LGBT Community, Girls Circle and The Council for Boys and Young Men

October 15, 2009 at 4:41 pm Leave a comment

October  is Diversity Awareness Month.  Are you aware that “adolescents who are lesbian, gay, or bisexual are more than twice as likely as their heterosexual peers to be depressed and think about or attempt suicide”?  See many LGBT safety and health-related stats and tips at: http://stopbullyingnow.hrsa.gov/adults/tip-sheets/tip-sheet-33.aspx

An issue facing legislative attention is H.R. 2262 – the Safe Schools Improvement Act, which extends and specifies categories of identity which  are commonly targeted by bullying and harassment.  It would name sexual orientation and sexual identity among other categories in which students are often harassed and which need protection under the law.  For more information on this bill, see

http://www.glsen.org/cgi-bin/iowa/all/library/record/2432.html

So how are the needs of LGBT youth addressed  by Girls Circle and The Council for Boys and Young Men?

Our number one goal is safety – physical, relational, cultural, psychological.  This means that all participants of every Girls Circle or The Council have acceptance, nonjudgment, respect, and belonging.  Through this kind of environment , youth find they can pursue meaningful goals and build the social-emotional skills they need to work toward their full potential.

In a national Girls Circle research study (Irvine, Roa, Cervantez, 2007) there were significant improvements for girls in areas of self-efficacy, attachment to school with reductions in drinking and self-harm.   This study found that youth who identified as LGBT  liked school more so  after attending the Girls Circle program than they did when they began the program, although the LGBT youth did not like school as much as non-LGBT youth.   See the study at:  http://www.girlscircle.com/research.aspx

I have witnessed several girls muster courage and share their sexual orientation – straight, bisexual, or lesbian – with the group.  I have witnessed girls in middle and high school who are questioning their sexual identity and attended circle to decide “if it is for me.”  At times, a youth has explored the environment and decided it is not for her.  At times, she has stayed on in full participation.

The Council program is explicitly intended for boys of all cultures, sexual orientation, etc.  One of the core issues addressed is the meaning of being a boy/young man.  The definitions that are explored are both cultural and personal.  A central aim of this male development program is for boys to jointly and individually explore and broaden their definitions of manhood, so that they have a full range of expression available– emotions, interests, identity – within an atmosphere of respect for each participant.  During our pilot training, one of our participants provided feedback that we could do a better job with our communications about the intentionally inclusive approach with respect to LGBT participants.  He explained that a program aimed at male development and definitions will carry with it many of the triggers that have impeded and limited acceptance and appreciation for gay men, for example.  Now, we are verbally explicit at the beginning of every training – “The Council training is for men and women of every background, age, level  or sector of experience, faith or spirituality, ethnicity, culture, sexual orientation or identity, political or geographical location, etc”.  and , “The Council model is for boys and young men of every culture, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and identity, size, style, family background.”  Sometimes there’s a surprise look on a participant’s face, but usually, it’s a message that resonates because everyone can relate to the desire and need for inclusion.

In my experience, whether a Girls Circle or Council group is LGBT-responsive boils down to the following criteria: a) is the facilitator holding an open mind and space for all youth, with verbal and nonverbal messages of acceptance and appreciation for the LGBT community as well as a multi-cultural environment?  b) Is there room for a youth to decide on their own if the environment is comfortable? And c) when discussing just about any issue, can the facilitator be mindful to use language and ask questions that are inclusive of all youth?  Instead of saying boyfriend or girlfriend, for example, say “partner” or “romantic partner” or “your love interest” etc.   Ask questions that extend out to all youth.  Instead of saying “your mom and dad” say “your parents or caregivers” or simply ask the group to help you use inclusive terms since you’re probably still getting used to the language in much of America.

Here’s a personal observation:  within the Girls Circle groups, I’ve rarely seen teasing, mocking, belittling or exclusion of LGBT youth by other youth.  They are typically very accepting of their peers. Truthfully, where I have seen exclusion, or bias that can be experienced as rejection, is from adults.  Although they may be well-intentioned, many adults, in my opinion, have more to learn from youth about sexual orientation and sexual identity.  One facilitator was troubled by a middle school student’s preference to wear “boy clothes and have a boy hair cut” because, to the facilitator, the student was “too young to know her identity.”  Yet more often these days,  middle school students are coming out to their families and peers than in years past.  Other facilitators have commented that their girls are “acting out” because the girls claim bisexual interest.  We come from different backgrounds with different beliefs and expectations about what it means to be growing up – female, male, or anywhere on the gender spectrum.  My hope is for all of us as facilitators and caring adults to put our principles into best practices on the issue of LGBT youth, just as we do any need arising in circle: listen, with an open mind and an open heart, provide safety in the group, and promote the atmosphere where girls and boys can develop their voices and say what is true for them. Remember, they are the experts on their own lives. Only through safety and respect is empathy truly available, and only when empathy is present are healthy relationships developed.

Finally, I do NOT think that a Girls Circle or Council group is necessarily the only or best place for an LGBT youth to find support for their sexual orientation or identity, but then it depends on what support a person is seeking.  LGBT support and advocacy programs such as www.glsen.org, www.lyric.org, and others are excellent organizations with information on how to start gay-straight alliances in schools, where to go for support, etc.

The Girls Circle and Council formats offer a structure that has safety, consistency, and applicability for all kinds of support groups.  LGBT communities may find both connection and support within these models, as our research demonstrates, but also may use the structure of the groups for specific topics and activities that are LGBT-specific.  If you are doing just that with LGBT youth in your community, please tell us about your experiences!

One day, we hope to offer curricula that are specifically LGBT responsive.  Meanwhile, the core relational-cultural principles, topics immediately relevant for all youth, and predictable structures of the Girls Circle and the Council models are actively promoting acceptance, understanding, appreciation, and connections for youth of the LGBT community and peers.

~Beth

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FREE Public Conference Call on Girls Circle & The Council Tomorrow, Wednesday Oct 14th. An Important Message from the Founders (plus video!)

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