Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Questioning (LGBTQ) teens are coming out ever younger, and they and their families are requesting services and accommodations that meet their needs. Recreation and parks departments may believe the services they provide are available for everyone equally, and that LGBTQ youth are therefore already included in the programs they offer. But we know from a growing number of instances that minorities who are not deliberately and intentionally included are left out. Simply providing an opportunity and a program is not sufficient for authentic engagement.
Why LGBTQ Teens need Recreation Programs
Much literature and resources focus on homeless LGBTQ teens, and they are disproportionately represented.Often as many as 40 percent of a city’s homeless teens are LGBTQ, even though LGBTQ people are at most 10 percent of the overall population. As important as it is to assist homeless LGBTQ teens, it is equally important to address the needs of non-homeless LGBTQ teens. In Seattle — with an estimated population of 668,000 as of 2014 — there are approximately 400 homeless LGBTQ youth (age 24 and under) out of a conservative estimate of 2,300 LGBTQ youth of middle- and high-school age. If one looks at the larger metro area — and we should, because teens are mobile and will use recreation facilities regardless of where they live — with a population of 2 million, then a conservative estimate is that almost 7,000 LGBTQ youth of middle- and high-school age may be using the city’s facilities and programs.
Some of these youth have supportive parents, schools and friends. Many do not, and are struggling because of attitudes about their sexual orientation and/or gender expression that are imposed upon them by family, school staff and friends. Regardless of how many LGBTQ youth there are in your city or service area, and regardless of how many may be homeless or housing insecure, they all need our help. On average, LGBTQ teens experience depression, miss days at school and attempt suicide at rates two to five times higher than their heterosexual peers.
What Can Recreation and Parks Departments Do?
Many departments use a “youth development model” or tools such as the “40 Developmental Assets” to guide them in serving teens. In this sense, LGBTQ teens are not that different than any other teens, although because of the unique challenges they face as minorities, staff will need to be both knowledgeable and comfortable discussing these challenges. So how does a department effectively serve a population of teens and provide positive role models for them if none of its staff share essential characteristics with them? In other words, how many of your department’s teen program staff are openly LGBTQ? And how many are openly LGBTQ and of color?
Even when departments do have staffs who are comfortable being visibly and openly LGBTQ, it is almost certain that the majority of staff who interact with teens will be heterosexual. Therefore there is a need to develop cultural competency and ally-work in your workforce to ensure all staff are knowledgeable, effective and supportive of the LGBTQ teens they serve. And if you think your department is not serving any LGBTQ teens, I would ask you to consider the question, “How do you know?” If LGBTQ teens currently participating in your programs are not comfortable or feeling safe enough to let your staff know, then it may be an indication that your department has some work to do to be truly welcoming for all teens.
During the past five years of figuring out what works to engage LGBTQ teens in Seattle, I’ve identified three broad goals to guide the department’s efforts:
1. Ensuring LGBTQ youth are adequately informed of ongoing teen and youth programming the department regularly develops and delivers. What this means is staff have to know where LGBTQ teens are, how to reach them, how to gain their trust and what information methods and media they use to get information.
2. Ensuring all of the department's teen and youth programs and facilities are ever safer and welcoming for ALL teens, including LGBTQ teens and youth, and LGBTQ teens and youth of color. The main work of this goal is to develop all staffs’ ability to be culturally competent in relating to and working with LGBTQ teens.
3. Creating programming specific to LGBTQ youth as needed. This goal addresses the reality that universal teen programs may need work to be sufficiently safe and welcoming for LGBTQ teens, and in the meantime it may be necessary to offer versions of these programs specifically for LGBTQ teens (and their friends and allies). This goal also sometimes means that there may be program topics of interest to LGBTQ teens that your department does not currently offer and may need to develop.
A good way to start finding specific resources and potential community partners in your area is to find out if there are any LGBTQ community organizations in your area, and any organizations that focus on providing programs for LGBTQ teens, and then call them up and start a dialogue. Almost every state has at least one central LGBTQ community organization, and most major cities have one or more. So get on the Internet and start reaching out! Here are some sites to get you started:
- The Gay Lesbian Straight Educators Network (GLSEN) has been around for more than 20 years, and pioneered the idea of forming Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) to improve safety for LGBTQ teens in schools. Find out if your state has a chapter at the national website.
- The GSA Jump Start manual is an excellent resource available for free on the GSLEN website. It covers almost every core topic about LGBTQ teens, and has more hands-on exercises and guided discussion templates than you could do in a year. Find the downloadable PDFs here.
- Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) also has a long history of supporting families with LGBTQ children, and many states and larger cities have a chapter. Even if your state doesn’t have a chapter, use the map on PFLAG National’s website to contact the nearest chapter to you.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has good online information about mental health and challenges faced by LGBTQ teens.
- Janet Mock is transgender activist, writer, speaker, TV host, the founder of #Girlslikeus and the New York Times bestselling author of “Redefining Realness:My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love and So Much More.” Learn more here.
- The Trevor Project is a 24/7/365 national suicide prevention hotline for LGBTQ teens. For more information, call 1.866.488.7386 or click here.
- The True Colors Fund is a national organization specifically working to end LGBTQ youth homelessness.
- The It Gets Better Project has become an international archive of short (5-10 minute) video testimonies by LGBTQ people and allies describing their real-life experiences growing up. You can search the more than 50,000 videos in the archive to find stories from your state and maybe even your city, and by people who may share life situations or characteristics of youth you are serving.