By: Gabriel Smith, LSW, DCRC Research Associate
The Supreme Court recently found marriage to be a right guaranteed by the Constitution to all couples, bringing the rights of individuals who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, or Questioning (LGBTQ) to center stage in the United States. Coincidentally, the rights of these individuals have also been on the minds of Devereux’s leadership for the past several years. Devereux has established an LGBTQ taskforce, with representatives from Devereux Centers across the nation, to develop and recommend policies and procedures to help Devereux become a welcoming and affirming organization for LGBTQ individuals.
This effort has encouraged the Devereux Center for Resilient Children (DCRC) to consider the protective factors and risk factors in the lives of children who identify as LGBTQ. DCRC strives toward the vision that ALL children will live in communities that value their strengths, happiness and resilience-this includes children who identify as LGBTQ.
A child’s understanding of gender and sexuality develops like other things – through observing and experiencing the world or community around them as well as calling upon their internal sense of who they are. However, many communities struggle to develop environments where LGBTQ children can feel accepted and emotionally and physically safe. One LGBTQ youth stated, “The people in my community and family aren’t really accepting of the LGBT community and it’s hard for me to lie about who I am.” Another youth shared, “I can’t come out to anyone I know at church because they will immediately see me as a bad person” (HRC, 2014). In short, our communities can send a message that being LGBTQ is not okay.
As a result, LGBTQ children and youth wrestle with risk factors influenced by their gender identity or sexuality on a daily basis. They often experience bullying, harassment, exclusion and physical assault at school; parents and family members often have difficulty accepting them; and their unique social and emotional needs are often overlooked in our health and education systems. For these reasons, LGBTQ children and youth often live with a perpetual fear of being open about who they are. These youth report more difficulty with eating disorders, self-harm, depression and suicide than non-LGBTQ youth, and high numbers of these youth are homeless or in foster care. In addition, many LGBTQ children and youth do not feel they have a safe adult (within their family, or even outside of their family) to whom they can turn if they feel worried or sad (HRC, 2014, Baum et al., 2014).
Caring and supportive adults can be the biggest protective factors in the lives of children and youth. Children who identify as LGBTQ need supportive adults to help them find safety, happiness, and success. Here’s how adults can become protective factors for LGBTQ Children and Youth:
- Communicate a zero tolerance policy for jokes, name-calling, words, and comments that are derogatory or hurtful towards individuals who are LGBTQ or individuals who do not express their gender in a traditional way.
- Educate yourself about gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation by reading, attending seminars, watching webinars, and/or talking to individuals who are willing to share their personal experiences. You may want to start with the Human Rights Campaign website.
- Don’t assume that all individuals are heterosexual, or that gender is binary – consisting of just “women and men,” or “boys and girls.” Both sexuality and gender can be better described as spectrums or continuums. With this in mind, make sure to use language that is LGBTQ inclusive and respectful. For example, “partner” is an alternative to “husband” or “boyfriend,” and “students” is an alternative to “boys and girls.”
- Be open to gender and sexual differences by creating safe opportunities and spaces for individuals to talk about and share their identity. This may mean asking an individual about their preferred pronoun, talking openly with someone about their same-sex partner, or including examples of LGBTQ people, families, and stories in your materials, lesson plans and libraries.
- Seek safe spaces to reflect upon and talk about your own views of gender identity and sexuality and how they developed. Your expectations and perceptions affect how you engage with both children and adults around these issues.
Having lots of risk factors can lead children down a negative life path, but protective factors can counter the effects of these risk factors. Protective factors promote hope and resilience. The good news is “LGBT youth often report resilience in facing today’s challenges and a sense of optimism about tomorrow’s possibilities” (HRC, 2014). Supportive adults can be pivotal in creating the possibilities of tomorrow for these children and youth. As part of Devereux’s work to make our organization welcoming and affirming, we hope you will join us in promoting protective factors for all of the children in our lives, including those who identify as LGBTQ.
Baum, J. Brill, S. Brown, J. Delpercio, A., Kahn, E., Kenny, L., Nicoll, A. (2014). Supporting and caring for our gender expansive youth: Lessons from the Human Rights Campaign’s youth survey. Washington, DC: Human Rights Campaign Foundation. Retrieved from: www.hrc.org/youth-gender
Human Rights Campaign Foundation. (2014). Growing Up LGBT in America: HRC Foundation Youth Survey Report Findings. Washington, DC: Human Rights Campaign Foundation. Retrieved from: www.hrc.org/youth-report
An Introduction to LGBTQ. (2014). Devereux Training. Villanova, PA: Devereux.