I remember the deep sense of “otherness” that I felt as a kid struggling to figure out who I was. I remember the bullying, the constant fear of being judged, and the days that I attempted to hide my tears until I made it through the front doors of my old high school so that no one would see me cry. I also remember wishing that I had just one person to help guide me through the process of coming to terms with being gay—to give me support when I needed it most and to let me know I was OK. That person never arrived.
Unfortunately, the story for a lot of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning (GLBTQ) youth is quite similar today. GLBTQ youth are more likely to be bullied in school, kicked out of their homes, engage in risk-taking behavior, and struggle with suicidal ideation and suicide.
Here is a just quick snapshot of some of the struggles this group faces:
Bullying and harassment
- In school settings, 81.9% of GLBT respondents reported being verbally harassed, nearly 40% were physically harassed, and 18.5 % physically assaulted (GLSEN, 2011)
- Up to 40% of homeless youth are identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and/or transgender (Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 2007).
- GLBT youth had increased incidences of risk-taking behavior versus straight peers, including use of Meth (CDC, 2011)
- 1 in 4 individuals that are infected with HIV is a young person between the ages of 13-24 (CDC, 2012)
Suicidal ideation and Suicide
- Research on suicidal ideation indicates that youth that engaged in same-sex behavior were 50% more likely than heterosexual youth to seriously consider suicide in the previous year (Faulker & Cranston, 1998).
- Surveys also indicate that GLBT youth are more likely to attempt suicide. Of those reporting such an attempt in the twelve months, 25% were gay or lesbian, 28% were bisexual, and 18.5% were not sure of their sexuality. 6.5% identified as heterosexual (CDC, 2011).
These statistics reveal a striking need for care, support, and most importantly advocacy. Yet, our mentoring movement has failed miserably in its responsibility to stand up to this need.
I often hear well-intentioned language that says that mentoring is about making a difference for all youth. Time and time again I hear that our programs serve our community by making sure that all young people are given a safe and caring space to grow into healthy adults.
However, our inactions as researchers, practitioners, funders, and policy-makers tell quite another story:
- How many researchers and program evaluators have given voice to GLBTQ youth in their studies?
- How many mentor program managers and staff offer training and support to volunteers that may need to address the struggles of a young person while they are coming out?
- How many funding agencies offer opportunities to address the needs of GLBTQ youth through mentoring?
- How many policy-makers have created guidance on creating a safe space and strategies to advocate for marginalized youth?
Most young people start the coming out process around the age of 10, so this issue is a lot more common across programs serving different ages than many in the field realize. If we are to ask our mentors to serve as advocates to all young people in our programs, we have to first start by stepping up to this challenge ourselves. The omission of GLBTQ youth in so many mentoring settings—in our inquiries, our services, and our priorities—shows that we have much more to do if we to realize our mission of advocating for and serving the needs of all youth.
What might advocacy look like for GLBTQ youth in mentoring relationships?
While so few program opportunities exist for this population, there has been a small but growing number of studies that explore how mentors might be able to advocate for GLBTQ youth. These studies include mentoring for gay college students (Ross, 2005), natural mentoring relationships for gay youth (Torres, Harper, Sanchez, & Fernandez, 2011), role modeling for gay youth (Bird, Kuhns, & Garafolo, 2011), and my own dissertation that acts as a case-study of a two-year formal mentoring relationship between a gay adult and a gay youth.
From these studies, here are just a few glimpses for how a mentor might be able to advocate for this population:
Advocacy through community access – Mentors can introduce mentees to additional GLBTQ community resources and networks. For young people that are struggling with feelings of isolation and “otherness” gaining new connections to others that are similar can help to build a sense of belonging. A mentor can advocate by introducing the mentee to such resources.
Advocacy through role modeling —Mentors that have been through their own “coming out” process can share their experiences, recollections, and stories. This type of sharing can strengthen bonds between a mentor and mentee and can also provide tangible steps that a mentee can take to process their feelings and thoughts during this time. This type of advocacy is about showing a mentee new ways of thinking about his or her possible selves.
Family advocacy — “Coming out” to a family member can be one of the most difficult things that a GLBTQ mentee can face. A mentor can offer support during this process by giving the mentee tools to use to prepare for this conversation as well as ongoing support while the parent processes their understanding of what this will mean for their child and their relationship.
Fostering self-advocacy — Self-advocacy may be difficult for a young person that has been placed on the margins due to victimization or stress. Many young people that have been bullied, harassed, or rejected may struggle to find ways to ask for what they need. These same young people may also have a more difficult time developing trust. When a mentor can break through and build a trusting relationship, a real opportunity opens up to change trajectories and help mentees find their voice.
The statistics on GLBTQ youth show a real need for diverse and targeted types of support. Research on how mentors might make a difference for this population shows real promise. However, if we continue to ignore, omit, and exclude GLBTQ youth in our services, we have failed in our role as advocates.
If we have expectations for our volunteers to serve in this role, shouldn’t we start with ourselves first?
Christian Rummell is a senior researcher with expertise in qualitative research, youth mentoring, LGBT youth, delinquency prevention, and training and technical assistance delivery. He has extensive experience translating evidence-based research into practice, especially in areas that support disadvantaged populations of youth.
Dr. Rummell has nearly 20 years of experience as a training and technical assistance provider and project manager. As a consultant on the AMACHI Mentoring Coalition Project, Caregiver’s Choice, Juvenile Underage Mentoring Project, Young Parents Demonstration Project, and Mentoring Children of Prisoners federal initiatives, Dr. Rummell conducted grantee needs assessments, designed on-line training, contributed resources to communities of practice, developed toolkits and practitioner guides, and provided in-person coaching and training. He has presented extensively on effective practices for planning, designing, operating, and evaluating youth mentoring programs at national and conferences.
At Portland State University’s Center for Interdisciplinary Mentoring Research, Dr. Rummell conducted his qualitative dissertation on mentoring for gay youth which explored the characteristics, benefits, and potential support such relationships hold for sexual minority identity development.
[image by KOMOnews]