LGBTQ Youth: A Guide for Foster Parents, Counselors, and Social Workers
Growing up can be difficult for anyone, but LGBTQ youth are especially vulnerable to issues like bullying, mental health crises, and homelessness than their peers. Since LGBTQ youth are often a vulnerable population, it’s critical for foster parents, counselors, social workers, and other people who work with at-risk youth to be supportive and understanding of these issues.
This page will help you to better understand the issues that LGBTQ youth can face and expose you to resources that may be helpful if there is an LGBTQ young person in your life. You will find this information especially helpful if you are a foster parent, counselor, or social worker who works with LGBTQ youth.
LGBTQ Meaning: Who Makes Up This Community?
The LGBTQ acronym has undergone changes over the years. Now, various forms of it are often used to refer to the same group of people. Literally, LGBTQ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning people. Historically, people who fall under the LGBTQ umbrella have defied conventional notions about sexuality and gender, and many of them continue to suffer from discrimination for being different. Other acronyms such as LGBT, LBGT+, and LGBTQIA refer to roughly the same populations of people.
Beyond the fact that LGBTQ people experience gender and sexual attraction in ways outside of traditionally accepted norms, there isn’t necessarily a single set of experiences or lifestyles that binds this group together. There are LGBTQ people of all ages, social backgrounds, and economic classes.
In this resource, we’ll use the term LGBTQ to refer to this community as a whole. However, we will periodically use smaller parts of the acronym (such as LGB) to refer to subsections of the community where appropriate.
LGBTQ people often face discrimination because of their identities. That discrimination is often compounded in the case of LGBTQ youth, who don’t have the same legal rights or degree of independence as LGBTQ adults.
LGTBQ people under the age of 18 can suffer harassment at the hands of their peers, adult mentors, or even parents. Depending on the laws in their area and the support networks available to them, LGBTQ youth may often feel like they have no reprisal against harassment, which can only compound upon existing feelings of loneliness, rejection, and depression. Members of Generation Z may be uniquely interested in public service at least in part because they see the needs of LGBTQ people their own age and feel a desire to help out of empathy.
LGBTQ Youth Statistics
In an effort to identify and address the needs of LGBTQ youth, some government agencies and non-profit organizations have tried to accumulate data about this group. They have found that:
- About 8% of high school students report being lesbian, gay or bisexual in America. That’s roughly 1.3 million kids in total. Meanwhile, about 3% of American high schoolers identify as transgender.
- 42% of LGBTQ youth describe their community as being unaccepting towards LGBTQ people (HRC). According to the same HRC study, 92% of LGBTQ youth have heard negative messages about being LGBTQ.
- 75% of LGBTQ teenagers say they have felt depressed or down within the last week, 95% have trouble sleeping at night, and 70% say that they have felt worthless and hopeless within the last week.
- The CDC found that LGB students where 140 more likely to skip school over concerns about violence than their heterosexual peers.
- Members of the LGBTQ community are three times more likely to suffer from a mental health condition (NAMI), such as depression or an anxiety disorder, than their cisgender heterosexual peers.
- LGB youth have seriously considered suicide three times more often than their heterosexual peers. Meanwhile, 40% of transgender people have attempted suicide at least once.
Challenges Faced by LGBTQ Youth
As noted above, LGBTQ youth are especially vulnerable when it comes to bullying, violence, mental health conditions, and suicidal ideation. It cannot be stressed enough that the challenges that LGBTQ youth face may be largely due to experiences with unsupportive communities, outright aggression from peers, and internalized homophobia and transphobia gleaned from anti-LGBTQ environments. It would be a mistake to assert that unhappiness and depression are caused by being LGBTQ, rather than by living in a society that is unfriendly to LGBTQ people.
Coming out is a huge milestone for many LGBTQ people. Coming out involves telling people — whether they are friends, family, or teachers — that one is LGBTQ. The act of coming out can be both exciting and frightening for LGBTQ youth, as the reactions of many people are unpredictable and remain unknown until after someone has come out.
