Will I make friends? What if I get lost? Will I like my teachers? What if I do something embarrassing?
These are the back to school jitters we’re used to helping youth navigate.
We have all kinds of strategies to help young people feel comfortable in their new classroom or after school program — putting their name on a desk or name tag, icebreakers, activities that encourage youth to get to know each other — the list is endless.
But consider the young person who is unsure of his or her gender identity or expression.
Or the teen who may have decided over the summer to finally be public about “liking” members of the same sex. Their jitters include deeper issues of acceptance and safety. How can we provide a safe, welcoming environment for these youth?
This question came to my mind at a conference session called “Diversity and Inclusion in After School” that I attended earlier this year. A fellow afterschool professional I’ll call “Mary” described her discomfort and guilt following an encounter with a teen.
Mary keeps a stash of new clothes in her office to support students from poverty. One of her co-workers brought a student to her office who asked for underwear. Mary glanced at the student, opened the drawer, and reached for female undergarments.
She heard a little movement and glanced up to see her co-worker mouthing the word “BOY” behind the student. She quickly grabbed some boys’ underwear and gave it to the student. Mary described her anxiety about possibly offending this student, and we talked about other ways she could have handled the situation, such as simply opening the drawer and having the student choose.
Other conference attendees shared similar discomfort and confusion about serving LGBTQ and gender expansive students. “This gender stuff is something we have to cope with,” one person said. Throughout the session, more people talked about their anxiety about “facing” or “dealing with” youth who expressing non-binary gender identity and sexual orientation.
As an ally to LGBTQ and non-binary youth, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed — not at my colleagues’ discomfort and confusion, but at their characterization of a youth’s gender identity, expression, and orientation as a problem that had to be “dealt with.”
I hoped that addressing my colleagues’ uncertainty was a first step toward their more inclusive practice.
Terms such as “gender identity,” “gender expression,” and “gender fluidity” are new and evolving every day. My suggestion to colleagues was to educate themselves using resources such as GenderSpectrum. This website offers many resources to educators and other K-12 professionals — from current vocabulary to how educators have come to understand “when gender boxes don’t fit.”
I think Vera Papisova’s essay in Teen Vogue is spot on in her advice to adults:
Consider gender a language that you have to learn to be fluent in. Like with any language, the older you get, the harder it is to understand, which is why some adults find it too daunting to learn. The truth is, it’s really not so complicated, and we should really all be fluent in gender, because it helps all of us understand our own identities better.
After getting more comfortable with the language and concepts around gender, after school professionals can model good behavior by using inclusive language. Be careful not to make assumptions about sexual orientation or gender identity. If you have a teen program, consider doing “check in” activities that include youth stating their preferred pronouns.
Make sure books, posters, and other program materials include examples of LGBTQ youth and families.
Other resources include GLSEN’s free Safe Space Kit in English and Spanish for middle and high school settings. Although targeted to school settings, much of the kit can be applied to after school environments.
After school professionals also need to know how to help LGBTQ youth in crisis. The Trevor Project offers educational resources and a national 24-hour, toll-free confidential suicide hotline for LGBTQ youth.
What other resources have you found or strategies you’ve used to create welcoming environments for LGBTQ youth?
Please share in the comments!
For breakfast I had an English muffin with cream cheese and some grapes.
Author Profile: @jennabacolor
Editor’s note: The BOOST team feels passionately about this subject and the need for students to feel safe and accepted in and out-of-school time. We have put together an extensive list of resources on the subject in our BOOST Cafe Resource Center. Click here for more resources!