How to Help LGBTQ Youth Thrive


Notes from the Backpack

Episode 37 │How to Help LGBTQ Youth Thrive

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

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Ellen Kahn and Jodie Patterson

You may not be aware, but every school has LGBTQ youth and families. Is your PTA using inclusive language and offering affirming programs and activities? We sat down with two guests from the Human Rights Campaign Ellen Kahn, senior director of programs and partnerships, and Jodie Patterson, board chair of the HRC Foundation, to learn how to become better allies to the LGBTQ community.


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LaWanda: Welcome to today's episode of Notes from the Backpack, a PTA podcast, I'm LaWanda Toney.

Helen: And, I'm Helen Westmoreland and we are your co-hosts. When we spoke with Ralph Smith earlier this season, he shared how some communities have been hit harder by the pandemic than others. Today, we want to zoom in on one of those communities and talk about the unique challenges LGBTQ youth are facing during COVID-19 and how adults in their lives can support them.

LaWanda: Even before the pandemic, LGBTQ youth were battling depressive symptoms at nearly twice the rate of nonLGBTQ youth. In 2019, LGBTQ youth were more than four times as likely to attempt suicide. For those who are now at home, there are new challenges, including getting cut off from supportive teachers and friends and having to quarantine at home with unaccepting family members. Thankfully, there are also reasons to be hopeful. According to a new report, LGBTQ students who have many supportive adults at school are less likely to feel unsafe, less likely to miss school and more likely to feel a sense of belonging.

Helen: That's right, LaWanda and there are organizations, like the Human Rights Campaign, also known as HRC, that are working to ensure our schools become places where LGBTQ youth can thrive. I am so excited that we have two incredible guests from HRC with us today.

First, we have Ellen Kahn, who is the Senior Director of Programs and Partnerships at the Human Rights Campaign. In her role, Ellen provides national leadership and expertise in public education and advocacy efforts on behalf of LGBTQ youth and families. Prior to joining HRC, Ellen worked in community-based healthcare for many years. She has also run programs supporting LGBTQ parents and prospective parents for the past 15 years. Ellen is also a proud mom of two fabulous teenage daughters. Welcome Ellen.

Ellen Kahn: Thank you.

Helen: And next, we have the incredible Jodie Patterson who is an author, activist, and mother of five. Jodie is also the Chair of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation Board. She has written two books, The Bold World: a memoir of family and transformation. And, Born Ready: the true story of a boy named Penelope. Jodie has received numerous awards and was recognized by the United Nations as a Champion for Change. Welcome Jody. Thank you for being with us today.

Jodie Patterson: Thank you for having me really good to be here.

Helen: Thank you both. So Ellen, I want to start with you because language is important, both to be inclusive, but also because some folks immediately, when they hear a lot of acronyms can get really wary, what are you talking about?

Could you kick us off by breaking down LGBTQ, cisgender, transgender, what are some of the key terms, all of our listeners really need to understand to be good allies in this space?

Ellen Kahn: Sure. Sometimes I call it alphabet soup, there are a lot of letters and there's, some different variations, but LGBTQ represents lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer. Now those identities don't always work for every single person who is part of the broader LGBT community, but that acronym is intended to speak to people who are, same-sex attracted, who are transgender, who are non-binary, who are, essentially not heterosexual, not cisgender. And I'll get to those terms as well. I think most people understand sexual orientation. You're either straight/heterosexual, you're gay or lesbian or you're bisexual, or a lot of younger people use a term that's a little more expansive called pansexual.

Everybody, most people, I should say, know someone who is gay or lesbian or bisexual, and there's more familiarity. Around folks of transgender experience, fewer people may know someone in their life who's transgender or non-binary in their gender identity.

So, transgender essentially means that somebody experiences their gender as different from what was assigned at birth. I always say very simply when a child is born, a nurse practitioner or a doula or, or a doctor, or somebody says, it's a boy, or it's a girl, or sometimes, before based on a sonogram and based on that declaration, we just treat that person and see that person as their anatomy tells us boy or girl, but that's not always how that person feels. And so, that person might not really identify as either male or female in their mind and in their heart. Or, they may identify as the gender other than the one assigned at birth.

