Engaging LGBTQ youth

Statistics show that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, two-spirit, and queer (LGBTQ) youth are about two to three times more likely to attempt suicide than their cisgender and heterosexual peers1, and the numbers are even higher for trans youth2. LGBTQ communities have a long history of being victimized because they didn’t fit in with socially accepted sexual orientation and gender paradigms. While considerable progress has been made over the years, LGBTQ youth continue to face both subtle and overt forms of oppression that put them at higher risk for negative mental health outcomes and suicide. Violence and discrimination (e.g. homophobic or transphobic bullying) and family rejection are among the most salient risk factors for poor mental health and suicide among LGBTQ youth3,4,5.

Despite this, many LGBTQ youth are resilient. Promoting the well-being of LGBTQ youth in the face of adversity begins with strengthening protective factors in the environment. Some key protective factors include6,7:

  • Family acceptance and support of sexual orientation or gender identity
  • Positive identity development
  • Involvement in positive peer groups and in the LGBTQ community (e.g. advocacy work)

As a community coalition, you can create outlets to grow LGBTQ youths’ personal empowerment, positive identity and meaningful connections with peers within your community—all of this with the aim of helping to prevent suicide and promote life. To achieve this, you’ll need the insights of LGBTQ youth themselves (e.g. LGBTQ community advocates) to ensure your efforts lead to meaningful change for LGBTQ youth in your community.

How can you engage LGBTQ youth?

LGBTQ youth need to be a part of the conversations happening around youth suicide prevention and life promotion. To successfully engage LGBTQ youth, it’s important to acknowledge both the historical and existing forms of oppression that have and continue to marginalize their communities, and develop coalition-wide practices that empower LGBTQ youth and are respectful of their identities. Simple yet intentional efforts to adopt inclusive attitudes, language and infrastructure within your coalition can go a long way. Consider the following tips to create a safer space where LGBTQ youth can contribute their knowledge and perspectives to your community’s initiatives:

For your coalition to be a safe and inclusive place for LGBTQ youth, you must be intentional about embracing the principles of anti-oppressive practice. That’s the first step in enabling LGBTQ youth to feel free to be themselves, without having to worry about being exposed to cisnormative or heteronormative practices and attitudes. It’s not enough to hold positive or open-minded views of the LGBTQ community—anti-oppressive practice happens when you engage in self-reflection on your own position of power and privilege (in this case, with regard to gender identity and sexual orientation), challenge your own biases and assumptions, and hold yourself accountable to empowering LGBTQ youth as full partners in your coalition’s work. Offering anti-oppression training to members of your coalition may be a good starting point.

Helpful resources. Either as a group or individually, you can learn about the core principles of anti-oppressive practice in this  titled Striving for Equity: Anti-Oppressive Practice in Child and Youth Mental Health. In addition, you can visit the website itspronouncedmetrosexual.com for examples of cisgender and heterosexual privilege, and more thought-provoking content that can help you deepen your understanding of anti-oppressive practice with LGBTQ youth.

With the rise in empowerment of the LGBTQ community, the language we use to discuss LGBTQ issues has evolved over the years—and it continues to change. While you might feel it’s hard to keep up with these changes, it’s important you use terminology that resonates with LGBTQ youth. Cisnormative or heteronormative language (e.g. asking about one’s “girlfriend/boyfriend” without knowledge of their sexual orientation), as one example, can be disempowering and impede trust-building among LGBTQ youth and members of your coalition.

Helpful resources. Refer to this ally’s guide to terminology developed by the Movement Advancement Project for LGBTQ terms to avoid and their alternatives, and this comprehensive (but ever-evolving) list of LGBTQ terms from itspronouncedmetrosexual.com for concept definitions.

Don’t assume you know a person’s gender. At the outset of engagement activities, it’s important to ask youth what their pronouns are (e.g. he/him/his, she/her, they/them/their). This is one of the most fundamental ways you can show gender non-conforming youth respect, because it demonstrates you accept them for who they are. By way of example, some youth’s gender identity is best represented with the pronouns “they/them/their” because they identify as neither female nor male—and using any other pronouns to talk to or about them would constitute a misrepresentation their gender identity.

Helpful resource. Refer to this webpage on gender pronouns from the LGBT Resource Center for tips and frequently asked questions about pronouns.

