Learning to support, include, and empower LGBTQ youth in substitute careby Lindley Myers
When I began designing training about enhancing safety, well-being, and permanence for LGBTQ youth in foster care, I had no idea how much I had to learn. I found my thinking challenged most profoundly by interviews with young people, foster parents, case workers, and community partners across our state. Their willingness to share has given me lots of new insight.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. My first order of business was to explore the vocabulary. At first glance this seemed an easy enough task–see the definitions below. Yet once I started, unexpected lessons came to light. I hope that sharing some of my learning experiences will interest you in exploring as well.
What I Learned
My first lesson is that meanings are not static, nor are they always shared. Language used to describe concepts related to gender and sexuality, like most culturally significant words, evolves over time, and the meanings are not always understood the same way by everyone.
Take the “Q” in LGBTQ. In some instances, the Q is understood to stand for “Queer.” This expression was used for decades as a derogatory term for people identifying as LGBT. Today, the word is often used as a way to identify as a member of the LGBT community without choosing a specific label.
When we’re talking about youth and identity development, however, the “Q” is most helpful as a placeholder for “Questioning.” The concept of questioning led me to other interesting ideas.
The development of sexual and gender identity is a normal and expected part of human development. We all fall somewhere on the sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression continuum. It rarely occurs to most of us to look at the subject from that perspective because most people have a gender and sexual orientation that fit within typical social norms and expectations, so there is no dissonance. This is referred to as cisgender and, like all areas of cultural privilege, if we have it we don’t have to think about it. Our culture and environment validate that we are feeling and acting in the “right” way.
Identity formation often involves lots of questions and confusing feelings for all of us but that confusion is compounded if there is limited access to accurate, age-appropriate information or positive role models. When young people seek self-understanding, it is important for the adults in their lives to provide an affirming environment in which to ask important questions.
So, what seemed like a simple assignment–define key terms –turned into valuable lessons about the power and flexibility of language, the normalcy of sexual identity formation, and the importance of providing affirming, safe environments.
At every turn there are opportunities to learn more. Here’s another valuable lesson this journey has afforded me. When we compare well-being data of LGBT teens ages 13-17 with their non-LGBT peers, the differences are striking. According to Human Rights Campaign (2014), kids identifying as LGBT are:
- Twice as likely to be verbally harassed and called names at school (51% vs. 25%)
- Only half as likely to say they were happy (37% vs. 67%)
- More likely to say they do not have an adult to talk to about their personal problems (29% vs. 17%), and
- More apt to turn to experimentation with alcohol and drugs (52% vs. 22%).
These findings are startling enough on their own. But there are other factors to consider here. The statistics cited come from surveys of young people across America and do not take into account the additional challenges faced by kids in foster care.
In the interviews I mentioned, a theme emerged we called the “Double Whammy.” Several folks described how debilitating it is for a young person to have to deal with the challenges youth face living in foster care as well as those related to their LGBTQ identity.
It’s important to note that the most concerning risk factors for LGBTQ youth arise due to a lack of understanding and acceptance by society, communities, and family members. In other words, a young person’s identity is not the root of the problem. The problem stems from other people’s reactions, often those responsible for care and safety of these youth.
Biological families and substitute care providers sometimes reject their children. Sometimes they do this out of a desire to help or protect them. The very things they suppose will improve life for their children, like helping them “fit in” with heterosexual peers or trying to change their sexual orientation or gender expression, end up causing emotional distress and hopelessness. These approaches are never in the best interest of the child.
Research shows us these efforts, no matter how well meaning, are deeply rejecting, not just of children’s sexuality, but of children themselves. This rejection diminishes their self-worth and self-esteem, leading to poor health and mental health outcomes, including high rates of attempted suicide, depression, use of illegal drugs, and high risk sexual behavior (Family Acceptance Project, 2009).
Ways You Can Help
Encourage visibility. You may have youth in your care that are LGBTQ and not realize it. It is easy to assume that everyone is heterosexual. This can lead to unintentional rejecting behavior such as asking about a boyfriend or girlfriend instead of asking more generally if there is anyone they like. Use language and symbols in your home that make it clear you are open and accepting of different gender or sexual orientations so youth will feel safe talking to you.
Be an active learner and encourage healthy exploration in your home. Be willing to examine your own beliefs and attitudes and to have respectful discussions about differing views. Learn about LGBTQ issues through training, books, films, and information on the web. Share what you are learning with others in your home. All young people thrive in a safe, nurturing, and nonjudgmental environment.
There’s more to each of us. Acknowledge that every person is a complex, unique individual. Avoid making assumptions based on one or two characteristics. Not every struggle faced by an LGBTQ youth is the result of this one aspect of their identity.
Help young people explore all aspects of themselves. One way to do this is to respect privacy and apply the same standards to LGBTQ youth with regards to appropriate, age-appropriate romantic behavior.
Be an advocate. Help others understand that being LGBTQ is not a choice or something a youth can change. LGBTQ youth face real dangers in their schools and communities; help increase safety in young people’s environments by learning to advocate for and with the youth. Take advantage of community resources for both foster parents and LGBTQ youth. Explore resources such as those in the box below.
Lindley Myers is a trainer and instructional designer with the Center for Family and Community Engagement at NC State University.
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