And then cisgender, which is a newer term to many people is a term for folks whose gender identity does align with their assigned sex at birth. So for me, I identify as cisgender. And this is a way that we're not just othering people whose gender identity is different, but everyone has a gender identity and, mine happens to be cisgender. I'd like to say one other thing, because language is so important.

I appreciated you sharing really important statistics at the opening of the show about the impact on LGBTQ youth of bias and discrimination and how so many young LGBTQ people, experience depression and think about suicide and it's alarming. And, I really just want to emphasize, especially for folks who are newer to this topic, that it is not an intrinsic thing that LGBTQ people will just because they are LGBTQ, struggle more with mental health. It is  it's a response to what we experience, negative things that come at us like rejection from family or bullying by peers or hearing elected officials or clergy or other people, say things that are hostile toward us or worry about being safe in the world. So  I just want to emphasize that those mental health disparities you mentioned can be mitigated, based on how we treat LGBTQ young people and the spaces we create for them.

LaWanda: Ellen, thank you for that. So well said, and I think definitely necessary, to set the tone for the conversation. Kind of piggybacking off of that. Right now, as we all know, we're in a pandemic and there are a lot of LGBTQ children and families at home, what are you hearing from them? And, what are some of the challenges that they may be facing right now during COVID?

Ellen Kahn: I'm sure Jodie has  some really wonderful things to share. I'll just quickly say that, I think that for LGBTQ young people who were already out at home and maybe not fully supported, in fact having some hostility from folks at home, be it parents, siblings, school might have been the safer, more affirming place. And now, there's that disconnect from school. There's also another interesting phenomenon, which is now that we are many months in the pandemic, young people who maybe were not out at home and maybe were not out at school are exploring more and disclosing to their families how they're feeling about their sexual orientation or their gender identity and coming out during the pandemic because, they've because home has actually felt safer to them.

Jodie Patterson: I agree, Ellen. I mean, I think I'm a mother of five, so I see things always through the lens of parenting and in particular, the lens of mothering.

And I think what I've noticed at home is that COVID has intensified, whatever was there already. So, if there was good there we've been able to deepen in that good. And, if there were some difficult challenges, they have become bigger and harder to, to make our way through, some of the things that I've seen in my family and in the family that I know that are close by, who are raising trans kids, it's given us space to, to talk more with our children and to see more. Sometimes you miss things because our lives are so fast, we're going in and out of school and offices. I think we can look at this time, although it is very challenging and although it is very sad and very scary. There's also a, a place here for us to really see ourselves deeper and particularly our LGBT children.

And, I would encourage parents to really use this time to have long form conversations with our kids. And then, also with ourselves as adults, --how do we see ourselves? Because a lot of times, as a parent, when we notice that our child isn't who we think they are. It makes us question who we are and that's when it starts to get really scary. And that's when we start to back away from quote, unquote, the problem.

But, I think this time needs to allow us to and can allow us to slow down the pace and ask the questions that we don't have answers to, because sometimes the kids have the answers. And I found more of that conversation happening during COVID and in my house at least.

Helen: Thank you, Jodie. I want to pick up on what you're sharing around, taking this time to slow down and really see your child. And, and see them and hear them and validate them. And, it makes me think some of what Ellen shared at the beginning about some of these very, very tragic outcomes for LGBTQ youth are not a reflection of them, but how their family or society might treat them.

Would you be willing to share a little bit about your son Penelope and what your journey has been, seeing him for who he is?

Jodie Patterson: I would love to. I have such joy in talking about Penelope and my other four children. And oftentimes we fully understand how tragic this can be when your child, being different can be tragic. I mean, just to go back for a second. I think when I, the last number I heard 309 deaths murders of trans people globally, in 2019. So, we know how dangerous is to be different, but I come from a family that is made up of southern activists and, women and men who have changed the course of America.