Being open and out can be a huge relief for many LGBTQ youths, especially if they find themselves in supportive environments. According to the HRC, LGBTQ youth who are out to their immediate families are happier than those who are not, on average.
However, even though being out can make an LGBTQ person happier, it’s also very stressful and sometimes quite risky for a person to come out, especially if they are a minor and don’t enjoy the kind of independence that an adult does. Coming out in an unsupportive environment can sometimes make a situation worse, as family members and friends may become openly hostile about a child’s identity, sometimes even going so far as to consider gay conversion therapy, which is illegal in many states.
LGBTQ youth are especially vulnerable to bullying, either from their peers or from adults in their lives. Unlike cisgender and heterosexual people, LGBTQ people can be bullied specifically because they are LGBTQ. This can happen whether a person is out to their peers or not, as bullying is often motivated by the mere appearance of or belief that a person is LGBTQ.
Bullying often isn’t something that can be shrugged off with a positive attitude. Studies have associated long-term bullying with poor mental health and substance abuse. It’s critical to nip bullying in the bud, stopping perpetrators rather than reaching out to LGBTQ youth after the fact.
Harassment and Discrimination
Harassment and discrimination are often experienced by LGBTQ people. Youth, in particular, may not be aware of the resources available to them to fight discrimination, whether it’s coming from their peers or adult mentors. In some cases, there are no legal protections to safeguard LGBTQ youth from discrimination perpetrated by their peers, mentors, or the school system in general.
In 2016, the Obama administration announced its decision to interpret Title IX as covering discrimination based on gender identity, thus extending the law’s protection to transgender students. However, this decision has since been reversed by the Trump administration, which has consistently declined to defend the Obama-era rules in court. In spite of a lack of federal anti-discrimination laws for LGBTQ people, many states are beginning to adopt anti-discrimination laws of their own.
LGBTQ Mental Health
According to NAMI, LGBTQ youth suffer from higher rates of mental health problems than their cisgender and heterosexual peers. These may include depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse disorders, and suicide. These higher rates of mental health disorders are caused by other challenges that LGBTQ youth face, such as bullying, discrimination, living in unsupportive environments, or the stress associated with being a gender or sexual minority in today’s world, rather than being caused by simply being LGBTQ.
LGBTQ Homeless Youth
According to the HRC, LGBTQ youths are 120% more likely to be homeless than their cisgender and heterosexual peers. Homelessness in LGBTQ youth may be due to issues with an unsupportive family or other stresses associated with being LGBTQ in an unwelcoming environment.
LGBTQ Rights and Laws
Legal protections for LGBTQ people in the United States are very much a work in progress. Some basic federal protections exist, with ongoing talks about future anti-discrimination and pro-LGBTQ legislation in the works. However, at the federal level, many protections are still lacking, leaving LGBTQ people open to discrimination, harassment, and violence.
In response to federal silence on these issues, many state and local governments have passed laws of their own, protecting LGBTQ people from harm and ensuring access to resources related to coming out, finding support, and even gender transition.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
Like all Americans, LGBTQ youth enjoy all of the protections outlined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This amendment — which is a part of the Bill of Rights — protects freedom of expression. Things like coming out, openly discussing one’s gender identity or sexual orientation, peacefully protesting in favor of LGBTQ rights and recognition, or presenting oneself in a way that matches a person’s gender identity are all forms of expression and are, thus, protected under the First Amendment.
Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
Similar to the above, LGBTQ youth also enjoy equal protection under the law, according to the 14th Amendment. This means that they are protected by the same laws which prohibit assault, hate speech, and other forms of violence as their non-LGBTQ peers. Any legal obligation that schools have to prevent bullying of non-LGBTQ students must extend to prevent bullying of LGBTQ students as well.
