Despite recent strides toward civil rights, equality and recognition for people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT), recreational programs, spaces and resources for them could remain inadequate nationally. In some parts of the country, services for LGBT people may not be readily or openly available, while in some areas they may not exist at all. However, like other disadvantaged groups, people who are LGBT need and deserve equal and unprejudiced access to programs, spaces and resources.
The Nonexclusionary Inclusive Approach
A common reaction to this essential component of public customer service is “of course, everybody can participate in programs.” Many park and recreation agencies and facilities have inclusivity as a core value — reflected perhaps in their mission to serve everybody regardless of race, religion, orientation or gender identity. This nonexclusionary inclusive policy, in which “everyone is welcome and no one should be turned away,” is a common practice in a number of agencies and facilities nationwide.
The appeal for this type of inclusive approach is understandable, as it allows for a broad interpretation of inclusivity. It also frees agencies from potential political entanglements should some patrons disagree with their inclusive policies and practices. However, while agencies are well-intentioned to say “everyone is welcome,” a few questions need to be considered:
- How do people know that they are indeed welcome to participate in programs?
- How do we communicate our inclusive policies and practices?
- How effective have these strategies been, and, most importantly, what is our culture like?
While we have grown more tolerant as a society, our long-standing culture has made it so that certain people do not feel as welcome, comfortable or safe. They have been, and continue to be, marginalized and deemed inferior, subjected to ridicule and derogatory remarks, and have endured discrimination and violence. We are more inclusive now than before, but, for many people, including LGBT people, this experience is still not a reality for them. Therefore, we need to make an effort to consistently apply the affirming inclusive approach to policies and practices regardless of the groups we serve. To say “everyone is welcome” is a good approach; to express and show that “no matter your race, religion, orientation or gender identity, you are welcome” is even better.
The Affirming Inclusive Approach
With the nonexclusionary inclusive approach, we do not explicitly communicate and openly demonstrate that groups like the LGBT community are welcome as we would with being affirming inclusive. As a result, members of the LGBT community may not feel inclined to participate. Instead of broadening our reach, we may actually be broadening the gap between us and other groups. When we utilize the affirming inclusive approach, we acknowledge patrons who belong to and identify with particular groups, like the LGBT community.
We may develop programs that we classify as LGBT-friendly or LGBT-focused, create spaces where participants feel welcomed, comfortable and safe, and provide opportunities to enhance their development and well-being. We may invite and join with people from different backgrounds and experiences, whether they identify as LGBT or straight, to increase collaboration, interaction and understanding and to spur awareness and active involvement. No matter the setting, we can build and nurture a sense of community, connection and support that’s lacking in people’s lives. Since park and recreation agencies are often deeply rooted in their communities, we are well-positioned to positively influence the lives of people in our area.
However, it is important to note that in doing these things we are not disregarding or devaluing those who do not identify as LGBT. We are also not exhibiting bias or communicating that the LGBT community matters more than any other. Rather, we are communicating that patrons who are LGBT have equal and unprejudiced access to opportunities like everyone else.
The notion that LGBT programs are exclusively for those who are LGBT, and in turn, alienate those who are not, is a misconception. The affirming inclusive approach simply presents a service philosophy that encourages us to treat everyone the same, regardless of our perceptions and knowledge of their sexuality, race, religion or other characteristics. To do so is to not saturate our service with political correctness, but rather bolster it with respect and human decency. With this approach, we realize we must always do right by our patrons and general community. Often, “doing right” entails exploring our roles within our respective communities and responding to the needs of those we serve.
Successful programs that use this approach champion the notion of possibility. In an LGBT-friendly sports tournament, for instance, it would be possible for people who are LGBT to play sports in a safe, nurturing and judgment-free environment. In an LGBT-focused event, it would be possible for people who are LGBT to gather information about resources, highlight issues facing their community and initiate policy, practice and culture changes.
Regardless of the program, it is possible for anyone, even those who do not identify as LGBT, to make a difference. Even a small group of people can inspire purposeful and productive changes within the agency, facility or general community. The simplest acts can yield the most profound outcomes. Most of all, with the growth of LGBT programs, it is possible for people who are LGBT to transcend stereotypes and misconceptions. The same principles and programming elements could apply to other groups as well. In promoting inclusion and awareness for the LGBT community, we are able to do the same for other groups. The affirming inclusive approach grants investment in and the celebration of possibilities, just as we should invest in and celebrate people — no matter their race, religion, orientation or gender identity.
6 Starting Points for LGBT Programming Through the Affirming Inclusive Approach
- Create and expand partnerships with local and national LGBT centers, organizations and even sports leagues. Invite other agencies, departments and groups as well — especially those with excellent track records for inclusive policies and practices, who can address LGBT presence, visibility and representation.
- Conduct consistent and substantial outreach to members of the LGBT community.
- Reach vulnerable groups within the LGBT community, including the youth and homeless.
- Plan special events for LGBT Pride Month in June and LGBT History Month in October, and participate in LGBT-related campaigns.
- Increase programs and events that focus on intercultural awareness and cultural competency. Prepare and share educational materials. Involve individuals from both the general and LGBT communities and encourage collaboration.
- Examine and modify the culture and language within agencies and facilities to be more inclusive and respectful. Regularly train staff on inclusive language and practices with accountability.
Joseph Martin, M.S., a Contributor to Parks & Recreation magazine, is a Graduate of the University of Idaho.