How to Create a Safe Space
Four Keys to Working with GLBTQ Youth
Compiled by the Reverend Emily Hassler, past Director of Youth Services, the GLBCSCC:
1. Try not to “out” them:
- GLBTQ youth are already afraid the whole world knows they are questioning their sexual orientation, the last thing they need is for someone to distinguish their orientation simply by looking at them.
- Instead, put up a poster, a rainbow flag, a pink triangle or something else that identifies you are a safe person or this is a safe place. It is important that youth self-identify their sexual orientation. It is an issue of empowerment and self-discovery as opposed to feeling victimized by someone else’s assessment.
2. Be aware of all the referral resources:
- It does take a village. There are plenty of resources for the whole family if the family is ready to seek them out.
- A crucial aspect in any adolescent development work is for the youth to recognize they are not alone, there are other youth out there who have been where they are, or who may need mentoring from them.
3. Safety, safety, safety!
- The most important mantra that you can teach a GLBTQ youth is they must put their safety first. Often kids want to come bursting out of the closet at school and at home. Work with them around creating the safest way to do this. Unfortunately people are still being killed in this culture for being gay.
- If you determine that coming out to their parents’ means they will become homeless, obviously they’re not putting their safety first. There will be plenty of time to come out. The point being; ‘queer’ is only a part of who they are. And all of who they are deserves to have a roof over their heads and to be safe.
- If coming out at school means they will get beaten up…then help them find safer ways to express who they are to their peer group, e.g. a support group.
4. The ‘right’ way to come out is your way.
- There’s no book or twelve steps to the coming out process.
- There is only one right way to come out, and that is the way that each individual is coming out. Impart to your clients that nobody else lives in their skin, nobody else has their relatives, teachers and friends, so nobody else can tell them the best way to come out.
Tips and Strategies for Addressing Harassment:
It is vital to stop harassment immediately! Remember that homophobic words and actions hurt everyone. Homophobic words and actions are bullying. Bullying hurts the person targeted, the witnesses, and the bully. Act right away! Do not let harassment—verbal or physical—go on for even a minute. Make it clear that Harassment Is Never Okay!
1. Stop the Harassment!
- Interrupt the comment. Halt the physical harassment.
- Make sure everyone in the vicinity can hear you. You want everyone—all the youth and adults nearby—to know that all young people are safe in this place.
- Do NOT pull the bully aside for a confidential discussion—stopping the harassment should be as public as the harassment has been.
2. Identify the Harassment.
- "You just put someone down regarding (sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, health status, etc.)" Or, "You just shoved someone."
- Put the spotlight on the bully's behavior. Do NOT say anything to imply that the person being harassed belongs to the group just named. Everyone needs to understand that what was said or done is unacceptable.
3. Publicly Broaden the Response.
- Identify the offense and its consequences: "Name calling is hurtful to everyone who hears it." "Physical attacks on anyone are totally unacceptable and can result in the attacker being put out of the program."
- Make it clear that the entire organization, agency, program, etc., is solidly opposed to such behavior: "In this program, we do not harass other people. Period." "In this organization, any physical attack, for any reason, on someone else is totally unacceptable. Any repetition will have serious consequences for you."
4. Request a Change in Future Behavior.
- Personalize the response for the bully: "Chris, please think about what you say. This language isn't what we would have expected of you." "Jaime, by pushing someone, you are being a bully. I thought you enjoyed participating in this program. But, by your action, you've put yourself on the sidelines for the rest of today. Any repetition and you are out forever."
- Quietly, check in with the person who was harassed: "Are you okay? Do you want to talk with me or someone else? Let's go find a quiet place to chat."
- Quietly reassure the person who was harassed: "Please let me know if this happens again, and I will take further action. Everyone should feel safe and be safe here. What happened was totally unacceptable, and you are very important to all of us."
* Adapted and reprinted with permission of GLSEN Colorado from How to Address Harassment in the Hallways in 3 Minutes.
Disclosure and Confidentiality:
- Always discuss with the youth the need to document information in the file about their sexual orientation or gender identity. Get their permission if possible.
- Unless disclosure is legally required, no employee should disclose information regarding the sexual orientation or gender identity of a youth unless that person can identify a direct benefit to the youth and has discussed the matter with the youth and obtained his or her consent.
- Case managers should carefully consider the purpose, nature and consequences of any contemplated disclosure, and they should work with the youth to balance the potential negative consequences against the benefits to disclosure.
- When disclosure is required or appropriate, the information disclosed and the means of disclosure should be limited to that which is necessary to achieve the specific beneficial purpose. For example, the fact that a youth is transgender may be important to identify an appropriate placement.
*Adapted from CWLA, Best Practice Guidelines, Child Welfare League of America, 2006