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Creating a Safe Space for LGBTQ+ Adolescents As a School Counselor

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Gender-neutral bathrooms. New pronouns. Chosen names. For many professionals in the education field, there’s an entire world to understand pertaining to LGBTQ+ youth. Learning the fine points may seem daunting for those who aren’t familiar with the struggles of teenagers who think of themselves as part of the queer community.

However, considering LGBTQ adolescents have a 26.1% risk of suicidal thoughts — as opposed to 13% from the straight and cisgender peers — it is obvious why creating a safe space for young people is imperative. GLSEN‘s guide defines a “safe space” as “a supportive and affirming environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans/transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) students.”

How educators and counselors work to understand those in the LGBTQ+ community will bring schools closer to building a safer space. The GLSEN guide notes, “Holding the dual position of controlling classroom environments, and often having a voice to advocate on LGBTQ students’ behalf to school administration, educators maintain an invaluable role in creating positive learning environments. They are also the direct actors in implementing LGBTQ content in class curricula or serving as a faculty advisor for students to formally organize supportive groups on campus.”

For school counselors specifically, there are several ways to better serve LGBTQ+ youth in schools:

1. Don’t think “one size fits all.”

Every student is unique. The first step is to never assume you know everything. For example, two students who identify as non-binary may perceive themselves differently and may or may not struggle with gender dysphoria and parents’ acceptance. They also may or may not want to use different pronouns or take hormone supplements. It is best to check in with each pupil and seek to understand individual needs. This way, students will feel confident they can reach out to someone who is putting in the effort to see them for who they are, even if the empath may not share the same life experience as the student.

2. Don’t contact the parents unless the student grants you permission.

Unless faced with a life-threatening situation, students deserve privacy and confidentiality when talking with school counselors. Coming out to others as a member of the LGBTQ+ community is a personal journey that should not be forced. Sometimes, even with the best of intentions, school counselors and educators can “out” a student accidentally, and if the family isn’t accepting, the student will have to deal with the consequences alone.

Counseling Today offers some advice on helping students who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community inform their parents: The counselor should gauge students’ comfort level for informing parents, offer to role-play such conversations, and make a contingency plan so every student has a place to stay should the parents reject their child and need time to adjust to the situation.

3. Work around your limitations.

Perhaps you’re unfamiliar with the terminology, or perhaps your state makes it difficult for students to access the lifesaving information they need to feel less marginalized. Luckily, the GLSEN guide offers many insights and ideas, and even the students themselves can be valuable sources of knowledge. Whatever the barriers may be, it’s crucial to press on and do this important work because LGBTQ+ students can easily fall through the academic cracks as they deal with other mental and environmental challenges.

4. Take students seriously.

If a student is harassed or bullied or perceives a microaggression, don’t dismiss them. It’s easy to be swayed by our own unconscious biases, but part of building a safer space is listening to those experiencing discrimination. This is particularly true if the complaints are against an “adult” — a teacher or educational leader. Keep in mind that not everyone is open-minded and accepting, even if inclusion is in the school’s ethos.

5. Advocate for your students.

In the end, if one truly desires to create a safe space, one must be committed to being an LGBTQ+ ally. That means not only listening to students passively but also actively seeking ways to better the school’s inclusion efforts, such as providing staff training on how to be an ally, pushing for gender-neutral bathrooms and petitioning for students to have their chosen names on their IDs, among other efforts.

School counselors are critical to helping students feel safe, seen and understood and cope with their stressors in a healthy way. An advanced education degree in counseling and school counseling can equip professionals with the tools they need to make a difference.

Learn more about the University of Wisconsin-Superior’s Master of Science in Education – Counseling, School Counseling Track online program.

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