Between hormones, insecurities, and social pressures, growing up can be an awkward and challenging process. However, for LGBTQ youth, whose main concerns are their safety and the acceptance of their identity, as opposed to grades or college applications, adolescence can be considerably more difficult.
Luckily, adults can play a big role in easing this transition and creating an environment where LGBTQ youth feel free to express themselves and their ideas. Jefferson Center’s own Infant & Early Childhood Mental Health Specialist, Joy Wishtun, and School-Based Clinician, Jennifer Paulus weighed in on this subject and offered expert advice on how any adult, regardless of their identity, can become an ally.
What Does It Mean to Be an Ally?
It’s important to establish that you don’t have to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ) to be committed to ending the discrimination against LGBTQ people. As Paulus says, “being an ally is not a way of thinking, rather it’s a set of actions and behaviors that show LGBTQ individuals you are by their side and supporting them.”
This kind of support can be life-changing and even life-saving for some. According to the Trevor Project, an organization focused on providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services, LGBTQ youth seriously contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate of heterosexual youth. Additionally, a national study found that 40% of transgender adults reported having made a suicide attempt with 92% of these individuals reporting having attempted suicide before the age of 25.
Wishtun agrees that allyship is about more than just your words — it’s about what you do. She uses the phrase “co-conspirator” to highlight the fact that adults will often need to take actions that go against social norms when supporting LGBTQ youth. Wishtun says this can look like lobbying for policy changes, calling out homophobic remarks, and creating safe spaces for LGBTQ youth.
Why is it Important for LGBTQ Youth to Have Adult Allies?
Research shows that LGBTQ youth who reported having at least one accepting adult were 40% less likely to report a suicide attempt in the past year. While acceptance by family members has been found to have one of the most positive associations with self-esteem and general health, only 6 in 10 LGBTQ youth are out to their immediate families. This means that there is ample room for teachers, mentors, neighbors, and family friends to be accepting adult who makes a huge difference.
As an adult, your career title, financial standing, and experience can all give you a higher social status and more power. Adult allies can use their power to provide a platform to amplify younger voices that are often left out of important conversations. According to Wishtun, taking an intergenerational approach to these kinds of situations is what gets rid of the age divide and allows for more open, honest conversations.
Paulus points out that even in cases where marginalized populations have enacted change “most LGBTQ policies and laws were designed around LGBTQ adults, with youth issues and concerns going unheard. Adult allies are able to use their status and privilege to help support and organize LGBTQ youth voices in order to be heard.”
One of the most important things an adult ally can do for LGBTQ youth is listening to their stories, struggles, and hopes the same way you would with another adult. This shows that you are someone they can trust, confide in, and feel safe around.
Creating a Safe Space
Creating a safe space is about fostering an environment where LGBTQ youth feel comfortable being their authentic selves around them. This starts by taking a look at how you present yourself and your surroundings to others.
As a parent, you might think about how you talk to your children or their friends about dating and relationships. Paulus says an important key to keeping your relationship open to communication is to avoid making assumptions. Comments like “Do you have a boyfriend?” can easily be switched to “Are you dating someone? Tell me about this person.” This also applies to gender labeling. If you’re not sure of someone’s gender or the pronouns they prefer to use (he/she/they), the best course of action is to simply ask! Make a mental note and be sure to use their preferred pronouns in the future.
In classrooms and workspaces, you can have a visual representation that you are an ally via stickers, posters, or other cues so a person can see where you stand before they enter the space. GLSEN, an organization founded by teachers dedicated to affirming learning environments for LGBTQ youth, offers safe space kits to get started. Representation is also key to showing your support. “If you encounter many youths, for example as a teacher, make sure there are representations in your work (books by LGBTQ authors, artwork, and music by LGBTQ authors, include LGBTQ history in lessons). LGBTQ youth should see themselves reflected around them in order to feel the space is safe.”
Educate Yourself and Find Resources
The reality is that our understanding of identities, sexuality, and gender has expanded significantly in the past few decades and will continue to grow as we create a more accepting culture. Terminology today goes beyond just LGBTQ to include ‘gender non-conforming,’ ‘androgynous,’ ‘non-binary,’ ‘two-spirit,’ and more. Take it upon yourself to stay continually informed and find resources to be an informed ally.
Whether you’re a parent or not, Wishtun and Paulus agreed that getting involved in local LGBTQ support groups was a great way to show your support and stay connected to the community. Many schools offer gay-straight alliances for students and teachers as well as support groups for the adults in their lives. However, Wishtun says that “some people may not have that capacity or that ability, but you can still read books, articles, watch podcasts, and educate yourself to have deeper conversations.”
Being an adult ally is a continual process of learning, listening, and growing alongside LGBTQ youth. Most importantly, Wishtun says “take responsibility for the power that you hold to try to change conditions for LGBTQ youth and marginalized communities in whatever way you can.”
To get involved with local LGBTQ youth resources and groups, visit these pages:
Parasol Patrol: The Parasol Patrol was formed out of a need to protect our children’s eyes and ears from the hateful speech of protesters. We provide hearing protection and use our umbrellas to peacefully walk in between protesters and kids.
Jeffco Safe Schools Coalition: The Jeffco Safe Schools Coalition is a group of community members who work to empower our LGBTQ+ students, families, and educators by creating safe and inclusive learning spaces.
Drag for All Ages: A family-friendly drag shows that is inclusive for participants of all ages, held at Mile High Comics.