Advocacy Coalition. (See Select Organizations, Web Sites, Videos, and Books in Creating Safe Space for GLBTQ Youth: A Toolkit.) The sticker says, "A person displaying this symbol will be understanding, supportive, and trustworthy if gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or questioning youth need help, advice, or just someone with whom they can talk."
- Use inclusive language. Discuss 'partners' instead of always assuming a youth's prospective date or partner is of the opposite sex. If you are doing role-plays, use ambiguous names, such as Chris, Taylor, or Lee. This will allow GLBTQ youth to personalize the context to their lives rather than to reject the role-play scenario as being irrelevant.
- Schedule training sessions to debunk myths and stereotypes. Explain the differences between sexual orientation, sexual behavior, and gender identity and expression. Include information about sexual orientation and gender identity throughout a training or program. This will help to dispel myths about GLBTQ people.
- Provide peer support. Young people benefit by developing their leadership, communication, and other pro-social skills and by seeing role models with whom they can identify. Ensure that peer leaders include youth who identify as GLBTQ. For more information on peer education, see Select Organizations, Web Sites, Videos, and Books in Creating Safe Space for GLBTQ Youth: A Toolkit.
- Ask GLBTQ youth and adults to participate in panel discussions or as speakers to share some of their experiences. This will create a safe space and opportunity for youth to talk openly about homophobia, racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression.
- Build youth-adult partnerships into the program. Make sure that youth leaders include some who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. Programs are more effective and sustainable when youth are partners in the programs' design, development, operations, and evaluation. For more information on building youth-adult partnerships, see see Select Organizations, Web Sites, Videos, and Books in Creating Safe Space for GLBTQ Youth: A Toolkit.
- Consider working with students to begin gay/straight alliances in area schools, if such alliances do not already exist. For more information on gay/straight alliances, see Select Organizations, Web Sites, Videos, and Books in Creating Safe Space for GLBTQ Youth: A Toolkit.
- Hire adults who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender and who reflect the racial/ethnic make-up of the community being served to work in the program as full- or part-time staff or volunteers.
- Include local groups that serve GLBTQ people in referral and resource lists. Make sure your referral and resource lists are easily available to all program youth.
- Know when and where to seek help. Be aware of appropriate referral agencies for crisis intervention, mental and physical health services, etc. Be aware of your personal and organizational limits, and accept that your organization may not always be the best one to assist a young person in some situations. For assistance, see Select Organizations, Web Sites, Videos, and Books in Creating Safe Space for GLBTQ Youth: A Toolkit.
- Incorporate comprehensive sex education. If you offer sex education or address issues such as HIV or teen pregnancy, then your program should include information about both contraception and abstinence. When discussing abstinence, do not talk about 'abstinence-until-marriage.' Like heterosexual youth, GLBTQ youth search for intimacy and emotional closeness and may long for a committed relationship. In a society where same-gender marriages are often illegal and where same-gender committed relationships are ignored or frowned upon, the concept of 'abstinence-only-until-marriage' completely ignores the needs of GLBTQ youth.
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Next Chapter: Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Education: Abandoning Responsibility to GLBTQ Youth
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This publication is part of the Creating Safe Space for GLBTQ Youth: A Toolkit.