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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.