Serving Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning Youth With Open Arms

Photograph of a rainbow flag.

A recent report from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth: An Epidemic of Homelessness,” estimates that between 20 and 40 percent of all runaway and homeless American youth identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, compared to 3 to 5 percent of the general population. These youth are also more likely than their peers to contemplate or attempt suicide. But providing these young people with support, safety, and respect can make a big difference. In this issue of The Exchange, we take a look at how family- and youth-serving organizations serve lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth.

Safety, Support and Respect for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth

Penny Lane, a social services organization in North Hills, CA, has served lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth since its inception in the late 1960s, but until recently, the charity took an informal approach to that work. When their like-minded neighbors at Gay and Lesbian Adolescent Social Services, known as GLASS, disbanded in 2008, Penny Lane’s leaders wanted to step up their efforts to serve the LGBTQ youth population in their community. 

So they hired former GLASS employee Michael Ferrera to advise their efforts. With his help, Penny Lane implemented specialized staff training, and began targeted efforts to recruit lesbian and gay foster families and volunteers. Now, the Human Rights Campaign, a leading gay rights advocacy group, includes Penny Lane on its list of organizations that are “committed to implementing policies and practices that welcome, affirm and support LGBT foster and adoptive parents.”

 Photograph of five young people smiling.Ferrera is now director of LifeWorks, a mentoring service at the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center and a Family and Youth Services Bureau, or FYSB, grantee. He notes that serving gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth with sensitivity and care is a priority for FYSB. These young people often contend with obstacles that their heterosexual peers don’t have to face: unaccepting parents, judgmental peers, even physical threats. In addition, Ferrara says, “Gay youth are naturally distrusting of youth-serving institutions because there’s usually at least an issue of benign neglect, where there’s nothing in their policies that acknowledges gay youth at all.”

By training staff on the specific needs of LGBTQ youth and putting culturally competent policies in place, youth-serving organizations can understand and more effectively help young people in the communities they serve.

“Too often, organizations don’t even think about the sexual orientation of the people who are in their programs,” says Dr. Joseph Kosciw, senior director of research and strategic initiatives for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, or GLSEN, a national nonprofit that fights bias in schools. But they should. A recent report from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth: An Epidemic of Homelessness,” estimates that between 20 and 40 percent of all runaway and homeless American youth identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, compared to 3 to 5 percent of the general population.

When seeking to make your own organization more welcoming to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth, think safety, support and respect for all.

 

Safety

LGBTQ youth regularly face bullying and intolerance, whether direct threats or the casual use by other young people of pejorative terms and phrases like “That’s so gay.” If a young person is bullied or taunted in a youth program, they almost certainly won’t return.hate free zone sign.

Organizations’ safety policies should feature protections based on gender identity and sexuality, including a no-tolerance policy for derogatory or threatening language. Hanging up “Hate-Free Zone” posters, as Ferrara’s organization has done, discourages bigotry and tells all young people that they are welcome.

Dr. Kosciw adds that “safety” means more than just freedom from harassment. “In school, LGBTQ students are more likely to skip classes than other students, because they often don’t feel safe,” he says, and the same is true at any youth program. Staff should uphold a no-tolerance policy towards harassment by addressing every possible instance of abuse that they see, and administrators should repeatedly stress their commitment to youth safety.

 

Support

Photograph of a young woman looking at a magazine with an older mentor.Gay and transgender youths’ comfort in your program starts with administrative policies and focused hiring – in other words, a commitment by the organization’s leaders. “The people at the top set the tone for everyone else,” Ferrara says, “and even a few exceptionally gay-friendly staff members won’t be enough if the administration isn’t attentive to good hiring and setting the right tone.”

Demonstrate your commitment to serving gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth by training staff to understand the particular needs and risk factors of that group of young people. A culturally competent staff will better understand how to talk with LGBTQ youth in a nonjudgmental, informed way, and will help youth feel understood.

In addition, advertise job openings in gay media outlets and express your organization’s commitment to LGBTQ support in marketing materials and mission statements.

