Three Ways Affirming Adults Can Change the Climate for LGBTQ+ Youth
Brennan Lewis, Equality North Carolina
2023 is a pivotal year for affirming adults to stand up for LGBTQ+ young people in their communities. Attacks on LGBTQ+ youth are nothing new, but the sheer number of bills introduced this year that are designed to remove rights and protections for LGBTQ+ people is staggering. As of June 1st, 2023, the ACLU is tracking 491 anti-LGBTQ+ bills introduced in the country since January, a record which more than doubles the number of bills introduced in all of 2022. The Equality Federation puts the total number at well over 500. The good news is that advocates, much like our team at Equality NC, worked together to defeat nearly 90% of the harmful bills considered in 2022.
These bills are based on misinformation about transgender and LGBTQ+ people. Many of the bills introduced include bill text which is based on false information about fairness, societal dangers, and fear-based tactics to attack the most marginalized of our community. As we've seen the number of anti-LGBTQ+ bills increase since 2018, we've seen steady trends in attempts to strip rights away from LGBTQ+ youth and adults. These include prohibiting access to gender-affirming care for transgender youth and young adults, banning transgender students from playing on sports teams, forcing school educators and state employees to “out” LGBTQ youth, and limiting topics in school curriculum relating to race, equity, gender, LGBTQ+ topics, and systemic inequities and oppression.
LGBTQ+ youth across the country are significantly impacted by the introduction of anti-LGBTQ legislation. According to the results of a national survey of LGBTQ youth ages 13 to 24, released on May 1st by the Trevor Project, almost two thirds of respondents reported that "hearing about potential state or local laws banning people from discussing LGBTQ people at school (also known as 'Don't Say Gay') made their mental health a lot worse." Mental health impacts on transgender youth are exacerbated by high numbers of bills specifically targeting gender-affirming care, participation of transgender youth athletes in school sports teams, and protections for LGBTQ youth in K-12 schools.
For organizations and educators serving LGBTQ young people, it can be difficult to navigate the rapidly changing policy landscape. In states like Florida, where the state Board of Education approved a ban on classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in all grades, some LGBTQ teachers and allies have moved out of state or left the profession entirely amidst confusion and backlash caused by the policy. 21% of the LGBTQ population in the U.S. lives in a state that censors discussions of LGBTQ people or issues in schools (known as “Don’t Say Gay” policies), and more states are considering similar bills this legislative session.
Everyone can take a step, large or small, to fight for LGBTQ+ rights and affirming policies in their community. In the K-12 school setting and in community programs, supportive adults play a vital role in both directly supporting LGBTQ+ youth and advocating for better policies.
Adults who work with young people can access resources from GLSEN and local providers of Safe Zone/Safe Space training to learn more about being a strong advocate for LGBTQ+ youth. Taking steps like honoring LGBTQ+ young people’s chosen names and pronouns, using gender neutral language when talking about dating and relationships, and openly talking about LGBTQ+ identities and experiences help queer and transgender young people (as well as their peers) to feel safe and supported.
2. Be a Role Model By Setting the Tone
Adult allies to LGBTQ+ youth also play an important role in setting the tone for LGBTQ+ inclusion at a local level. Folks who work on the ground and in educational settings with young people can directly address anti-LGBTQ+ bullying, proactively introduce positive representations of racially diverse queer and transgender people in programming, and provide LGBTQ+ young people with access to resources and direct services to improve their health outcomes and help them to feel included. Taking steps like inviting local LGBTQ organizations to run workshops, screening movies with LGBTQ+ characters, and intentionally including LGBTQ+ adults as mentors and guest speakers can help to make community programs feel more welcoming for LGBTQ+ young people.
3. Advocate for More LGBTQ+ Inclusive Policies
There are many ways that individuals and organizations can take action to stop harmful anti-LGBTQ bills. The Trevor Project has a great list of opportunities to get involved here. People who work with LGBTQ+ youth can also monitor their local school board meetings and advocate for best practice policies in K-12 schools like introducing school Gender Support Plans, updating school dress codes, and making sure transgender students have access to restrooms and locker rooms matching their gender identity. Community organizations should also ensure that their programming operates under a comprehensive nondiscrimination policy that specifically protects young people on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.
National LGBTQ+ organizations like the GSA Network and GLSEN offer invaluable resources for educators and other adult allies to better support LGBTQ+ students and take action against harmful policies at the state and local level.
While all of these steps are valuable, the number one thing that adults can do to support LGBTQ+ youth is to ask what they want and need – and then listen to what they say!
LGBTQ+ young people are the experts on their own experiences, and their perspectives are important in helping their mentors to be better advocates and allies.
Brennan Lewis is Equality North Carolina's Education Policy Associate. They manage Equality NC's programs serving youth, students, and families, including the statewide Rural Youth Empowerment Fellowship. Previously, they served as the Regional Manager for the U.S. & Canada at Peace First, a global nonprofit that coaches and funds young people to create social action projects. Through work with Peace First, Equality NC, and as the founder of the Raleigh-based LGBTQ youth group QueerNC, Brennan is dedicated to mobilizing young people to lead change both in North Carolina and globally. They envision helping to build a North Carolina that elevates the voices, work, and lives of LGBTQ youth.