By Diana Rodriguez, M.A., LPC

In working with LGBTQIA+ youth, it’s important to create an environment of safety and belonging. This can take some intentional effort on the part of teachers, clinicians or other adults who interact with this population. In doing so, we can ensure that all youth feel included and feel safe to show up as their true, authentic selves.

Here are a few ways to help make an environment inclusive for LGBTQIA+ youth.

Ask people’s pronouns.

I find asking people’s pronouns to be an easy way to show people that you value their unique identity. It’s pretty easy to do – I keep my pronouns on my email signature and my Zoom name. When I work with adolescents, I include pronouns in introductions, such as, “What’s your name? What are your pronouns?”

I think it’s important to acknowledge pronouns up front so that people don’t have to “come out” or take initiative to share their pronouns if they don’t match their outward appearance. I think of it as keeping the door open so that you don’t have to open it every single time.

Educate yourself. Repeat.

There is a LOT of terminology when it comes to gender identity and expression and sexual orientation. I learn new terms all the time! This is definitely not a topic you can read about, master and move on. It’s constantly evolving, and we have to educate ourselves and continue to educate ourselves over and over again.

When you hear a new term, take a moment to look it up. If a teen tells you their identity and it’s something you’re not familiar with, feel free to ask them. Don’t make them do all the work for you, but it’s okay to say something like, “I’m not familiar with that term. I’m going to write it down so I can look it up later. Do you want to tell me what it means to you, or would you like me to look into it myself?”

Correct and move on.

You will make mistakes, and that’s okay. Teens are in a place of identity development and their identity around gender expression and sexual orientation may change over time. You may have a kid who uses she/her pronouns when you first meet, and a few months later would prefer they/them pronouns. If you’ve been using she/her pronouns, there’s a pretty good chance you might slip up. This is natural! It takes work to train your brain to make the switch. It’s a good idea to tell a teen who is changing their pronouns something like, “Thanks for letting me know. I’ll work on making that change, and if I mess up, I’m going to correct myself. If I mess up and don’t catch it, feel free to let me know.”

When you mess up, just say, “Oh, sorry. I meant they.” And then move on. Don’t over-attend to it, don’t profusely apologize, just correct it and move on. You want to avoid putting the teen in the position of attending to your feelings and having to say things like, “It’s okay, everyone makes mistakes.” If you’re the adult, especially in the classroom or a clinical setting, you don’t want to put the child in that position. Just correct and move on.

Try not to get in your head.

When it comes to issues of gender expression and sexual orientation, it can be easy to dive in deep and try to understand it all and get it right. I encourage people to not be too cerebral and front-brain about it, and to accept and embrace the heart side of it.

The best thing we can do (and this applies to more than just this topic) is to meet people where they are and embrace them on the journey. We don’t have to understand everything or be experts, and we don’t have to get everything right. We just have to understand that this is a personal issue and they’re working through it at their own pace. Some may be out and loud and proud, for others, you may be the only person who knows. Each person travels this journey on their own terms and their own timeline. Try not to get too academic or prescriptive about it, just meet people where they are and travel with them on the journey.

Show you are safe.

There are many ways to show you are a safe person for LGBTQIA+ youth. An easy thing I do is display a tiny Pride flag in my office. It’s small and subtle, and at first, I was a little concerned that some people might take offense by it. But in fact, the opposite has been true. No one has ever mentioned anything negative about it, but those who are part of the LGBTQIA+ community have made small comments like, “I like the flag.” It’s a quick, easy way to show that I’m a safe adult for them to talk to. For many young people in this community, it can be hard to know who is safe. When you show them that you are a safe adult, it creates a space where individuals feel comfortable sharing this part of their lives with you.

Focus on the good.

There’s so much talk about the struggles of the LGBTQIA+ community but focusing exclusively on that leaves out so much of the beauty. It is important to educate ourselves on the continuous battles and struggles that affect members of the LGBTQIA+ community and to recognize the efforts of individuals and organizations that have fought and continue to fight for equal rights. It is also important to recognize all the marvelous things that have resulted because of these fights. I’ve been really trying to focus a lot of my energy on the beauty and wonder and fun and all of the things that make this community what it is. In TV and movies, love stories are often sad, and end on a bad note. The LGBTQIA+ community doesn’t often get to be portrayed with love stories like the straight community does. How can we shift that narrative to say, no – there is hope, beauty and wonder. There’s queer poetry and literature and art and media that showcases the beauty of the LGBTQIA+ community, and we should all spend more time focusing on the strengths, resilience and beauty of this community.

With these tips, my hope is that every child will feel safe and welcome to be who they are.

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