By Mackenzie Steinberg, Research and Development Communications VISTA at Search Institute
It’s safe to say that middle school and high school can be some of the best and worst years of our lives. For some, it depends on what classes you’re taking, what activities you’re in, how many friends you have, or what your report card says. But what about how your gender expression and sexual orientation are affected by these extremely formative years?
All youth have natural have ups and downs in their feelings of safety and belonging, and their relationships within their community, but a Search Institute study revealed a profound gap between LGBTQ youth and non-LGBTQ youth in regards to developmental relationships and feelings of belonging within one’s community.
In 2018, 11 public schools from a rural region in Minnesota participated in a survey through Search Institute that asked a multitude of questions ranging from students’ feelings of safety and security in their communities to how students view their relationships with friends and family. This survey also allowed the students to anonymously identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or gender non-conforming, which offered us more comparisons across differences. Of the 3,011 6th- through 12th-graders who participated, 545 (18%) identified as a member of the LGBTQ community.*
When compared to non-LGBTQ youth in these communities, LGBTQ youth were less likely to report:
In almost every facet of this survey, non-LGBTQ youth were more likely to report positive experiences than their LGBTQ peers. Focus areas of questions included interest and participation in the community, time spent outside of school, experiences in the community, perceptions of self and future, school experiences and attitudes, and experiences and priorities in their relationships. Through the analysis, some discrepancies were particularly striking:
Movement Advancement Project’s 2019 report Where We Call Home: LGBT People in Rural America echoes the findings from our study. They also found that LGBTQ youth in rural communities often struggle to find a sense of belonging, perhaps as a result of not having access to spaces where they feel safe to be their authentic selves (Movement Advancement Project, 2019). According to the Movement Advancement Project, LGBTQ groups, allies in schools, and shared community spaces are vital but are not always experienced by youth. Organizations and individuals in rural communities can leave LGBTQ youth feeling isolated from the rest of the community if they’re not intentional about inclusivity.
Similarly, parents of LGBTQ youth in rural communities may experience less access to information and fewer support systems. They may also be less likely to seek out resources, as it can be very hard for some parents to accept or advocate for their LGBTQ child (Movement Advancement Project, 2019). This can often leave the child isolated from their family members, forcing them to seek support elsewhere. We see some evidence of this pattern in the survey in the LGBTQ youth who reported similar levels of developmental relationships with friends and teachers as their non-LGBTQ peers, but were less likely to report strong developmental relationships with family members.
According to the survey, LGBTQ youth in these communities spend significantly less time participating in activities or programs in a religious community than their non-LGBTQ peers. Participation in faith communities is often a significant part of the lives of people in rural communities, including LGBTQ folks. However, it tends to be easier to find LGBTQ-accepting congregations in urban areas than it is in rural areas, and this can often lead to rejection or the feeling of not being welcome for many LGBTQ folks (Movement Advancement Project, 2019). According to the Movement Advancement Project, this can cause a ripple effect of disconnection to one’s community, when the religious community is a center point of the rural community experience. This disconnection deprives LGBTQ youth of crucial support, resources, relationships, and opportunities to contribute that a faith community has the potential to offer.
Consistent with many other studies, recent Search Institute research published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence highlighted the higher rate of suicide attempts among LGBTQ youth—particularly transgender youth (published in Pediatrics)—compared to non-LGBTQ youth. Those risks are well known. The study in these rural communities points to some of the ways communities can make a difference.
In 2019, the Trevor Project released a national study that, along with many other important findings, uncovered that having at least one supportive adult in the life of a young person who identifies as LGBTQ reduces the chance of a suicide attempt by 40%. This study and future Trevor Project studies hope to better understand the association between supportive adults and the alleviation of minority stress (the stress placed on an individual who is a part of a marginalized group) on LGBTQ youth.
Of course, supportive adults and friends cannot, and should not, take the place of mental health or crisis services. At the same time, LGBTQ youth should not be left to their own devices to sort out questions of identity and belonging in the community, only to seek help when they reach a serious crisis point. Being a supportive adult or friend is something everyone can and should do.
As community members, we cannot continue disregarding the feelings and experiences of LGBTQ youth. You don’t have to be someone’s parent to be a supportive adult; support to youth from a marginalized group can come from neighbors, teachers, coaches, community leaders, and everyone in between. Based on this survey, LGBTQ youth in rural communities can really benefit from more supportive, inclusive, and accepting community members who aren’t legally obligated to care for them.
Change can happen in many ways at many levels. As community members, we have the ability and responsibility to support diverse and marginalized groups, and that includes LGBTQ youth. That support can start by being part of a web of positive developmental relationships that value, guide, care for, respect, inspire, and open up new possibilities for them as they navigate issues of identity, growing up, and feeling that they belong and have a positive future.
*Of the 3,011 6th- through 12th-graders who participated in the study, 545 (18%) anonymously identified as a member of the LGBTQ community. This is slightly higher than the LGBTQ sample identified from the Minnesota Student Survey, where 12.8% of 9th-graders and 12% of 11th-graders identified as LGBTQ when considering the same responses as a part of the LGBTQ sample.