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For LGBT youth, safe spaces can be hard to find

By Joseph Rand

About two years ago, students at Becker High School in rural Minnesota created a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA). These students wanted a space where they could be themselves, connect and feel safe in a town where they often feel they don't fit in and can't express their true identities. For adolescents, access to safe spaces is a crucial part of development and exploring self-identity. For youth programs, this is a fundamental concern.

While physical safety is the foundation of the YPQA pyramid from the Center for Youth Program Quality, emotional safety is also of crucial importance. Only when youth feel emotionally and physically safe are they able to present themselves in an authentic way and engage in positive development. Without that authenticity, true development cannot take place. Researchers have discussed the need for safe spaces for fostering peer-to-peer relationships and for developing coping strategies and community among LGBT students.

The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network reported in a 2015 report that in many states, including Minnesota, schools are unsafe and unwelcoming for LGBT students and that bullying of marginalized LGBT youth is still prevalent. The majority of LGBT students in Minnesota schools have heard anti-LGBT remarks, and many have heard staff make homophobic remarks. If schools aren't welcoming to all students, they can’t provide safe spaces for all children to develop.

This experience isn't unique to LGBT students; bullying is widespread. According to the Centers for Disease Control, students who experience bullying are at greater risk for poor school adjustment, sleep difficulties, anxiety and depression. Students who bully are at greater risk for academic problems, substance use and violent behavior later in adolescence and adulthood. Another study shows that students who experience bias-based bullying (bullying based on gender identity or race/ethnicity) are at greater risk for health problems than students who experience non-bias-based harassment. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s "Teaching Tolerance" project surveyed more than 10,000 teachers, counselors, administrators and others and found incidents of discriminatory bullying on the rise in schools.

We as youth workers can make sure that the learning environments we provide during out of school time are safe and inclusive.

Ensure the safety of the spaces in which you work. Our job as youth workers is to create safe environments where youth feel belonging, especially those youth marginalized by society and powerful leaders. 4-H and other out-of-school-time programs are uniquely positioned to maintain spaces where youth feel safe by helping them understand their role in a diverse and global society.
  • GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network) has a “safe space kit” available.  While it is geared toward youth in the LGBT community and their allies, it utilizes methods and strategies for cross-cultural application.
  • Teaching Tolerance has some great free curriculum I have adapted for use with 4-H youth leaders, as well as film and teaching -- kits free to youth-serving nonprofits -- that break down cultural barriers and prejudice to help youth embrace their differences.
  • WeConnect is a curriculum developed here in Minnesota that I have used to help youth think about their role as global citizens and learn how to thrive in a diverse society.
How do you see intolerance manifest within the spaces in which you work? Where do you see a need for change in the spaces in which you currently work in order to ensure a safe and welcoming environment for the youth you serve?  What other resources have you used while creating and maintaining safe environments?

-- Joseph Rand, Extension educator

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.
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  1. Such a great and timely post, Joe. I think within those safe spaces, it's important to create a place where young people can be honest about what they're feeling, what they're uncertain or fearful about, what they want from the world, and what they want to contribute to the world. Getting them to think about these things can help bring out interesting conversation. And within that, we as educators can't be afraid to "go there" with them, even if we're not sure what the outcome will be. Even if a conversation doesn't go particularly well, we can make sure that we follow up afterwards once we've had the time to reflect. Doing this, we learn how to facilitate the tougher conversations.

  2. Your article made me think about a training opportunity being made available by Extension's Children, Youth & Family Consortium this winter and spring. It's called "Meeting the Needs of Transgender Youth." Trainings are being offered regionally across Minnesota. Here's the link for additional information:

    1. I attended this in Minneapolis today - it was very informative and caused me to think about a variety of ways to support transgender youth currently in our program and in the future. They provided a wonderful link to a toolkit -

    2. I tried that link and got an error message, but I found it here:

  3. Hi Joe,
    Thanks for this important piece. Lately I've been thinking about issues of bullying, as there is more and more news coverage of the topic. I agree that safe places are so important. I think in many bullying prevention curricula we don't fully explain the very important role that the kids "in the middle" have in these situations. So much goes into the bully and the bullied but the bystander can play a powerful role. I see that we have to make sure that we are raising youth that are willing to be brave, stand up for each other, and be empathetic. Now how to do all that?!