Using inclusive—particularly gender inclusive—language is very important to take into consideration when developing any paperwork or other communications on behalf of your coalition. For instance, have you circulated any forms, letters or emails that include gender exclusive titles or prefixes (e.g. Mr/Mrs), gender exclusive pronouns (e.g. he/she), gender identification questions, or birth/legal names that youth no longer go by (e.g. following a gender transition)? If yes, think about how these communications can be revised and made more inclusive.

Helpful resource. The website itspronouncedmetrosexual.com has tips on ‘how to make the gender question on an application form more inclusive’.

It can be very uncomfortable and frustrating for a youth to be forced to choose between a male and female public bathroom if they don’t identify with either gender, or if they’re undergoing a transition. They can also be subject to discrimination if they enter what others would consider the wrong bathroom. It’s important to ensure there’s a gender-neutral bathroom (i.e. a single-person facility that’s not labeled by male/female) available at the hosting site of your meeting or event. It’s both a marker of respect and a way to make all youth feel safe and comfortable.

You can show that you have competency in LGBTQ issues by displaying LGBTQ-inclusive materials, such as safe space or LGBTQ ally stickers, posters, etc8. This can be a way to openly demonstrate your inclusiveness and respect of the LGBTQ community.

Cautionary note. Make sure these materials are actually reflective of the principles you embrace as a coalition and aren’t used in a superficial or tokenizing manner. There’s probably nothing more discouraging for a young person to enter a space advertised as safe only to find out they’ll be subjected to the same cisgender- or heteronormative practices they would someplace else.

 

Additional resources

 

The Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity is a national youth-led diversity initiative working to eliminate bullying, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of discrimination in schools and youth communities.

Creating authentic spaces: A gender identity and gender expression toolkit to support the implementation of institutional and social change is a toolkit created by The 519 to equip organizations in supporting the needs of people who identify as trans and gender non-conforming.

Egale Human Rights Trust is a leader in youth suicide prevention and provides Canada’s LGBTQ community with resources to drive change. Their Report on Outcomes and Recommendations captures 20 practice recommendations from the first ever LGBTQ Youth Suicide Prevention summit held in 2012 in Canada.

Gay & Suicidal: Sexual and Gender Minorities and Suicide is a resource toolkit for LGBTQ youth created by The Centre for Suicide Prevention.

RHO Fact Sheet: LGBT Youth Suicide was developed by Rainbow Health Ontario and contains facts on LGBTQ suicide. Rainbow Health Ontario’s Gender Independent Working Group is providing key leadership in supporting health and social service providers to respond to the needs of gender independent youth through the development of fact sheets and pamphlets, such as their evidence brief on Supporting gender independent children and their families.

Positive Spaces Initiative of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants is an example of a provincial initiative working to create LGBTQ inclusion within the settlement sector in Ontario. 

 

 

  • 1. Suicide Prevention Resource Center. (2008). Suicide risk and prevention for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth. Newton, MA: Education Development Center, Inc.
  • 2. Scanlon, K., Travers, R., Coleman, T., Bauer, G., & Boyce, M. (2010). Ontario’s Trans Communities and Suicide: Transphobia Is Bad for Our Health. Trans PULSE E-Bulletin, 1. Retrieved from: http://transpulseproject.ca/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/E2English.pdf
  • 3. Dyck, D. R. (2012). Report on outcomes and recommendations: LGBTQ youth suicide prevention summit 2012. Egale Canada Human Rights Trust. Retrieved from: http://egale.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/YSPS-Report-online.pdf
  • 4. Pompili, M., Lester, D., Forte, A., Seretti, M. E., Erbuto, D., Lamis, D. A., ... & Girardi, P. (2014). Bisexuality and suicide: a systematic review of the current literature. The journal of sexual medicine, 11(8), 1903-1913
  • 5. D'Augelli, A. R., Grossman, A. H., Salter, N. P., Vasey, J. J., Starks, M. T., & Sinclair, K. O. (2005). Predicting the suicide attempts of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 35(6), 646-660
  • 6. Higa, D., Hoppe, M. J., Lindhorst, T., Mincer, S., Beadnell, B., Morrison, D. M., ... & Mountz, S. (2012). Negative and positive factors associated with the well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth. Youth & society.
  • 7. Padilla, Y. C., Crisp, C., & Rew, D. L. (2010). Parental acceptance and illegal drug use among gay, lesbian, and bisexual adolescents: Results from a national survey. Social Work, 55(3), 265-275
  • 8. The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. (2010). Back-To-School Guide for Creating LGBT Inclusive Environments. New York, NY: GLSEN. Retrieved from http://www.glsen.org/educate/resources/back-school-guide-educators