So, I'm actually used to being different. Within our family, we have, my uncle is Gil Scott Heron? He's a musician. He wrote that the relevancy will not be televised. Yeah. And, my grandmother sued hospitals and school boards during the civil rights era. So, I'm used to going against the grain. But, my third child by the age of around two was showing change that I was scared of. The type of change Penelope represented, that I was really scared of because it was something I hadn't thought about before. So, just to give you the background by age one, two Penelope was had turned into an angry, grumpy, troubled child. Nailbiting bedwetting, reoccurring nightmares, protest of getting dressed, protest around brushing hair, brushing teeth, and then even more than protests, Penelope had become a bully.

Pushing siblings, pushing kids at the park that child that you're like, what is wrong? And so, I tried to always fix, maybe I need to give more, love, more hugs, more snuggles. Maybe I need to read more bedtime stories? Maybe I need to change the diet. Maybe it's a dairy allergy…

Helen: All the things you were already comfortable with. Yeah.

Jodie Patterson: All, exactly. All of the things that as a mother, you think of external situations. And then, one day I just asked the question, baby, why are you so angry? And, I had never asked before and Penelope answered, because everyone thinks I'm a girl and I'm not, I am a boy. And that, still didn't fully land on me. I thought I was looking at a tomboy, a girl who wanted to be seen maybe as a feminist, a girl who wanted to be just as tough as the boys. In my head, I was thinking maybe she recognizes how unbalanced, how unfair this world is and how it leans more in the favor of men.

And so I said, sure, however you feel is fine. If you feel like your brothers, then go ahead and act like your brothers. And, Penelope corrected me and said, no, mama, I don't feel like a boy I am a boy. And, that gap of what Penelope knew and what I did not know that was such a huge space. I didn't know what the heck Penelope was talking about. And, it took me several years, doing the research of the language and doing the research of the statistics and the doctors and the history. And then, after a certain point I just stopped researching and I simply just leaned into my kids' life. So, whatever Penelope is interested in is his interest.

So he is interested in math and science and blue jeans and basketball and being a friend, he's a great companion. And, I really stopped to try to like, understand the science of it. I still don't really fully understand the science of gender. But as a mother, what my job is, is not to really get into the science per se, but it's how do I fortify this entire team of kids and adults in my family? And that led me to the Human Rights Campaign I would say my community has widened. I'm now a part of the LGBTQIA+ community and that's, that's really where our grounding as a family, it lies within the black community. We're at we're black, African-American and African from Ghana. And, we are also LGBTQAI+, and I hold both of those communities, close to myself.

Ellen Kahn: I'd love to just add a little bit to what Jodie said and, and, I mean, every parent's journey is different and, Jodie had to tell you in a soundbite what it's like to get from age two to  now Penel’s a teen.  Almost every parent, when they have their baby or adopt their baby, they just have a sense that this child's going to go on a certain trajectory and most parents imagine their child's going to be cisgender and heterosexual and get married and follow a certain trajectory. Some parents are more open to variations of that than others, but it's, I think it's fair to say that, many parents don't really feel comfortable talking about topics related to sexual orientation, who are you attracted to? Do you have crushes? How do you feel about yourself?

No one gives us a manual around how to talk to our children about this. And, I think for some parents, they are really shocked and scared, when they do have a child who maybe comes out as LGBTQ. Even if they are loving and comfortable and really fine with that, there are other things to manage: how are the grandparents going to feel? How's the extended family going to feel? What will my kid be safe? So it's, it's not an easy journey, even for parents who are quite accepting and it's even more difficult when they're not. You just don't wake up the next day and know everything and understand everything and wave a rainbow flag. Every parent's journey is different. Often parents need to be, you know, advocating for their kids at school. Because we know LGBTQ youth statistically, we know they face more bullying and a lack of safety at school.

LaWanda: Jodie, you mentioned that your family is African-American, Ghana lineage, and, and you identify as black. What about students of color that are LGBTQ? Are they facing different challenges than some white students?

Jodie Patterson: I think the whole thing is challenging. I think it's challenging to be different. And so I always want to start with that first. I mean, I identify with the white mom who is raising a white trans person and identify with the black mom, who's raising a black trans person. Because the through line here that we're really talking about is the bias that, we hold against people who are different. And then, we got to get into the specifics and the specifics show that, my child steps out of my house and there are so many layers before people see his humanity, they will see his blackness, they will see his transness. They will see maybe the fact that he lives in a city, in an urban neighborhood of Brooklyn. They will also see the fact that he presents as boy. So before they even get to understanding his aura or his energy or his heart, or his humanity. They'll see all of these layers and that's what intersectionality is.

