By Simone Marean + Takai Tyler
We are relishing in the celebrations of Pride Month’s rainbow flags and acknowledgments of LGBTQ+ excellence, while also holding space for the overwhelming feelings resulting from a series of devastating legislative attacks on the LGBTQ+ community. Given that states are passing a record breaking number of anti-LGBTQ+ measures into law, it is more important than ever that all of us develop intentional wellness practices and cultures that look critically at the impact of rigid gender norms and homophobic messages on all our youth.
Recently Takai wrote about how crucial it is to parent through a wellness lens and help kids become emotionally resilient. The importance of prioritizing the wellness of LGBTQ+ youth is critical given that rates of depression and suicide attempts are significantly higher for these youth. The Trevor Project’s National Survey on LGBTQ+ Youth Mental Health 2020 found that 55% of LGBTQ+ youth reported symptoms of recent major depression, and more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth have seriously considered suicide.
These data clearly point to the need to center identity in social and emotional learning, and to take into account the implications of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation or gender identity. Any of us — parents, educators, coaches, neighbors, friends — who have trusted touchpoints with youth need to commit to doing this work.
There is no age that is too young to start this practice, especially given the early age that gender norms and bias are learned and internalized. All youth are impacted by the social rules that marginalize LGBTQ+ youth, including the cisgender youth who learn to confine themselves to gender norms for status and worth, and the allies who learn to silence themselves in favor of the safety of “fitting in.” When our schools, classrooms, and families are designed to meet the needs of LGBTQ+ youth, they actually become more supportive for all youth.
The good news is that LGBTQ+ youth who have safe schools and supportive families are at a lower risk for anxiety, depression, and suicidality. Even one action, such as having pronouns respected, is reported by The Trevor Project to reduce suicide attempts for transgender youth by 50%.
There are simple ways to support the social and emotional wellness of LGBTQ+ youth. Getting started with any one of these action items this week will make a difference.
Lead by listening
Young people may not come home or into advisory and vent about experiencing bias or microaggressions at school. If you are a caregiver or ally to LGBTQ+ youth, it is important to watch for body language or nonverbal communication that can clue you into their experience at school or in the world. By asking open-ended questions, you can signal that you care and are here to listen. For example:
- How are LGBTQ+ students treated in your/our school?
- Do you think your/our school is a welcoming place for all students including LGBTQ+?
- What would need to change to make it safer?
- What would be the signs to an LGBTQ+ student that you are an ally?
Talk about bias
Discussing bias is a necessary step to dismantling it. And anti-LGBTQ+ bias is in the air that we breathe from a young age, so it is never too early to lay the groundwork for naming it to create a year-round culture of Pride in your school or family. Quick examples include:
- Calling out folks who say “good boy” or “good girl” to celebrate limiting gender norms, instead of “nice work,” or “great kid.”
- Naming it when folks make heteronormative assumptions, such as male and female friends being “girlfriend and boyfriend,” etc.
- Letting folks know the impact when they comment on someone’s gender nonconforming appearance or choice.
Use your pronouns
Whether it’s in an email signature, in a social profile, or on your Zoom screen, using your pronouns is a simple yet powerful way to affirm that you are not making assumptions about another person’s gender and that you are committed to a safe, inclusive space. This is an easy way to signal to your community that you don’t make assumptions about anyone’s gender from their appearance, and you invite them to share their identity with you in turn.
Every day is an opportunity to signal to our young people that we love them for who they are, not how they perform their gender, not because of who they love, or because of what they look like. The hard part is, most of us didn’t grow up in a world that treated us this way. Most of us, especially if we don’t identify as LGBTQ+, learned to confine our appearance and behaviors to a set of prescribed rules that we internalized before we were conscious of them. For us, the most important thing we can do to support LGBTQ+ youth is to learn to love ourselves: for who we are, how we actually look, and our self-expression. If we do that hard work (we are fans of therapy and great friends), then we will have love and acceptance to share with the next generation.
Simone Marean and Takai Tyler are co-CEOs of Girls Leadership.