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How to be more inclusive with LGBTQ youth

By Joseph Rand

Want to ensure youth are learning? Start with safety and be a learner yourself.

Young people who don’t feel social, emotional and physical safety have a hard time learning. LGBTQ youth who are marginalized fall into this category much of the time.

The 2017 School Climate Survey from Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) indicates that victimization in schools based on gender expression and sexual orientation had remained steady since the previous survey in 2015.

LGBTQ students experiencing discrimination and harassment:
  • Are more likely to miss school.
  • Are more likely to face discipline in school.
  • Are less likely to attend post-secondary education.
  • Have lower grades.
  • Have lower self esteem.

While some forms of harassment trended downward, harassment based on gender expression has risen. So has the frequency of negative remarks regarding gender expression from school staff. Though there are more Gender Sexuality Alliances (GSAs) than before, LGBTQ youth continue to feel unsafe, unwelcome and victimized.

These statistics make me glad to be a part of 4-H, which works to give all young people access to high-quality, safe youth development experiences -- no matter who they are. National 4-H Council recently affirmed the commitment, and in a recent blog post, Minnesota's state 4-H director re-affirmed that safety is one of our top priorities -- specifically when it relates to the emotional well-being of young people.

Are our practices in line with our ideals?

As with many other organizations, our commitment to safety and equal access does not mean we’ve got it all figured out. In fact, youth have told us that 4-H still has room to improve when it comes to supporting our LGBTQ members. We also need to improve how we facilitate and build the skill of navigating differences with respect and authenticity. Are youth learning how to share space from adults in the program? How to partner with folks who think and act differently than we do? And are we learning from youth how to create spaces where those exchanges are possible?

Learning from our young people

Last summer I conducted some research with 50 young people during Minnesota 4-H’s annual statewide leadership conference. Through a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) they helped me to see some truths about LBTQ inclusivity in the 4-H program.


Young people appreciated leaders who were respectful and willing to engage in dialogue or intervene when harassment or discrimination occurred. They acknowledged the presence of religions, both affirming and non-affirming of the LGBTQ community, and value that diversity within the 4-H program. Finally, young people appreciate our commitment to reaching out to new audiences.

Threats and weaknesses

The 4-H program has some non-inclusive practices, such as dress codes, lack of gender-neutral bathrooms and gendered activities. Youth also indicated that some discrimination from youth and adults still happens, as well as a lack of intervention.


Young people not only see opportunities for inclusion, they understand that 4-H is a program in which change is possible. They said that increased education, inclusion promotion and policy would decrease the number of peers opting out because of safety concerns, especially their LGBTQ peers.

A posture of learning and changing is how we will ensure that all youth have access to high-quality youth development experiences. It's vital that we learn by listening to the young people involved and engaging them in processes that make needed changes in the organization.

Using the LGBTQ inclusion lens, what strengths do you see within your programs? Weaknesses or threats? Opportunities? What are the repercussions if we don’t employ a more proactive approach to inclusion?

-- Joseph Rand, Extension educator

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  1. As you point out, I think the greatest things we can do in any organization is ask the real experts where we're falling short, what we're doing right, and where our opportunities are for continual improvement. So if we want to improve our work with volunteers, the experts to ask would be those volunteers! Too often we forget how much we can and do learn from youth. I think it's partly because they are not always very refined in articulating those ideas. That's not their problem--we just have to be better listeners. If we were, we may not need so much help making our spaces more welcoming.

  2. The question, what are the repercussions if we don't employ a more proactive approach to inclusion, is such a critical one. This work is vital for the safety of youth in our programs but also important for us as an organization. If we don't take proactive steps to ensure a safe place for LGBTQ youth, then we may get left behind as youth opt out of 4-H and into other youth serving organizations. Thank you for bringing the voice of youth to this critical conversation.

  3. The thing that really struck me in this, Joe, is the need for us to intervene when issues emerge. Not only do we need to take an active stance ourselves, but we also need to figure out how we prepare volunteers like club leaders, event chaperones, etc. to step in when discriminatory statements or actions arise. I think many people hesitate to do something because it is uncomfortable and makes people nervous because they don't know the right thing to say. But truly, this is where "the perfect is the enemy of the good"--even stepping in in a clumsy way lets the young person (or fellow volunteer, parent, whomever) know that they are seen, the incident was noticed, and we can draw a boundary to say that in 4-H, we stand up for all people being treated with respect.


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