Anytime legislation is being discussed in the news and the impacted group doesn’t have a voice, it gives me some pause. The groups that seem to be removed from tough conversations around LGBTQ+ youth are probably the ones that matter most, such as Child Development professionals, education scholars, LGBTQ+ adults, and LGBTQ+ youth. As someone who has worked in Child Development and is also gay, I’d love to share some thoughts through the lens of child development.
A common misconception is that only adults or older teens are capable of being part of the LGBTQ+ community, which is likely a result of many gay individuals coming out as adults. This emphasizes the need for safe spaces. In many cases, LGBTQ+ individuals would state they were aware of their identity long before coming out, but never felt safe to do so. Children start becoming aware of their gender identity around the same age that gender difference start becoming more noticeable to them, so around 4 or 5. This means that there could be several children who are now impacted by laws and policies that leave them feeling unsafe in classrooms, libraries, and other spaces.
Right now, it can be hard for many of us to think about moving forward because we are watching everything move backwards all around us. Nevertheless, we move forward by creating and enforcing these safe spaces. We move forward by advocating for our loved ones, for ourselves, for our community to create more safe spaces. As an individual, you can create an environment where those of us in the queer community do feel safe with and around you. Of course, the Y has its own role to play in that as we strive to create those affirming spaces in our organization, but it also falls on the individual. You can make a change, you can make a difference. What you say and what you do can be the difference between a youth in the LGBTQ+ community finding peace or searching for a way out.
Here’s how I put it with our day camp staff: You don’t know who is coming into your space or their backgrounds. For many, they are unwelcome and unsafe at school, at home, at church, and other spaces. Create an experience to where two, five, or even ten years down the road, if they never found another welcoming and affirming space, they remember they had that when they were around you.
Shade Jalo is a Youth & Family Director with the YMCA of Greater Oklahoma City.