Also consider creating a gay-straight alliance, a collaborative group of young people who work towards tolerance of all minorities in your program. The existence of such a group within your organization, Kosciw explains, “says ‘This is a community that supports LGBT youth.’ It helps kids just to see that, and they respond to that kind of direct support.”

 

Respect

Photograph of young people holding up a rainbow flag with the word Peace on it.Youth-serving professionals who regularly work with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people say that fostering an atmosphere of respect for all involved in a program is essential. That means simultaneously supporting youth identity and not dwelling on it. “It seems contradictory, but being LGBT-affirmative means, in effect, not focusing on a youth’s sexuality,” says Theresa Nolan, division director for youth-centered family services organization Green Chimneys NYC, a FYSB-funded runaway and homeless youth program. “We try not to make an issue out of it,” she says. “The focus isn’t, ‘Okay, you’re gay, what are we going to do about it?’”

Nolan, who also co-authored the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force report, says intake forms and staff members’ verbal interactions with youth new to the program should use gender-neutral pronouns. She also cautions against making assumptions about youths’ personal lives. Rather than asking about a boyfriend or girlfriend, she says, ask more open-ended questions, like, “Are you seeing someone?”

Designating a gender-neutral bathroom and providing all youth with information about local counseling and social services for gay, lesbian and transgender residents are other simple ways to make sexually-questioning youth feel comfortable and welcomed in your program.

 

Supportive Families Make a Difference for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth

“I’m gay.” Two seemingly simple words. But how a parent or caregiver receives these words can be anything but simple. Many accept and support their children. Some don’t know what to say or do. Others become angry or throw their children out of the house. 

Families may not know how much their words and actions matter. In fact, how families respond when youth come out during adolescence can have a powerful impact on young people’s health and well-being, according to groundbreaking research by the Family Acceptance Project™,a community research, intervention and education initiative in San Francisco. In general, youth whose families support them are healthier and happier than those whose families reject them, says Caitlin Ryan, director of the project and a faculty member at San Francisco State University.

Based on their findings, Ryan and her colleagues are developing a strengths-based approach to help families increase their support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning children and adolescents.

We spoke with Ryan about how youth-serving professionals can effectively work with LGBTQ youth and their families.

NCFY: Your research shows that family acceptance is vital to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people. In what ways do families have such a big impact?

Photograph of a young Latina woman and her parents.CR: First, I want to say that families have a big impact on all of their children, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Family connections have been shown to prevent major health risks and are a critical foundation for general well-being for all children.

That said, our research with diverse families and caregivers shows that how they react and adjust to their children’s coming out can have a dramatic and compelling impact on their LGBT children’s health, mental health and well-being. LGBT young people whose parents and caregivers reject them or try to change them are at high risk for depression, substance abuse, suicide and HIV infection. And LGBT young people whose parents support them and stand up for them show much higher levels of self-esteem and greater well-being, with lower rates of health and mental health problems.

NCFY: Given that a lot of young people run away or are asked to leave home because of acceptance issues, what should shelter workers be thinking about if an LGBT young person shows up in their program?

CR: Before doing anything, it’s important to ask the young person about his or her sexual orientation or gender identity and let them talk about their experiences.

Then, family outreach services are critical. Many providers don’t see families as a potential resource for helping their LGBT children. But don’t assume that families don’t have the capacity to change and grow. With some information and outreach, many families can become more accepting and supportive.

It’s important to work with the family to help them understand the basic reasons why the young person left home or was forced out. Sometimes, just telling a family member, “You know, when you pressure your child to be more or less masculine or feminine, they hear this as rejection.” 

Most families are motivated by care and concern for their child, and many families who drive a child out of the home regret it greatly. They want to help, but they don’t have enough information. Our research has shown that just a little bit of education can have a big impact on how families react, and in turn, just a little bit of change within the family can have a huge impact on decreasing risks for the LGBT young person.

Also, the longer a young person has been on the street, the harder it is to reestablish a normative living situation, so family outreach and education should really happen as soon as possible.Photograph of a young person smiling up at an older mentor.

NCFY: Through your research, you’ve identified over 100 behaviors within families that either serve to support or reject LGBT children. Can you identify the top three accepting behaviors that service providers should look for or encourage among families? What about the most rejecting behaviors providers should be aware of?

