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Serving the LGBT Community

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals are kids. They’re older adults. And they’re every age in between. According to the 2000 and 2010 U.S. Census Bureau, they live in New York and San Francisco, in rural farm communities and small southern towns, and in foster homes and retirement communities.

However, LGBT-identified and questioning individuals are often a hidden population. It can be especially challenging for child- and family-serving agencies to connect with them and provide appropriate, effective services. Too often, the greatest barrier is the human service agency itself, notes Tim Baack, executive vice president of Alliance for Children and Families member Pathfinders, Milwaukee.

“Whether they realize it or not, every child and family agency is already providing services to LGBT people,” Baack says. “If you think you don’t have any LGBT people among your clients or staff, it’s probably because your agency doesn’t have an environment where all people feel welcome and supported.”

Alliance member The Family Partnership, Minneapolis was the first family service agency in the country to provide services specifically to the LGBT community. “As a child and family service agency, we are here to serve all vulnerable individuals and families,” says Molly Greenman, president and CEO. “If we don’t acknowledge who they are, we deny their existence.”

The Family Partnership provides counseling and other direct services; LGBT youth leadership development programming; and GLBT Kids: Abuse Intervention Network, a crime victims program focused on anti-LGBT bullying. The agency also leads the Minnesota School OUTreach Coalition, a statewide safe schools advocacy group.

“I don’t see any challenges in working with the LGBT population. I see only opportunities to affirm every human being and bring communities together,” Greenman adds.”

Importance of Cultural Competency

While more organizations have begun offering services specifically geared toward LGBT-identified youth, providing LGBT cultural competent services to all clients is one of the best ways to promote a friendly, accepting service environment (see sidebar on page 18 for tips on building cultural competence).

“Another barrier to service is that human service organizations often mistakenly assume that LGBT people go for help only to organizations that specialize in LGBT services,” says Baack. “In fact, one reason Pathfinders is so successful in serving LGBT young people is because they are included in our broader youth population. Especially for those still on their coming out journey, it feels inherently safer to go to a general youth-serving organization that is known to be affirming of LGBT youth.”

Pathfinders provides mental health services; a drop-in center; and emergency shelter for youth impacted by homelessness, trauma, and violence. Its Q-Blok program focuses on housing, education, mentorship, and employment readiness for LGBT-identified young adults.

Pathfinders is intentionally neutral in information it presents to and asks of clients. For example, when a therapist is trying to get to know a young male client, the therapist asks, ‘Are you romantically involved?’ rather than, ‘Do you have a girlfriend?’”

“Every human service agency needs to build competency specific to sexual orientation and gender identity,” says Baack. “The important work of social change begins within your own organizational culture.”

Greater Mental Health Risks

Because of social stigma and victimization, LGBT people face unique risks to their mental health and well-being, according to the National Institute on Mental Health. LGBT people are at higher risk for depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and other mental health concerns.

LGBT-identified and questioning youth are an especially vulnerable—and often overlooked—population. They are far more likely to be victims of emotional, physical, and sexual assault at school, at home, and in out-of-home placement. Because they often feel unsafe at school, they have higher truancy and drop-out rates. While about 3 percent to 5 percent of the U.S. population identifies as LGBT, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that between 20 percent and 40 percent of all homeless youth identify as LGBT.

Family Support Is Critical

“LGBT youth face all the same issues as straight kids. What’s different is the traumatic impact of marginalization and oppression,” says Theresa Nolan, division director of Green Chimneys LGBTQ youth programs.

Green Chimneys Children’s Services, headquartered in Brewster, N.Y., focuses its New York City-based programs on LGBT and questioning youth. Most of those served are runaway and homeless youth. The agency operates a boarding home, a group residential program for those aging out of the foster care system, and a transitional independent living program.

Family acceptance or rejection is a crucial determinant of an LGBT youth’s self-esteem, social support, and overall health and well-being. LGBT-identified and questioning youth rejected by their families are eight times more likely to have attempted suicide, six times more likely to report high levels of depression, and three times more likely to use illegal drugs or to report unprotected sexual intercourse.

“When an initially rejecting family opens itself to an LGBT child and make even small behavioral changes, it greatly reduces the risks associated with rejection,” says Nolan. “As providers, we have a clear mandate to support LGBT youth as part of their families. Our impact on the young people we work with could be more than life changing. It could be lifesaving.”

Tips for Building Cultural Competence

John Till, vice president of family and community programs at The Family Partnership, and a member of the Alliance Executive Consultant Select Group offers these suggestions for building LGBT cultural competence:

  • Assess your organizational values statement and nondiscrimination policy. What do they say about the specific kinds of diversity your organization embraces? Does every staff member abide by them?
  • Don’t assume someone is heterosexual. Give people the option to reveal who they are in a safe, affirming environment.
  • Evaluate your human resources practices. How diverse is your staff? Are staff comfortable disclosing their sexual orientation? Does your organization offer benefits for same-sex partners?
  • Train all staff members to be sensitive and welcoming. Don’t assume that, because someone is a trained therapist, she or he knows how to work with an LGBT client.
  • Do your client intake forms offer only the options of male and female, or can clients select transgender? Does the form ask for the name of the client’s spouse, or does it ask for spouse/partner?
  • Walk through your offices. What messages is your agency sending—intentionally and unintentionally? Is there a rainbow or unity poster on the wall? Do employees feel free to display a photo of their same-sex partners? Do you have LGBT-related publications in counseling offices and lobby?
  • Make your organization known in the community as a welcoming, safe organization for all people. Advertise in LGBT-related publications. Attend LGBT community events and participate in LGBT safe school coalitions.
  • Demonstrate leadership on this human rights issue. Working to eliminate prejudice, bullying, and violence creates a safer, more accepting environment for all people.
  • The public policy issue of marriage equality is directly relevant to the work of child- and family-serving organizations. Has your organization considered these debates as an opportunity to support all families?

Develop Action Plan for Serving LGBT Community

LGBT Cultural Competence Workshop Precedes 2012 Alliance National Conference

The Alliance will promote LGBT cultural competence during a special workshop preceding 2012 Alliance National Conference, to be held Oct. 17-19 in Orlando, Fla.

The pre-conference session, Prepare Your Organization to Serve the LGBT Community, will provide attendees with critical information and tools for taking their organizations to the next level in providing LGBT cultural competent services. The workshop will be held Oct. 16 from 2-6 p.m.

The workshop’s presenter Leigh Combs, GLBT Kids: Abuse Intervention program coordinator at The Family Partnership,

will discuss:

  • LGBT culture
  • The impact of family, bullying, and the media
  • A tool for assessing the level of cultural competency
  • How to create an action plan that addresses gaps

This interactive workshop is designed for staff from all organizations, whether or not they provide LGBT-specific programs or services. 

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