Four Tips for Serving LGBTQ Young People in Rural Communities

A rural landscape.

As executive director of Tumbleweed Runaway Program in Billings, MT, Sheri Boelter understands the challenges of serving lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth in rural places. Residents may hold onto traditional beliefs about gender and identity, making it less likely to find a visible, strong-knit LGBTQ community. Typically, rural service providers are also more limited and spread out, a situation that makes it harder for young people to get the services and support they need.

Based in a community where “you’re not likely to see same-sex couples walk down the street holding hands,” Boelter’s agency strives to help young people and their families overcome these obstacles by presenting itself as a safe, supportive environment for everyone. That message begins at Tumbleweed’s door, marked by the universal pink triangle and green circle depicting a safe zone for LBGTQ people and their allies.

Boelter shared four steps rural agencies can take to make their services and their communities welcoming to young people regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

1. Extend your definition of family. Tumbleweed staff often bring in aunts, uncles and other relatives when helping a young person come out to or seek acceptance from their loved ones. Working with extended families acknowledges the dynamics that can occur when relatives live near each other and expands the young person’s circle of support. Begin the conversation by giving family members a basic overview of terms like sexual identity and gender identity and expression, Boelter says. That way, you'll get everyone on the same page before turning the conversation toward more personal circumstances.

2. Partner with communities of faith. Churches can make powerful allies in promoting acceptance and tolerance, Boelter says, because of their leadership role in the community and influence with local families. When she talks to local congregations about her agency and the need for LGBTQ services, she brings along a youth who can be a face and name for the issue.

“There’s something very compelling about showing a young person who would rather live outside in 6-degree weather than live in the gender they’re assigned into,” she says. “We flip the conversation so that [members of the congregation] view these young people’s lives from a place of compassion rather than judgment.”

3. Educate health care providers. When medical professionals understand LGBTQ issues, young people get better care. For example, when dealing with sexual assault, community health centers and hospitals often set protocols that assume the incident occurred between a man and a woman. Assigning a male nurse to a young man raped by another man, however, may incur further trauma. Tumbleweed encourages local medical providers to let sexual assault victims decide whom they would like to perform a medical or rape-kit exam.

4. Work your community’s small network. One of the good things about living in a rural area, Boelter says, is that people tend to know each other. When Tumbleweed began advocating for school-based LGBTQ support groups, for example, they already had strong relationships with administrators and counselors at the three local high schools, where they had established onsite food and clothing pantries. And because Boelter chairs the community’s continuum of care for people experiencing homelessness, she is able to ensure local homelessness advocates understand the needs of young people.

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