First, I want to say that there is room for every kind of family regardless of ethnicity, culture or religious beliefs. We’ve studied very diverse families, and one behavior that makes a major difference for a LGBT child is for the parent or caregiver to allow the young person to talk about their LGBT identity, to let them talk about what their life is like without interrupting or judging or punishing.

Beyond that, some of the most important wellness promoting behaviors include supporting the child’s gender expression, welcoming LGBT friends and partners into the home and at family events and activities and making positive comments about LGBT issues.

Rejecting behaviors to avoid include, obviously, verbal and physical abuse related to LGBT identity, blocking access to LGBT friends and supports, blaming the child when they are victimized or discriminated against because of their LGBT identity, and excluding the child from family events and activities.

NCFY: Are family relationships so vital that connecting a young person with just one family member, even among extended family, leads to better outcomes than if a young person finds sources of support elsewhere?

CR: Well, most young people hunger for some connection with their family of origin, so if it’s not a parent, often there is an aunt, uncle or older cousin who would be supportive. The importance of a single caring adult cannot be overstated.

NCFY: If connections with family are unhealthy or inappropriate, what would you say are the most important other sources of support for LGBT youth?

CR: Another positive adult role model could be from a faith institution, teachers, adult community leaders. Young people learn to cope in lots of different ways – through school, sports, expressive arts – all of the areas that are supportive to young people in general. Theater, dance, photography can help LGBT youth channel feelings of pain and alienation and help them make sense of a sometimes senseless world.

 

Connectedness Is Key to Preventing Suicide Among Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth

When young people call the Trevor Project’s toll-free national crisis and suicide-prevention line for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth, they may never have confided their sexuality or gender identity to anyone. They may not have fully accepted it themselves.Photograph of a young person with arms crossed, looking down.

Others have come out to disapproving or rejecting family and friends. “Most of our callers let us know that they feel alone and they feel like no one understands them and they have no one to talk to,” says Phoenix Schneider, who directs the Los Angeles organization’s prevention efforts.

Struggling with frightening feelings of rejection and isolation, some callers think they’d be better off dead.

The Trevor Project’s callers are not alone in their distress. Lesbian, gay and bisexual youth are up to three times more likely than their heterosexual peers to have suicidal thoughts and up to seven times more likely to try to take their own lives (PDF, 417.86 KB). In an effort to reverse the statistics, organizations like the Trevor Project are not only intervening when youth confront suicidal feelings, but also exploring ways to address the root causes of these youths’ higher rates of attempting and completing suicide. 

 

'A Perfect Storm’

In the general population, suicide and suicidal feelings are associated with substance abuse and mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression, says Ann Haas, who directs the prevention efforts of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, a research, policy and education organization in New York. Social isolation and hopelessness also play a role.

Photograph of a young man smiling.In addition, Haas says, “There’s a considerable amount of data that points to higher levels of depression, anxiety and substance abuse in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender populations.” Higher rates of mental illness combined with the everyday stress of discrimination could account for the greater likelihood of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth considering or attempting suicide, she says, especially around the time that they come out.

“It’s a perfect storm in some cases,” says Marisa Howard-Karp, director of the GLBT Youth Support Project at Health Imperatives, a Brockton, MA, community health and human services organization. “You have a young person who’s trying to sort out their sexual identity, or they may be very clear on what it is. They don’t know if their parents are going to be supportive. They don’t know if their teachers are going to be supportive. They may or may not know if their friends are going to be supportive. So right there you have a lot of isolation.”

Research suggests that young people whose sexual identity is accepted and who have strong social connections are less at risk than young people who are rejected by family, friends, peers or their communities. “It’s not a risk factor to be gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender,” Schneider says. “It’s more the way young people are treated that leads them to consider suicide.”

 

Holistic Approach

Regardless of youths’ sexuality or gender identity, suicide can often be prevented. Youth workers who suspect a young person is thinking about or may attempt suicide should seek professional help immediately. In addition, Schneider and experts from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and LifeSavers Training Corp., a Carbondale, IL, organization that trains adolescents to help their peers cope with suicidal feelings and other problems, give this advice: Young men pose together in pyramid formation.