It's, how many layers does it take before that people have put on top of you before they can actually really get to see you and respect you and honor you.

There are so many layers that America has put on my children. And then, on this one child, and it is like, how can they even get out of it? Is America even ready to address all of the issues that we've put on people? And I'm always going back to is that, Penelope is not the problem. The trans kid, the millions of trans people. They are not the problem. The problem is those of us that hold this understanding or this belief that we are primary, that we are the right form of human, the right form of happiness. Who am I to determine what happiness looks like? And so, I think we really have to look at ourselves and say, how difficult is it for me to see this person as human?

Ellen Kahn: I completely agree with what Jodie so beautifully said. So, to the point of intersectionality, when students are navigating two or more identities that are devalued or stigmatized identities, versus praised or valued identities. There are again, more hardships in terms of just getting through the school, feeling safe at school, feeling seen at school, feeling supported at school.

So, bringing this to the school community and what can the parent community and the school community be doing the students who are Black and Latinx and LGBTQ  or kids of color who are also LGBTQ, do experience these higher rates of you know, disciplinary action, missing school because of fear of safety. And then not achieving at the same level as, as they should be. So I think that's important to mention.

Jodie Patterson: I think one of the things that teachers can do and administrators can do, is to look at what cultures are marginalized. And then, bring those cultures to the classroom. So I had to do that in my house. I had to understand that I had not brought LGBT culture in my home on any real meaningful level. And then, I had to do just that, my stories at bedtime, I had to include LGBT people. My conversation at the dinner table had to include LGBT issues, cause we talk about politics. I had to bring that culture into my home so that my child will could know for sure. That, I not only supported in words, but that my life embodied it and teachers have to do that as well.

LaWanda: Yeah.

Helen: What are some of the techniques you've used to help your son feel seen at home and that other parents, particularly if they're parents of students who've recently came out, might be able to use and then the flip side of at school?

Jodie Patterson: I think the first thing that I did that was like a milestone that just really changed the game was I said yes to Penelope. I just said yes, and I didn't even know what yes fully meant, but I said, yes, I'm with you. I will help you and I believe you. So, that just that affirmation of yes, with no caveat is the biggest first step. And then, the next thing I think parents can do is share that information with the people that we love. So, I said to Penelope, now that I understand you're a boy, I will tell the world. And, the world, it meant, grandpa, grandma, teachers, principals our world that was slightly outside of our home. Because, if we keep it as a secret, it feels still awkward. It feels still painful. I think the next third step is parents, we have to step in front of our children, in this moment. So, and I'll explain that.

So most of our parenting, we know what to do first and we're doing it and it's something we've done over and over again. Then, our child says I'm trans or I'm not a girl. I'm a boy. And, we get totally turned upside down and we think, God, how can I even lead in this moment? Well, we still have to lead in many ways and so that, for me, that looked like when Penelope went to his first day of school, met teachers for the first time, went to a play date, met other people for them, I was always there first and foremost or in front of him. And so, I would introduce him and I would introduce us as a trans family. So he didn't have to have that awkward moment of having to initiate his own self.

I would explain to people who we are as a family, that we are a trans family, and I would see what their response was and if they didn't accept us, I would leave and go someplace else. So, I think parents had to be brave enough to walk into spaces before their children do, their LGBT children. So, that we can make sure those spaces are safe and that takes a lot of effort going into classrooms, first meeting with all the teachers. But, if we are asking our children to be brave, we ourselves have to be brave and I think it also shows our child that we aren't ashamed of it. And then, I think as parents, we have to force the conversation. It's really easy to hide behind the fear of being different or the fear of change or the fear of what does this mean about our family, or the fear of it being inappropriate.

