During the global pandemic of COVID-19, teens are facing new stressors and challenges. Lack of access to in-person social support, school, and routine is difficult for many adolescents. LGBTQ youth often face additional challenges, which may include quarantining with unsupportive family, restrictions on their self-expression, concern about the future, and lack of access to affirming spaces and people. Whether you know it or not, you likely have LGBTQ young people in your communities . It’s also worth noting that all young people (openly LGBTQ or not) benefit from messaging of explicit support for LGBTQ people.
Pandemic-related restrictions mean youth are attending school remotely, which changes their access to formal and informal support. If young people were out at school or in other social settings, they may have lost those outlets, including formal groups like a school-based GSA (gender and sexuality alliance) or other affirming social support. They have fewer ways to take breaks from family who may not be supportive of their LGBTQ identity. Knowing that only 24% of LGBTQ youth feel they can “definitely be themselves as an LGBTQ person at home,” young people may be restricted in what they can say and do at home . Even if they can meet with supportive teachers and peers, they are likely experiencing a lack of privacy and may need to censor themselves. In some cases it may be difficult for LGBTQ youth to express themselves authentically as their clothes, hair, and behavior are constantly being watched. Remember that families of LGBTQ youth are not either “completely rejecting” or “completely accepting.” Even supportive families can say or do hurtful things. Consider the fact that 67% of LGBTQ youth have heard their family say negative things about the LGBTQ community . This impacts whether LGBTQ youth feel safe being out to family, and these fears are often heightened in a time when the stakes of family rejection are much higher. Even as shelter-in-place orders are restricted, the cancellation of camps and large social gatherings continue to be a source of stress.
The Impact on LGBTQ Youth
While data is still emerging at this time, we know that the above stressors are impacting LGBTQ young people. The Trevor Project, which supports LGBTQ youth in crisis, has reported their call volume has doubled during the quarantine and that mention of COVID as a source of distress has increased by 60 times . Transgender and nonbinary youth may be experiencing increased feelings of dysphoria if they are being misgendered, deadnamed, and unable to express themselves. Additionally, if youth were looking forward to moving out of the house, starting a medical transition, or having a gender-affirming surgery, these milestones have now been indefinitely postponed. These are major losses with real consequences on the mental and emotional wellness of young people.
How to Support Youth
In Existing Online Programming
Just because you’re not meeting in person doesn’t mean you can’t create a safe and supportive online environment for youth.
- Avoid gendered language like “boys and girls”, “ladies and gentlemen”, or “guys.” Using neutral alternatives like “friends,” “learners,” “folks,” or “everyone” makes space for everyone to feel comfortable.
- When you share your name, share your pronouns and invite others to do the same. If you’re using Zoom, you can use the “rename” function to include your pronouns as well.
- Think about what’s in your background. Try putting a safezone sticker or other affirming symbol behind you. Alternatively, play around with Zoom’s virtual backgrounds to display a symbol of affirmation.
- Refer youth to opportunities that exist online for LGBTQ youth to gather (see resources section below), or create your own.
- Since much communication is taking place via email, make sure your pronouns are in your signature. This is a signpost for both students and parents. You can also use this as an educational moment by linking to an explanation of pronouns.
- Be on the lookout for and be proactive about cyberbullying, for which LGBTQ youth are at higher risk.
- Maintain confidentiality: young people who are out at school (which could include using a different name or pronouns) but not at home may be in a liminal space for online learning. Make sure you are protecting their privacy during this time of increased communication with families.
- Involve the youth in creating group norms or a brit (covenant) for ensuring respectful online spaces
- Include LGBTQ narratives, authors, and voices in your programming so young LGBTQ people see themselves reflected.
As an organization, address the following infrastructure questions:
How/where will LGBTQ youth:
- Gather formally and informally in online space?
- In many cases, official clubs and groups have been suspended in the transition to online learning and programming. In addition, when online programming takes place, there are fewer informal social opportunities connected with them. Think about drop-ins, online programs that allow for more informal conversation, and ways of building connection.
- Receive the message that your organization is LGBTQ-affirming?
- Many LGBTQ people look for signs of welcome in order to assess safety and comfort. LGBTQ-affirming values need to be clearly and explicitly conveyed.Think about how young people encounter your organization online, and where those messages can be conveyed.
- Identify supportive adults and staff?
- The presence of an affirming adult in their lives is the single biggest factor that impacts the well-being of LGBTQ youth . With fewer opportunities for informal conversation, how will messages of welcome be conveyed?
- Handle/report bullying or harassment?
- LGBTQ youth are bullied at higher rates both in person and online . Clear communication about expectations for online interactions and clear mechanisms for getting support can go a long way.
- Have reasonably confidential conversations with supportive adults?
- While there are some limits to confidentiality and privacy, it is important for reasonably private conversations to be able to take place. Think about what this can look like in your organization, and make sure that staff and participants understand what options exist.
How will staff/educators:
- Check in with youth?
- It is important to be able to check in periodically with participants, whether by email, chat, or having regular one-on-ones as part of your programming.
- Create “informal” moments?
- The loss of informal unprogrammed time together is often one of the biggest losses in the transition to online programming.
- Identify needs?
- Think about how many of the usual indicators that a person needs additional support may translate to online space.
- Revisit crisis intervention plans?
- Think about the plans and policies that were in place before COVID-19 and evaluate what will still work well and what needs updating.
- Identify resources?
- You should not expect to have all of the answers, but the best tool a supportive adult can have is a list of resources and contacts. Prioritize building a list of local and online resources to support and connect LGBTQ youth.
- Honor experiences?
- Positve representation and celebration of LGBTQ lives is deeply important. As programming is often being reconfigured or scaled-back, think about where and how these positive experiences and messages will be conveyed.
You don’t have to have all the answers, but you should know where to point LGBTQ youth for support.
The Trevor Project
A talk, text, and IM crisis line, also provides an online social networking space for LGBTQ people under 25. www.thetrevorproject.org 1-866-488-7386, or text START to 678678
A crisis line staffed by and dedicated to trans people. Also provides microgants. www.translifeline.org
Crisis Text Line
A text crisis line for everyone. Text HOME to 741741
National Center for Transgender Equality
A thorough resource guide. https://transequality.org/covid19
Stand with Trans
JQYouth (Jewish specific, focus on Orthodox, Chasidic, and Sephardi/Mizrachi)
Eshel (for orthodox and formerly orthodox LGBTQ Jews and their families)
“Alone, Together,” a project of Queer Quarantine (Focus on QTPOC resources and resilience)
No Shame on U, Mental health advocacy