    1. And providing them with strategies to intervene! Thanks for the comment Sam!! It is a huge undertaking, but every action, no matter how small, creates a ripple effect...

  4. Thanks for the important post Joe! The resource guide from the GLSEN team has great resources and tools that we can be using with staff and volunteers as we help ensure safe spaces and allies. I agree we all need to do more to be visibly supportive and helpful to young people. Thanks for enlarging the conversation!

  5. I'm so glad to see this conversation here - thanks for the topic and discussion!
    I'm sharing some more details from the Children, Youth & Family Consortium (CYFC). In addition to the "Meeting the Needs of Transgender Youth" events that Erin mentioned, we also have a website with: a glossary of related terms; research about trans youth health and well-being; a resource list for educators, families and youth; and a list of Minnesota organizations serving transgender and LGB youth. Find them all at:

    And, our events are being held in many places throughout Minnesota during the upcoming months. Find one near you and register at:
    See you there!

    1. Thanks Cari! This is such a great opportunity that I hope folks will take advantage of!

  6. MR.RAND!!It's so awesome that you're a blogger now, AND you're blogging about the LGBTQ youth! Cool! :) I was part of the Becker GSA club and originally it was supposed to be for just High Schoolers but word spread about our safe space after school and we started to get middle schoolers coming to our meetings; I think Becker especially really needed that space, and there should be safe spaces all over our community for LGBT youth; all over every community. Kids really need this kind of space, it makes them feel so much more comfortable at school, knowing that there are other kids who feel like them or just support them. It's a great feeling being a part of a GSA club, you finally feel like you belong somewhere. Our GSA club never really became an actual club as far as I know. We were told that the School Board couldn't recognize us as an actual club so we had to take our posters down and figure out new ways to promote ourselves and in the end we kinda ended up being a bunch of kids hanging out after school in the art room. I have since graduated and I don't know what the GSA in Becker is like but hopefully it's better then when I was there. We had fun as a bunch of kids doing things and talking about..ourselves, but we were never recognized and that was hard for most of us.

    1. I know how hard it was for you guys to get things started, but I'm so glad that you did. You accomplished so much, and paved the way for future students, no matter how small you thought it was!! It has paid dividends for so many more kids that need a safe space to be themselves.

  7. Thanks for this post Joe! I would second/third many of the other comments and resources provided already.
    Some additional thoughts…I think it is important to get educated, and continue to seek out opportunities to gain understanding. There are a variety of workshops by colleagues and at the University of Minnesota that serve not only as educational sessions, but opportunities to connect with others to identify potential areas of growth personally and for our programs.
    I have tried to have a greater understanding of the language that I use, and the language that I encourage youth leaders to use in programming. We have a tendency to break youth up into "boys and girls", referring to "moms and dads", or to make comments or offer illustrations that promote only heterosexual relationships. Building in these subtle changes to language can help all to feel a little more welcome.
    I feel that understanding the diversity and the uniqueness of each letter in the LGBTQ+ acronym is also important, and the intersectionality of multiple identities. People who are transgender are often lumped into the LGB communities, but gender and sex are very different, and their experiences, challenges, and supports are often much different. A youth of color who is also gay might not also fit in the "lumping" that we commonly do as well.
    There are a lot of pieces of our registration and enrollment systems that can be augmented as well. Whenever I ask for a person's sex, I think if its needed or not - does having this identified matter to this program? We’ve also asked for youth to disclose the name they prefer to be called, which may or may not be the same as their legal name.
    With uncertainty in law and policy in our government, I think its important to recognize this may translate to the feelings of our youth who identify with the topics discussed in the news - we need to think about how can we be reassuring to them that we see them, we support them, and we want them to feel like they belong.


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