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Safe spaces matter more than labels for LGBT youth

By Joseph Rand

In grad school, I often heard the term "queer" used to describe LGBT youth - without any negative connotation, just as a neutral term. I also have vivid memories from my younger days of being called queer as an insult.

So when this word is used to describe the community I belong to, it often often trips me up.  Furthermore, in my rural context, "queer" is not a term that has been effective or comfortable, compared with terms like LGBT, gay or lesbian.

What do all those acronyms and terms mean? How much do they matter?

LGBTQIA ... LMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ …  Let’s be real! It’s a lot to digest if it's a topic that’s new to you. It's a lot to comprehend even when it’s not new! The other day, a ninth grader I've known for a year or so told me they were identifying as gender fluid. I felt really dumb because I didn't know exactly what that meant and I wanted to be supportive. I felt guilty because as a member of the LGBT community, I’m supposed to be "in the know" about all the colors of the rainbow flag. But the truth is that no one can know everything.

We do, however, have a responsibility to educate ourselves so we can be effective and supportive youth workers. Here are a few resources.
  • University of California at Davis offers a list of terms that I find useful.  
  • We Are Family, a youth advocacy group, has a glossary of terms that includes additional insight into transgender issues and derogatory and offensive terms.
  • This Washington Post article gives some good context for the terminology.  

Identities are more complex than labels

Labels may be helpful to some but may not be important for a young person – and could hinder their developing self-identity. It’s important to create a safe space where they can be authentic and build a support network. How a young person feels is more important than identifying their sexual identity with a socially constructed term. Most importantly, don’t categorize a youth before they have told you a label they identify with.  And don't share that label until they've said it's OK. Sometimes youth are able to be themselves in a safe space like a support group but can’t yet do so in other aspects of their lives.

Language has consequences far beyond our understanding and intent. We must do as much as we can to educate ourselves in order to have constructive dialogue within our communities and create safe spaces for youth.  A 2015 report by the Public Religion Research Institute suggests that 7% of millennials identify as part of the LGBT community. A 2017 Gallup survey puts the number at 7.3% and says the percentage of American adults who identify as part of the LGBT community rose from 3.5% in 2012 to 4.1% today.

These young people are already in our programs. These adults are our colleagues, mentors and volunteers. It's our responsibility to make an environment where they can be authentic in order to fully engage in positive youth development.

Let’s talk about it! This is a safe space. What terms have you heard that you don’t understand? How has language been a barrier in your context?

-- Joseph Rand, Extension educator

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  1. Thank you, Joe, for continuing to provide "safe spaces" for youth workers to ask questions and better understand how we can work with LGBT youth. This Blog is an excellent follow-up to your previous Blog and Podcast (Episode 12: For LGBT Youth, Safe Places Can Be Hard to Find - ). I learn so much from you because of your willingness to share your personal story as a way to help today's young people feel safe and have supports and opportunities for their healthy development!

    1. Thanks for your reply Kari! I hope that I can be a positive role model for all kids, but especially for LGBT youth. I didn't have very many role-models I felt connected to as a young person. I hope I can fill that void for the youth with whom I work both in 4-H and at Becker High School. This is a great place to ask questions. There is a lot to digest, and we all screw up many times before we can get things right.

  2. Thanks for the post, Joe! It occurs to me that while there is much we can control within our programs, it's impossible to control what happens outside the safe spaces we create with young people. And so often it's the adults in that child's life, or in the lives of other youth that person associates with, who can be the most hurtful. We can set up rules of conduct, but the youth can tell when they are not accepted, even when people follow these rules. I have my own thoughts on how to deal with this, but I wonder if you have any insight you could share from your experience?

    1. Thanks for the reply Jess! You are right on. I work with a few kids currently who can only truly be themselves during our GSA meetings after school. I agree, it can be those closet to a youth that can hurt them the most. Rules can be helpful, of course. I think education is key. Helping youth understand their implicit bias can help to relieve some unintended offensive behaviors. I also think that we have to help LGBT youth be resilient and understanding toward folks who may not understand what they are going through and have good intentions of helping. Authenticity is really the key. Kids pick up on "fake" incredibly fast. Following the rules and being nice just because that's the expectation or rule doesn't cut it, and can be more damaging. Building strong caring relationships between youth who authentically engage with one another builds trust and us ultimately the best strategy. As youth practitioners we need to create spaces where these relationships can be built.

  3. Joe, thank you so much for this wonderful blog! Indeed, our language is one of the first ways that we interact with each other, and the words we use send a clear (and sometimes unintentional) message about how safe people can feel with us. I like your emphasis on the importance of using the terminology that the other person asks you to use for them. In one of our clubs, we had a club leader who is transgender, and we started including preferred pronouns as part of the introduction and check-in and the start of every meeting. Now, long after that leader had to leave the role and others have transitioned in, the club still introduces with preferred pronouns. This can cause some nervous laughter among some new folks, especially since many are from immigrant families with pretty strong gender roles, but it is wonderful to watch the other youth explain what it means and why it matters. I figure that all of those youth will move into the world realizing that gender is not just male/female and that we need to respect each others' requests for how we want to be identified.


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