Each year we support a mental health organization and this year it’s the Trevor Project. The mission of this project is simple, and quite clear: to end LGBTQ youth suicide. The research on the Trevor Project’s website is compelling, and difficult: in a national survey, 42% of LGBTQ identifying respondents had considered attempting suicide within the past 12 months. On a more hopeful note, one accepting adult in the life of an LGBTQ youth can decrease suicide risk by 40%.
What does it mean to be “accepting”? There is a noticeable difference between knowing that you accept diverse gender identities, and acting on it. Often what we believe, and what we think doesn’t always make its way into other peoples’ lives. While your beliefs may affect your actions, it can make a huge difference to consider ways you can actively communicate your acceptance. This encompasses what it means to be an ally.
It’s an important time to be an ally.
In response to Florida HB 1557, or the “Don’t say gay” law, Florida democrat state representative Carlos Smith is concerned about the consequences of this law on LGBTQ youth in Florida schools (in an NBC article on the topic). Research conducted by the Trevor Project on LGBTQ youth suicide rates is mentioned in tandem (and written about, also by NBC, here). Smith is quoted, “Creating a safe space for LGBTQ kids is a matter of life or death”.
What can we do?
The Trevor Project, yet again, has research, and resources to support you, and anyone, who wants to learn how to be a better ally. We’re going to share the basics from their ally resources, but full credit (and more in-depth info) belongs to the Trevor Project. See the full resource here.
- Don’t assume: Sex isn’t your business, and gender isn’t based on looks
The difference between sex and gender, in brief is: sex (typically) is based on genitals, while gender is an identity, and “based on our internal understanding and experience of our gender. Gender and sex can manifest in various combinations, and they do not always align (aka: someone with a penis [sex] does not always identify as a male [gender])
Assuming that someone’s gender identity aligns with what they “look” like is not a way to be an ally. Rather, encounter each person with an open mind and heart: believe someone, and support them, when they reveal their gender to you. Once you know someone’s gender identity, you do not need to ask questions, or learn their birth sex in order to be respectful. Take people as they are, in the way that they present themselves to you.
- Respect gender expression: names & pronouns
Since many names are gendered in a binary framework (male or female) many transgender and nonbinary people choose a new name that feels more authentic to their gender identity. Bottom line: respect someone’s chosen name, even if they have not been able to legally change their name. The Trevor Project, yet again, comes forward with incredible research: “Usage of a chosen name resulted in a 29% decrease in suicidal ideation and a 56% decrease in suicidal behavior”.
Pronouns are another form of gendered language in our culture. Choosing pronouns that reflect a young person’s identity can help them feel more like their authentic self. Today there are ways that people communicate pronoun choices publicly (adding pronouns to Zoom screen name, Linkedin profiles, social media profiles, nametags, and email signatures). Be sure to pay attention to that information before addressing someone with a pronoun. If you can’t find that information then respectfully ask. Tip: introduce yourself with your pronouns which allows the other person an opportunity to share theirs!
Being an accepting person in an LGBTQ youth’s life means being aware that information about someone’s gender and identity is theirs to share. If someone in your life discloses their gender identity experience with you, it might seem like the right thing to do is to inform your friends or others in a social, professional, or academic setting. Their story is not yours to tell.
Sharing gender identity experiences, stories, or trauma can be difficult for anyone. You may be one conversation of many that someone is having with people in their life. Unfortunately, as the suicide rates, bullying rates and first-hand accounts show: coming out isn’t easy and is not always accepted. Sharing someone else’s gender identity without their permission may be dangerous.
- Educate yourself: misgendering and microaggressions
Misgendering means calling someone the wrong name or pronouns. Someone who has requested the pronouns “they/them” is often referred to as the pronoun people assume based on their looks. This can be hurtful and confusing, especially for LGBTQ youth who are establishing their identity during the already turbulent time of adolescence.
What to do? Apologize quickly, and sincerely, but don’t be over the top. As The Trevor Project says “Show that you care by doing better moving forward” (not by making a huge, loud, long apology).
Microaggressions are social queues or remarks that are based on heteronormative assumptions in our culture and can be hurtful to those who experience different gender identities. Here’s something that I heard recently: a park ranger (I was visiting a national park) described a moose that had been frequenting the nearby meadow. There was a bull (male moose) that was often accompanied by a few cows (female moose). A man nearby said in jest, typical guy! This is based on the idea that men like to hang around numerous women in a possibly unfaithful, or promiscuous way. Yeah I might be stretching it with the moose thing but the point is: microaggressions are based on entrenched stereotypes that are hurtful, or excluding diverse gender identities (other examples: “man up”; “act like a lady”; or “boys will be boys”).
- Be accountable if you make mistakes
If you misgender someone, call them by the incorrect name or pronoun, or try to laugh at gendered stereotypes –be prepared to own up to your hurtful behavior. Listen to the person you have hurt, give them a chance to share as uncomfortable as it may be (consider how uncomfortable you made them). Ask questions to better understand (don’t be defensive now!) what is needed to prevent the situation from happening again. If you are feeling shameful, defensive, or just plain uncomfortable don’t make it about those feelings (aka: about you). Focus on the person who is expressing hurt.
I’ll close out with words from the Trevor Project: Treat it as a learning experience. The most authentic apology is meaningless if there is no change or if the behavior is repeated consistently in the future.
There is enough love, room, and understanding for all of us.
Be an ally.
the jenni earle gang