Title IX protects students at schools that receive federal funding from discrimination on the basis of sex. In 2016, the Obama administration announced that it would consider gender identity to be protected under Title IX. However, this rule was quickly challenged in court, and the Trump administration has since rescinded the rule and declined to defend it in any ongoing lawsuits, meaning that transgender students should not expect protection under Title IX for any discrimination based on their transgender status at this time.
The Matthew Shepard Act
The Matthew Shepard Act, also known at the “Hate Crimes Prevention Act,” was signed into law by President Obama in 2009. The bill expanded federal hate crime laws to include a victim’s perceived gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity. The law helps to give victims of hate crimes the legal tools that they need to fight back if they are the victim of violence or aggression motivated by their LGBTQ status.
State and Local Laws
Although there aren’t many federal laws protecting LGBTQ youth, some states have taken it upon themselves to pass legislation protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination, banning cruel practices such as conversion therapy, or securing access to helpful resources for LGBTQ youth.
State laws are constantly shifting as new efforts to protect LGBTQ people are proposed and considered by state governments. The HRC maintains a map of states with information about state-level protections and other laws pertaining to LGBTQ people.
LGBTQ Allies: Who Can Support LGBTQ Youth?
LGBTQ allies are people who support the LGBTQ community in any capacity, whether that’s donating to pro-LGBTQ organizations, advocating for anti-discrimination legislation, or just being there and being supportive to the LGBTQ community in your own life.
The role of allies is primarily to listen to the needs of the LGBTQ community, and to do their best to help satisfy those needs. It is not to talk down to LGBTQ youth or make decisions for them.
Some people, such as foster parents, school counselors, and social workers, may be specially situated to be powerful allies to LGBTQ youth. If you are one of these people, then it’s important to understand how you can help young people who fall under the LGBTQ umbrella.
Since LGBTQ youth experience homelessness at higher rates compared to their cisgender and heterosexual peers, many of them find their way into the foster system. Since many of these children are trying to get away from unsupportive families, it’s critical for foster parents to know about the challenges that LGBTQ youth face, and that they prioritize making themselves available and supportive in this regard.
If you are a foster parent and you believe that you may be fostering an LGBTQ child, it’s important to make your support for the LGBTQ community known without forcing your child to out themselves. Good allies should make themselves available without enforcing their support.
Resources for Foster Parents of LGBTQ Youth:
Foster parents with LGBTQ children have a number of resources to turn to:
- Child Welfare Information Gateway — The Department of Health and Human Services has released a guide for foster parents to help them understand the needs of LGBTQ youth.
- Healthy Children — Healthy Children provides information about how to make a foster home welcoming to an LGBTQ child.
- National Foster Parent Association — The NFPA maintains resources created by foster parents for foster parents who need help fostering an LGBTQ youth.
For many LGBTQ youths, school counselors are some of the first and most visible points of access for mental health care. Since LGBTQ youth suffer from mental health issues at a higher rate than their non-LGBTQ peers, according to NAMI, it’s critical for school counselors to make themselves available to any children who would like to speak about mental health issues they have been facing. School counselors should make their support for the LGBTQ community clear so that no student feels like they must conceal their LGBTQ status from their counselor.
Counselors are also one of the first lines of defense against bullying and harassment in schools and may be called upon to lead anti-bullying talks or provide a safe space where LGBTQ can talk about the bullying that they have faced in their schools.
Counselors may also need to help LGBTQ students with issues in their homes, whether that involves providing resources to talk to parents, acting as an intermediary in family issues, or just listening to an LGBTQ student talk about the anxieties that they feel with regard to their home life.
Resources for School Counselors of LGBTQ Youth:
Given the important position that many school counselors occupy as a prominent point of contact for many LGBTQ students, it’s critical for counselors to understand the kinds of issues that these students face and how they can be supported.
- American Psychological Association — The APA maintains a toolbox of resources to help counselors meet the needs of LGBTQ youth.
- The World Professional Association for Transgender Health — WPATH publishes standards of care for transgender individuals.
