Research Roundup: Helping Transgender Youth Access Community Services

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Photograph of a smiling young person.

Like their gay, lesbian and bisexual peers, young people with nontraditional gender identities—known as transgender—are more likely to experience challenges like homelessness and violence than heterosexual youth. Yet even as schools and social service organizations attempt to make themselves more welcoming to youth regardless of their sexual identity, many lack the knowledge and resources to adequately serve transgender clients.

Three recent articles explore the challenges faced by transgender people as they seek help in their communities, along with steps programs can take to better meet distinct transgender needs.

What Gets in the Way?

In a literature review spanning nearly two decades of research, researchers in Hawaii and Michigan examined 30 articles discussing transgender clients’ experience in a variety of social service settings. While not limited to youth, these studies revealed five barriers commonly faced by transgender young people:

  1. Discrimination or rejection: Study participants were refused treatment because they were transgender, even when seeking urgent medical care.
  2. Insensitivity and poor treatment:  Providers focused only on a person’s transgender status, for example, or refused to use their preferred name or pronoun.
  3. Concerns with agency’s physical environment: Many organizations lacked inclusive protocols for using sleeping and bathroom facilities.
  4. Challenges accessing appropriate services: Respondents cited a shortage of trans-friendly programs in their communities or long wait lists for programs that did exist.
  5. Absence of cultural competence: Many participants said they avoided asking for help because they were concerned that social services staff might be unaccepting or uninformed about transgender people.

What Helps in Schools?

Unfortunately, many of the same challenges exist in schools, causing transgender students to skip class or drop out because they feel threatened. A recent study from the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, or GLSEN, found that school-based resources might help keep transgender students safe and in the classroom.

GLSEN surveyed nearly 7,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth ages 13 to 21 (409 young people identified as transgender). Participants whose schools offered resources like gay-straight alliances and supportive teachers and administrators reported fewer days of missed school along with fewer reports of violence.

The GLSEN study also found that transgender young people reported greater benefits from school programs than their gay, lesbian and bisexual peers—even if school staff, the authors write, aren’t familiar with transgender issues.

What Helps in Youth Shelters?

When it comes to helping transgender youth experiencing homelessness, a 2010 report from the Center for Urban Community Services advocates for specific policies that can make a shelter more comfortable for gender and sexual minorities. New York City’s shelter guidelines, the authors write, ask programs to recognize clients’ preferred gender during intake and placement and their preferred arrangements for sleeping and showering.

Starting programs specifically for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people is another option, the authors say. While some such programs do exist, they write, more are needed to meet the need for services.

Read the Articles

Gender Identity and Social Services: Barriers to Care” (abstract). Journal of Social Service Research, Vol. 39, No. 1, 2013.

Putting the ‘T’ in ‘Resource’: The Benefits of LGBT-Related School Resources for Transgender Youth” (abstract). Journal of LGBT Youth, Vol. 10, No. 1-2, February 2013.

Shelter and Transitional Housing for Transgender Youth” (abstract). Journal of Gay & Lesbian Mental Health, Vol. 14, No. 2, October 2010.

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