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Safe Sanctuaries: Inclusion and Hospitality for LGBTQ Youth

By Audrua Welch Malvaez & Chris Wilterdink

The understanding of what it means to be an LGBTQ youth in today’s world continues to evolve. So, too, do Safe Sanctuaries® recommendations continue to mature as ministry leaders continue to seek better ways to reduce the risk of harm and abuse for this vulnerable population.

General Recommendations:

  • Start with yourself. Name your personal biases and assumptions and observe how they surface in your ministry. A 2018 resource from the Southern Poverty Law Center provides a simple tool to reflect on your biases and recognize your role as an ally with LGBTQ youth (starting on page 16 of that resource). Additional resources may be available from your annual conference or general agencies of the United Methodist Church. For example, the General Commission on Religion and Race (GCORR) has an excellent Implicit Bias course. It is primarily focused on anti-racism work, but it could be adapted to work with bias related to human sexuality. Always uphold the Safe Sanctuaries® policy in place within your local congregation to the fullest extent possible, regardless of gender. That policy should help in the creation of a safe and welcoming space for all, in addition to reducing the risk of abuse.
  • Make no assumptions about a young person’s sexual orientation or identity. Use gender-neutral language when talking about dating and intimate relationships. Words like “partner,” “spouse,” “significant other” (SO), and so on will allow any teen to identify with the topic at hand without feeling excluded.
  • Educate yourself and train your staff on the proper use of terminology, including the difference between gender and sex. An excellent glossary of terms is available here.
  • Avoid using the term "preferred" pronouns or name. Instead, on forms or attendance sheets, allow for space to learn what name youth would “like to be called.” We all have pronouns and names that we use because they fit us and are appropriate. So, youth leaders can also create the standard practice of nametags that include both names and pronouns. "People of trans experience" are really just people having experiences in a world with others. Supporting trans youth with their own chosen name and pronouns can be a simple and subtle way to show them support.
  • Be prepared for a student to come out to you. There are many resources available, including training for staff and volunteers through the Safe Zone Project (https://thesafezoneproject.com) and books like Welcoming and Affirming by Leigh Finke.
  • Be intentional about creating a safe environment and culture. Train adults and teens to recognize homophobic language and bullying. Develop anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies with your leadership team. These should include provisions related to gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation. They should also include expectations that reports of bullying will be followed up on by appropriate church staff and that staff and adult volunteers may intervene if they witness bullying. Also, consider including items related to digital or online harassment. Bullying may not be obvious on the surface; instead, it may be manifested as microaggressions or subtle acts that exclude.
  • Connect with organizations such as GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network) to learn more about the pastoral needs of LGBTQ youth and to stay current on youth issues. Organizations such as PFLAG can become excellent, supportive connections for parents and teens alike.
  • Be prepared for pushback from your community or congregation. Recognize the bias or opinions present in your church, prepare additional information, and work with volunteers and other church staff to create discussion points and plans. Find allies in your community and don’t let misinformation go unaddressed. The Discipleship Ministries series “Courageous Conversations” does offer a guide for organizing and navigating discussions related to human sexuality for the entire congregation.
  • Know your volunteers’ personal beliefs and create small groups accordingly. Use posters and décor that affirms the humanity of a diverse range of people. LGBTQ youth should have the same rights and expectations as any youth involved in your youth ministry.
  • Create a behavior covenant that all are aware of and commit to uphold regarding how all youth/participants in youth ministry are to be treated. Publish this covenant in a visible place, either on its own or include it as an addendum to the Safe Sanctuary® policy in place within your local church.
  • One of the most important things we can do is “normalize.” It's important for all our students to not feel odd or out of place, and making this possible for LGBTQ students requires both awareness and forethought from leadership. Using non-gendered language like "siblings" or "friends" or “adopted family of God” or even “fellow disciples” instead of "brothers and sisters" helps make calls to attention more inclusive.
  • Instead of assigning stereotypical gender-colors like pink and blue for name tags, offer a variety of options. Avoid “sorting” activities that rely on gender or sex exclusively; instead, sort groups by drawing attention to common-ground activities, such as who likes dogs or cats, who plays an instrument, and so on. These are subtle ways that send a message that we are all unique, yet we are all able to relate with one another without being defined exclusively by our sexuality or gender. Combine these subtle kinds of messages with intentional, theological work around individual personhood as part of God's humanity. For example, consider introducing and discussing the concept of Imago Dei, which allows for safer theological discussions about humankind.
  • Learn about bathroom challenges. Everyday actions such as using the bathroom are complicated and often dangerous for transgender and gender nonconforming people, because the world usually offers only two options: “male” and “female.” Consider whether your facility’s restrooms must be gender-specific or whether one could be made available to everyone. This does not need to be complicated; covering the “men” or “women” sign with an “all-gender restroom” sign is sufficient. Remember to do this for temporary, shared, or rental facilities also. You might also consider private restrooms available as an option for the changing of clothes.

Travel Specific Recommendations:

  • Use a blank line for gender (not sex) instead of “male” and “female” boxes on trip registration forms, medical forms, release forms, and so on. Ensure that you have a copy of these forms (as you would for any youth) in the event of an emergency on the trip.
  • Consider using a “Team of Three” system instead of a “Buddy System,” keeping students in groups of three or more at all times. This can help prevent sneaky escapades and avoid one-on-one disagreements. It also provides a third person to get help while a second remains with an injured person in case of an emergency or to serve as an additional witness in the case of any questionable situations.
  • Consider allowing extra communication time between LGBTQ youth and their parents or caregivers during travel. It is important for them to have the option to be proactive as opposed to reactive in communication.
  • When making housing arrangements, communicate openly with all youth and their parents in advance of the arrangements becoming finalized. Include answers to questions like: “What rooms are available and how are the beds arranged?” “How will adults monitor sleeping activity in rooms?” “What steps are being taken to keep sleeping areas safe?”
  • Whenever possible, consult trans students on where they would like to room, what they would like to wear, and what name they would like to go by. Ensure that their choices are consistent with the housing arrangements that you’ve communicated (from the previous point), any dress codes your ministry may have in place, and guidance for nametags and registration forms. If they have friends they are already comfortable with, let them choose who they would like to room with rather than assuming where they would be most comfortable. Better yet, allow everyone to have these options, so it's a group norm, not just a special treatment for a specific student.

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