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By on June 7, 2022

Prevention and LGBTQ+ rights: opportunities for practitioners

PRIDE month in 2022 feels different. 

For every young person finding joy at their first in-person PRIDE event since COVID-19, another feels increasingly unsafe in their community. For every affirming message on social media, a new story about a legislative attack on LGBTQ+ people surfaces. 

Prevention and LGBTQ+ RightsFrom the attempted criminalization of drag shows and gender-affirming care to anti-trans bills to school curriculum and healthcare restrictions, the U.S. is seeing a record-number of anti-trans and LGBTQ+ legislation, and with legislation comes a national media debate. According to the Human Rights Campaign, 2021 was the worst year for anti-LGBTQ+ legislative attacks. That trend continues into 2022, which has brought with it an undercurrent of systemic and interpersonal attacks on LGBTQ+ people. Those attacks send a message to LGBTQ+ youth, and they’re listening. 

According to a Trevor Project Poll on the impacts of politics and current events on the mental health and well-being of LGBTQ young people, 85% of transgender and nonbinary youth say recent debates around anti-LGBTQ+ bills have negatively impacted their mental health and more than half of LGBTQ+ youth report feeling stress and anxiety around the current political climate in the U.S.  

These trends signal a startling reality for prevention practitioners and those working in the anti-violence field: protective factors for LGBTQ+ youth, who are already at higher risk of victimization than their peers, are going down. 

According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control, LGBTQ+ youth experience higher rates of sexual and dating violence than their heterosexual peers. Researchers attribute higher rates of victimization to “minority stress,” meaning the impacts of stigma, discrimination, heterosexism and bullying on health. The report goes on to explicitly state “for youth to thrive in schools and communities, they need to feel socially, emotionally, and physically safe and supported.”

CDC offered multiple recommendations for increasing protective factors for LGBTQ+ youth, including:

  • Encourage respect for all students and prohibit bullying, harassment, and violence against all students.
  • Identify “safe spaces”, such as counselors’ offices or designated classrooms, where LGB youth can receive support from administrators, teachers, or other school staff.
  • Encourage student-led and student-organized school clubs that promote a safe, welcoming, and accepting school environment (e.g., gay-straight alliances or gender and sexuality alliances, which are school clubs open to youth of all sexual orientations and genders).
  • Ensure that health curricula or educational materials include HIV, other STD, and pregnancy prevention information that is relevant to LGB youth (such as ensuring that curricula or materials use language and terminology.
  • Provide trainings to school staff on how to create safe and supportive school environments for all students, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, and encourage staff to attend these trainings.
  • Facilitate access to community-based providers who have experience providing health services, including HIV/STD testing and counseling, social, and psychological services to LGBTQ youth.

In a national climate when states are loudly and explicitly fighting the very things CDC and health researchers recommend to protect young people, LGBTQ+ youth have less access to safe spaces and, as a result, face higher risks of experiencing violence than many have in their lifetimes. 

Despite a clear designation as a health and human rights issues, the narrative around LGBTQ+ rights is often wrongly coded as a political issue, as are issues pertaining to Black, Indigenous, People of Color and marginalized groups. Prevention practitioners and those working to advance health equity have an opportunity to shift this narrative by educating on the connection between anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination and violence victimization and perpetration. Intentional strategies for prevention practitioners to increase protective factors for LGBTQ+ youth include:

Use every available opportunity to connect LGBTQ+ issues to Social Determinants of Health.

Social Determinants of Health are the non-medical factors that influence health outcomes, such as conditions in which people are born, grow, work, live, and age, and wider systems that impact quality of life. Publications from CDC, the World Health Organization, PreventConnect, VALOR and other trusted resources can educate about the important connection between overall health and LGBTQ+ inclusivity.

Take stock of internal and external organizational practices

Center LGBTQ+ experiences in evaluation and design of programs and curriculum. Anywhere with a physical or virtual footprint can become a safe space. Anti-violence organizations are sometimes the only safe space for survivors and, whether it is an office, social media account, website, event or branding strategy, there are always opportunities to create safer spaces for LGBTQ+ people. 

For guidance on creating safer environments in schools and communities, follow this link to watch a recording of a PreventConnect web conference, exploring intersecting norms that uphold violence and opportunities for sexual violence prevention to prevent violence in transformative ways. 

Name and address the impact of anti-LGBTQ+ issues on youth wellbeing

Even in states where LGBTQ+ rights are not under attack, national news and social media coverage puts anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric in the hands and homes of youth across the country. In the same survey that named political issues as having a negative impact on LGBTQ+ mental health, more than half of respondents reported feeling scared about the future, regardless of their physical location. 

Practitioners who interact with LGBTQ+ youth in their professional or personal life, especially if that interaction is through prevention programming, can hold space for youth to process national rhetoric and avoid overlooking or minimizing the impact national dialogue has on youth wellbeing. 

Extensive research on Health Equity, Adverse Childhood Experiences, Anti-Oppression Frameworks and Empowerment Models clearly demonstrate the connection between marginalized identities and violence experienced across a lifetime but that information rarely makes it out of academic spaces and into communities and classrooms. Prevention practitioners are often the bridge between academic spaces and communities and serve a pivotal role in making sure research gets to the people it is meant to benefit.

In a time when people across the country and the world are so digitally connected, events in Texas, Florida, Alabama, etc. effect youth beyond their state borders, and it’s on the adults everywhere to step in and step up for our most vulnerable youth. 

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