- American Counseling Association — The ACA provides resources to help counselors understand the options available to LGBTQ youth.
Social workers may end up working with LGBTQ youth who are in need, especially those who are homeless or have been the subject of abuse due to their status as members of the LGBTQ community. For this reason, it’s critical for social workers to have received the proper education and training, such as a Masters in Social Work, especially as it pertains to understanding the struggles of LGBTQ youth and meeting their needs.
Resources for Social Workers of LGBTQ Youth:
Since social workers may be called upon to work with at-risk LGBTQ youth, it’s very important to understand the needs that this population faces and what can be done to address them.
- National Association of Social Workers — The NASW provides tools for professional development for social workers who work with LGBTQ youth.
- Department of Health and Human Services — The DHHS maintains resources for social work professionals related to the needs and challenges of LGBTQ youth.
LGBTQ Support: How to Help LGBTQ Youth
Although some people, such as foster parents, school counselors, and social workers, are specially situated to help LGBTQ youth in need, everyone can do something to ensure that young people in the LGBTQ have a safe environment to grow up in. Even if you don’t occupy a special position, you can still help LGBTQ youth grow up to contribute to a more diverse environment in your own community.
Become an LGBTQ Ally
Anyone can become an LGBTQ ally. Even if you aren’t LGBTQ, you can still stick up for LGBTQ people in many facets of your life. Some examples of LGBTQ allyship include:
- Voting for pro-LGBTQ candidates and ballot initiatives in local, state, and federal elections.
- Speaking up when you hear someone making a joke at an LGBTQ person’s expense.
- Holding friends and family accountable for anti-LGBTQ views and engaging them on issues that affect the lives of LGBTQ individuals.
- Making yourself available to LGBTQ in your own life as a supportive friend.
- Developing socially conscious habits that benefit LGBTQ people, such as not assuming a person’s sexuality upon meeting them.
Become an LGBTQ Advocate
LGBTQ advocates can take the extra step in supporting LGBTQ youth and adults. Advocates can engage with legal and economic institutions in our society, helping to promote pro-LGBTQ practices. This kind of advocacy might include:
- Supporting pro-LGBTQ businesses — such as companies that donate to pro-LGBTQ causes or don’t discriminate against their LGBTQ employees — while refraining from supporting businesses that express anti-LGBTQ positions or behaviors.
- Protesting for the passage of laws that protect LGBTQ people from discrimination at every level of government.
- Lobbying state legislators and members of the U.S. Congress to earn votes for pro-LGBTQ pieces of legislation.
Additional Resources and Further Reading
The first step towards becoming an LGBTQ ally is to understand what it means to be LGBTQ and to learn about the challenges members of the queer community face. Many organizations exist to help you stay informed about how you can help LGBTQ youth and adults alike.
- Campus Pride — Campus Pride is an organization specifically dedicated to the well-being of LGBTQ college students.
- Center for Disease Control — The CDC doesn’t just study illnesses, it also studies other things that affect the American people, such as bullying and discrimination. The CDC maintains a page about the kinds of issues LGBTQ youth can face along with recommendations to parents and teachers about how to treat these issues.
- Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation — GLAAD is an organization that advocates for LGBTQ causes and rights across the country.
- GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders — GLAD advocates on behalf of LGBTQ people in government, with the intention of securing new laws that protect the rights of LGBTQ people and end discrimination.
- Human Rights Campaign — The HRC advocates for LGBTQ equality in all aspects of life. They provide resources to help non-LGBTQ people understand the struggles that members of the LGBTQ community face, along with advocacy for the rights of LGBTQ individuals.
- Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays — PFLAG is a pro-LGBTQ organization that operates through many local chapters across the nation. They provide support groups that can help LGBTQ youth to meet others who understand what they’re going through.
The National Center for Transgender Equality — The National Center for Transgender Equality is an organization dedicated specifically to improving awareness of the needs of transgender people, an often overlooked part of the broader LGBTQ community.