Continuing the celebration of Pride in our Movement, we are proud to share this post from Erin Wigley, Education Director at the Fort Craig Club of Boys & Girls Clubs of the Tennessee Valley. She is sharing her personal experience as a queer woman, keeping our youth safe, and ways in which we can make our Clubs more inclusive.
My first crush on another girl was when I was 11 years old. They called her Butterfly because of the tattoo on her shoulder, but it should have been for the way she sent butterflies in my stomach when she laughed. Everything about her was bubbly and warm, like coke fizzing against her crinkled nose; light and effervescent. I couldn’t understand what made me want to count the freckles on her shoulders or plait my hair with flowers just the way she did. It felt like something more than admiration, but I resigned it to just that. I liked boys, not girls. And anyone who liked both was selfish and confused.
My first girlfriend was a writer. She’d write me poetry about hammock swings and said my grin made her heart skip. I have her words inked on my ribcage, but because I married a man people tell me that my time with her “didn’t count”. Dating her just validated what I’d already been told for years. I wasn’t queer. I was just selfish and looking for attention.
Living in a conservative town in the South, I spent years repressing my identity to fit a narrative that I knew wasn’t mine. My entire adolescence felt like I was straddling a fence between two worlds, and it quickly became clear that there were only two options when it came to sexuality:
You were either straight or you were wrong.
Now that I am an adult, I understand how misguided these beliefs were. Today I am proud of my identity. I love being bisexual, and I celebrate being a queer woman and all the ways it makes me feel like my true, authentic self.
Unfortunately, conflict surrounding sexual identity is not a unique experience. Just this week alone, a seventh grader told me that someone from their school has a secret Instagram account where they can be openly queer without fear of persecution. There are youth across our country and in our Clubs who are fearful of being out to their peers, parents, and church communities.
When the Human Rights Campaign published their 2018 LGBTQ Youth Report, they reported that only 26 percent of LGBTQ say they always feel safe in their school classrooms. 67% of LGBTQ youth hear their families make negative comments about LGBTQ people.
As a Movement, we have a mission that has a firm foundation in safety. For many of our youth, the Club is a safe haven. This feeling of safety can be especially important for our LGBTQ+ populations. Youth who identify as LGBTQ+ are:
- 2 times as likely as their peers to say they have been physically assaulted, kicked, or shoved
- 3 times as likely to seriously contemplate suicide than heterosexual youth
- almost 5 times as likely to have attempted suicide
Many LGBTQ+ youth struggle to feel safe every day. They might not feel safe in their homes, their schools, or even their own bodies. It is essential that we educate ourselves about the unique issues facing LGBTQ+ communities so that we can create strong foundations of safety for youth of all sexual identities and gender expressions.
Creating a Culture of Inclusion Starts With Our Language
It is important to encourage the use of inclusive and respectful language. Teach Club members that gay is not a synonym for stupid or unwanted. Educate yourself and your staff on terms surrounding sexual identities and gender expressions.
Learn to honor people’s pronouns and do so consistently; whether they be she/her, he/him, they/them, or other variations.
Don’t make assumptions about someone’s sexual or gender identity. For instance, not everyone in the LGBTQ+ community feels comfortable being referred to as queer, and a youth with multiple gender attractions might identify as pansexual or polysexual instead of bisexual. Using inclusive language can help make your youth feel safe, validated, and heard.
Make Sure Your Pride is Intersectional
In addition to being LGBTQ+, many of our youth stand at a crossroad of racial, religious, or gender identity. This is called intersectionality. It is important to be aware of these overlapping systems as we work with our LGBTQ+ populations. On top of facing discrimination about their sexual or gender identity, these youth also face persistent racial discrimination. For instance, only 11% of LGBTQ youth of color believe their racial/ethnic group is regarded positively in the United States.
You cannot address LGBTQ issues one way or address one population. The LGBTQ+ community is rich and vibrant. It is crucial to represent that in your Clubs by being mindful of your youth and their unique identities, backgrounds, and obstacles.
For more on BGCA’s stance, read our new Commitment to Inclusion statement on BGCA.org.
People Own Their Stories
As an ally who cares for youth, it might be tempting to encourage a Club member to be open and honest about who they are. And while it is important to encourage youth to feel safe and supported, it is ultimately up to them whether they decide to come out to peers and family members. It is never anyone’s responsibility to out someone before they are ready. This can often do more harm than good. Listen to this episode of Talk of the Nation from NPR to hear why.
As a whole, LGBTQ youth are at a disproportionately higher risk of bullying, homelessness, substance abuse, and mental health conditions, and suicide. They are a special population that needs our support, safety, and guidance.
But it’s not all bad news.
In that same 2018 report, 77% of LGBT youth said they know things will get better, and 9 in 10 LGBTQ+ youth are out to their close friends. Our young people know that things will change for the better one day.
Our Clubs can help be the change. We can work to create safe spaces for our LGBTQ+ youth. We can foster inclusive environments that help LGBTQ+ youth grow and learn and develop. We can provide annual inclusive training for all Club professionals.
We can create great futures for every LGBTQ+ youth who walks through our doors.
Whatever it takes.
For more resources from BGCA, including the Serving LGBTQ Youth Toolkit and links to trusted partners, visit BGCA.net/lgbtq.
How do you build a safe environment for LGBTQ youth at your Club? How has your personal story affected how you interact with young people? Share with us by commenting below, on the BGCA Youth Development Facebook page, or by emailing ClubXBlog@bgca.org.