The first step in answering this question is to be aware of your own biases. What do you expect a queer teenager to look like? What stereotypes have you bought into, and why do you have that perception? Where does it come from?
There are some common stereotypes:
- A certain style of dress
- Involvement in the arts and drama
- Interest in queer TV shows and movies
- Rainbow apparel or tattoos or hair or just rainbow everything
Of course, these are sometimes indicative of a young person’s emerging queer identity, and it’s certainly not wrong for anyone to express themselves in any of these ways. But each person will express their queerness differently, sometimes subtlety, sometimes boldly. Some will move through queer cliches, searching for their space (just like all teens), and some will have no outward expression at all. A young person’s external characteristics should never be the ground for an assumption of queerness, not should they be a disqualifer (“Well, you don’t dress like a lesbian”).
When you’re working with queer kids, it’s crucial to do self-reflection. How much do you know – actually know – about queer culture? (There’s no right or wrong answer here. Just be real with yourself.) How often do you engage with a queer young person? Do you feel comfortable having conversations about LGBTQ+ topics, or do you feel anxious just thinking about it? Wherever you’re at, remember that grace abounds!
Don’t make assumptions about your preparedness or about the young people you work with. Getting to know a culture or group different than your own takes time and effort. It means learning a new language, media, symbols, icons, and behaviors. The more familiar you are with these aspects of queer culture, the better you can engage with your LGBTQ+ youth.
So how do you do that? Here are a few ideas:
- Familiarize yourself with LGBTQ+ affirming Christian communities and organizations (there are many and we have listed some in the back of his book to get you started). Notice the issues they discuss, the challenges they face, and the places they find support.
- Learn LGBTQ+ terms and definitions.
- If you already have LGBTQ+ youth in your group, pay attention and ask thoughtful questions. What are they watching? Who are they listening to? What language do they use for themselves? Remember that each teenager will have their own answers to these questions.
- If you don’t have many in-person LGBTQ+ interactions, ask other adults you trust about their experiences, or look online. Which social networks, forums, and online groups are LGBTQ+ teens a part of? Who are their icons and influencers?
Queer culture is rapidly changing and growing. Learning about the LGBTQ+ people in your community will be a lifelong journey. But building a bridge toward queer youth in your work communicates volumes to them It tells them you see them, you value them, and you care about their lives. That’s a big deal.
From “Welcoming and Affirming: A Guide to Supporting and Working with LGBTQ+ Christian Youth” by Leigh Finke – Broadleaf Books