LAWRENCE — Adolescence and teenage years can be a tough time for many kids. For gender and sexual minority youths, it can be even more challenging. And for gender and sexual minority youths living in rural areas without the resources and support for LGBTQ youths in urban areas, there are still more challenges. A University of Kansas professor has authored a study into the unique challenges gender and sexual minority youths living in rural areas face and how social workers, communities and educators can help guide them.
Megan Paceley, assistant professor of social welfare, conducted a study in which she interviewed 34 gender and sexual minority youths living in nonmetropolitan areas in a Midwestern state. The findings revealed four areas of need for the youths: Reduction in isolation, social acceptance and visibility, emotional support and safety, and gender and sexual minority identity development. The study has been published in the journal Families and Society.
“We wanted to find out what these youths needed in life,” Paceley said. “There is some literature out there about this population’s need broadly, but not about those living in rural areas.”
Isolation was an often-stated problem the youths in the survey faced. Many reported they were the only LGBTQ person in their community that they knew of. Others said they knew of other youths of the same background, or perhaps some adults, but in the case of the former if they weren’t friends or acquaintances it wasn’t comfortable discussing LGBTQ issues, and in the latter the dynamic between youths and adults often resulted in the same being true. Isolation was geographic as well. Some youths reported that while their community did not have any kind of LGBTQ resources or support groups, they would sometimes travel to neighboring communities that did. That created its own problems, however, such as necessitating gas money, informing their parents of where they were going and others.
A significant refrain among the participants was the need for community support.
“That support could consist of parents, teachers and others simply saying positive things instead of demeaning LGBTQ people. Or they said social acceptance could be as simple as businesses displaying rainbow flags,” Paceley said.
The youths who did have community support often found it in the forms of places where they could gather such as public libraries, affirming churches, community organizations or even online spaces.
Emotional support and safety were also among the needs youths reported. Nearly all respondents mentioned the need for mental health resources and school counselors who were LGBTQ positive. Perhaps even more pressingly, the young people cited a need for safe spaces if they were in physical danger. Youths who have disagreements with or are thrown out of their houses by unsupportive parents discussed the need for shelters. And the shelters needed to be accepting, they said, as some religious-based shelters would not take in LGBTQ youths, or gender-specific shelters would not provide haven for transgender youths.
Legal support was a cited need as well. Transgender youths reported planning on changing their names at some point and needing guidance through the process, or having questions about how to navigate public bathroom policies. Emotional support was also high on the list, as tips on how to come out to family or things as simple as information on what terms such as pansexual or cisgender mean could be helpful.
“From a developmental perspective, gender and sexual minority youth are just youth trying to figure things out like anybody else,” Paceley said. “But they have all these other stigmas to deal with as well.”
While rural communities presented unique challenges to the youths in the study, many were quick to point out that the area where they grew up was not itself the problem. A lack of resources, which is not necessarily the fault of a small community, was more commonly identified as the problem.
“Many of them loved their communities,” Paceley said. “One young woman said, ‘I love my community, but I hate it at the same time.’ It was a fascinating dichotomy. That helps break the myth of somebody is gay and they grow up and run off to the city. That doesn’t always happen.”
The findings can help social workers, educators, families and communities ensure gender and sexual minority youths grow up happily and safely in their non-urban communities. While it may not be feasible for every small town to have an LGBTQ support group, it can be attainable for high schools to have groups, supportive individuals in communities, supportive businesses and even affirming churches to simply be supportive of all young people. Social workers who know their communities can be particularly valuable.
“I think social workers can be at the forefront of advocating for youth,” Paceley said. “Especially in a way that’s specific to the community and its strengths. Part of that has to be involving the youth in that process. They need to have their voices heard and need to come first.”