Creating a World of Support and Respect for LGBTQ Youth

Aug 22 2017

By Elena Jimenez

Like any child growing up, I had many dreams, such as going to college, becoming a movie director, marrying the person of my dreams and having a family. After meeting my partner, I realized one of those four things would not come true for me. I would never become a movie director. I never really had the right eye for directing anyway. However, all my other dreams, of being a mother, being a professional and being a wife, are still in my future.

I met my soul mate 3 years ago. My soul mate happens to be a woman. This was not part of the plan I had. Life changes. Love happens. I realize that my future family might look different and that’s okay. I also realize that this is not something I chose, but rather my heart chose for me. It was an adjustment not only for myself but for my family and friends. I have experienced love, support, shock, grief and disappointment from friends and family. Although tough, and heartbreaking at times, I grew stronger out of it.

However, I would be lying to you if I were to tell you that these experiences were easy to deal with. I’m not sure I would have done so well if I had not had the love and support of my partner and those who were accepting of my new relationship. It is not easy. Even for an adult.

Now, imagine this for an LGBTQ youth who has been through abuse or neglect, or perhaps has even been kicked out of their home because they came out to an unaccepting family. A child who worries about their physical and mental wellbeing as well as figuring out who their authentic self is and finding acceptance in this world we live in. The weight these children feel must be tremendous.

They need guidance. They need support. They need a caring adult. They need you. Having a positive role model that can advocate for LGBTQ youth can make all the difference in the world to them.

I witnessed the potential impact of this support in my work in San Antonio with Fiesta Youth (an organization similar to Austin’s Out Youth), before I moved to Austin to join the CASA of Travis County team. At Fiesta Youth, we brought together LBGTQ teens to build community, support and acceptance. Over just 2 hours during a meeting, I saw youth break out of their shell, connect with friends and build a support system for the first time. They knew they were in a space free of judgment and filled with acceptance and understanding. When a kid let everyone know their name was Angie instead of John, that was okay. People shared their preferred gender pronouns with the group, and the group respected those preferences. We would talk about identity and how everyone’s identity was based in so many different things, but that this was a place built on inclusivity. Fiesta Youth had a powerful mission in part because of the communities youth built together, and also because there were adult role models who treated youth with respect they may not have experienced before.

CASA volunteers can be that bright light at the end of a dark tunnel for youth who are struggling in their search for acceptance. Volunteers can give them the opportunity to see that being their authentic self is possible, things do get better, and they can grow up knowing that dreams can come true. Even if those dreams look a little different.

Based on my own life experiences, and my work at Fiesta Youth, I want to share my tips for being a strong and supportive ally to LGBTQ youth today:

  • Validate their journey to find their identity. If a youth tells you, “I think I might feel this way…” don’t wave it off or shun them. Listen. Be open. Ask questions about what that means to them. Welcome the conversation.
  • Find out what a youth’s preferred gender pronouns are and use them.
  • Don’t make assumptions.
  • Do your research. Find out what the things kids tell you mean. Not everyone will immediately relate or understand everything. If it doesn’t make sense to you, go find out.
  • Make sure they know you’re on their team. Sometimes you may be the only person who’s calling them by the right name or pronoun. It means a lot that you’re respecting their identity. Stick to it. Be consistent.
  • Help kids understand they can be an advocate for themselves as well. Teach them history. Show them what LGBTQ leaders have done in the past. This proactive messaging can help them build confidence.
  • At the same time, don’t forget the protective messaging. Help prepare them for the hardships they might encounter.
  • And finally, learn from them! I remember one kid at Fiesta Youth who was so inquisitive, so smart. She really knew herself and she taught me a lot. I learned from her that there’s not a label for everything. Everything doesn’t fit within a box. My dreams look a little different now and that’s okay. She allowed me to see that.

Elena and the CASA of Travis County volunteer recruitment team will be at the Austin PRIDE Festival on Saturday, August 26 from 11:00 am to 6:00 pm if you want to stop by and learn more about becoming a CASA volunteer!