  • Listen without judging.
  • Don’t promise to keep a young person’s suicidal feelings or plans a secret.
  • Offer to help the youth talk to his or her parents.
  • Offer to go with the youth to see a mental health professional.
  • Ask about the youth’s feelings: “How are you coping? What are you doing to deal with these things?”
  • Validate the young person’s feelings while emphasizing that things will get better.

In addition to intervening when a young person is in crisis, youth workers can take a holistic approach to suicide prevention. For example, efforts such as the Trevor Project and Health Imperatives’ GLBT Youth Support Project go beyond educating young people and adults about the warning signs of suicidal behavior and the ways to help someone who wants to die. These projects  also work to reduce bullying, promote gay-straight alliances, advocate for positive media portrayals of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and train those who come in contact with young people – youth workers, teachers, school administrators, caregivers,  foster families and others – to better understand and reach out to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth.

Schneider says promoting greater acceptance through all of these means is an important step to improving youths’ view of the future. “When young people can see positive portrayals of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, they think, ‘OK, I have role models and I have hope,’” he says.

Youth workers can start with their own organizations, Howard-Karp says. “It’s all about creating safe and supportive spaces. And not just one where people are fine with it. But places that are going out of their way to make the point that GLBTQ folks are welcome and will be supported and will have their needs met the same way as anybody who walks in the door.”
 

For more recommendations on preventing suicide among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth, see “Suicide Risk and Prevention for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth” by the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, a project of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

 

Red Flags for Suicide – and Where to Get Help

"Suicide Warning Signs" was developed by the American Association of Suicidology. These are indications that someone may be at heightened risk of suicide within minutes, hours or days:

Call 9-1-1 or seek immediate help from a mental health provider when you hear or see someone doing one of the following: 

  • threatening to hurt or kill himself or herself
  • looking for ways to kill himself or herself: seeking access to pills, weapons or other means
  • talking or writing about death, dying or suicide

Contact a mental health professional or one of the suicide prevention hotlines listed below if someone you know exhibits one of the following:Emergency siren light.

  • hopelessness
  • rage, anger, revenge seeking
  • recklessness
  • feeling trapped – like there's no way out
  • increased alcohol or drug use
  • withdrawal from friends, family or society
  • anxiety, agitation, inability to sleep or constant sleeping
  • dramatic mood changes
  • no reason for living; no sense of purpose in life

Who to Call for Help 

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)

The Trevor Lifeline: 1-866-4-U-TREVOR (1-866-488-7386)

 

 

Resources for Serving Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth

This list is not exhaustive, and the content of publications and sites listed here does not necessarily represent the official position, policies or views of the National Clearinghouse on Families & Youth, the Family and Youth Services Bureau or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Publications

National Recommended Best Practices for Serving LGBT Homeless Youth” by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, Lambda Legal, the National Network for Youth, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

Supportive Families, Healthy Children” (in English and Spanish) by the Family Acceptance Project™

Organizations

For Youth of Color 

National Black Justice Coalition 
Works to empower black lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and end racism and homophobia.

National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance 
A federation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Asian American, South Asian, Pacific Islander and Southeast Asian organizations and allies.

Unity Coalition | Coalicion Unida 
Leads on issues that concern lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Hispanics, Latinos and others in the United States.

For Students

Gay-Straight Alliance Network 
Support for young people who want to start and run school-based gay-straight alliances. 

Point Foundation 
Provides scholarships, mentoring and leadership training.

Sexual Health 

YouthResource
A website by and for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender young people on topics related to sexual and reproductive health. Hosted by Advocates for Youth.

Advocacy

National Center for Lesbian Rights Youth Project 
Advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth; educates youth service providers and school officials; and provides free legal information to youth by phone or online.

National Center for Transgender Equality 
Devoted to ending discrimination and violence against transgender people through education, collaboration and advocacy. 

National Youth Advocacy Coalition 
Advocates for and with young people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, and works to end discrimination.