But I think as parents, we have to force the conversation. So at dinner time, I got in the word transgender, like 10 times. I always brought up because, now 10 years later, people say the word transgender much more fluidly, but 10 years ago it was almost like a taboo word. So I said it a lot at the dinner table. I forced the conversation with my friends. I forced the conversation at work. If someone at work said how's it going today? I would say it's interesting. It's been a rough day. My child is transgender, which means I have to, and then I would give them what the day looked like. So, I think parents have to force the conversation in their communities.

And then, the last thing I'll say, which is really a fun activity, if your children are small and you're still reading stories. It's a great place to insert new stories. So my mom would always remix the classics to resemble African-American culture. So Rapunzel had corn rows, all of the Kings and princes were black with dark skin and Afros. And so, now with my children, they were young. I would remix them, the heroes and heroines were black, but also LGBTQAI+. So, within these classic stories that every human relates to, we have to insert our children. And I just call it remixing the classics.

Ellen Kahn: Yeah. I love that. There are books like King and King that are just fun children's books that happen to have a King and King as their characters instead of a King and queen, reflecting what the world really looks like. Kids don't really have any concerns about that. They might just ask some questions like why does that King, have a sword in the other one doesn't? Like, they're not even noticing that it's a King and King.

I remember, when marriage equality became the law of the land, suddenly, schools across the country in conservative and progressive areas realize that they actually have to acknowledge that two women could get married and two men can get married. So how do you have this conversation? And, we actually created, co-branded a resource with the NEA, titled who can marry whom? Because, it was suddenly the adults knew they were going to get questions. So when a kid says, oh, a girl can't marry a girl. There's your teachable moment. What do you say? And, those teachable moments come up at the dinner table. They come up in the classroom. It could be, why is that boy wearing a pink shirt? The better equipped we are as the adults to facilitate, a learning moment, or to interrupt, something that's misunderstood by a young person, for example.

Again, with the language that makes sense for, you know, if it's a five-year-old versus 10 or 15 year old, those conversations are very different, obviously.

Jodie Patterson: Ellen, you just reminded me. So in, you know, as, as our kids get older, it's hard, it's sometimes it's harder to insert ourselves in their space, because teenagers across the board don't want their parents, you know, to be so involved, but my kids are, my kids are getting there. They're 11, 13, 14, right? Those are the ones that are still home. And, when we're talking about, you know, our kids listening to things that might be, or watching things that might be homophobic or transphobic or racist, I think it's unrealistic to say that we will ban that song or that movie, because they'll just watch it without us oftentimes.

But what I do, which I think has been pretty productive, we, we blast the music in the car and oftentimes the music is transphobic or, sexist. And then, I dissect the transphobia and I dissect the, the, the sexism and I ask them, so wait, is the B, am I a B? Or, is your father the n-word? Is your principal, like, what are these words actually mean? And, they get so frustrated at first, by the laying it all on the table that we end up having a pretty robust conversation. It, it becomes pretty comedic and then they go, you know what, let's just turn this off and they end up turning off the transphobic and the homophobic and the sexist music.

So I think teachers can also use the same technique of putting it on the table, figuring out what's taboo. and then, and then speaking to those very issues.

Ellen Kahn: Yeah. Here here!

LaWanda:  Ellen and Jodie, you have given us so many gifts during this conversation. I know that we will definitely be having more conversations around this topic. Thank you so much for all you've shared with us and our listeners.. Out of everything we've discussed today, what is the one thing families should walk away from today's episode?

Ellen Kahn: I would say it's not only okay to talk about LGBTQ people and topics. It's really important to talk about LGBTQ and LGBTQ topics.

Jodie Patterson: Ditto on that.

I've had that question come up a lot recently. Like what can we do, as hetero or Cis allies? and I said, well, just don't keep us invisible, bring us to the table. Talk about a conversation you've heard on this podcast, read a book, share the book that I've written, The Bold World, which is about my experience  understanding trans identities, and like Ellen said, talk about a trans person. Talk about an LGBTQAI community, put a name to it, tell a story around it, ask the questions so that, our worlds aren't so far apart. I would love for us to, as parents and as caregivers, really start to think about how to bridge worlds and also how to see our blind spots, like ask yourself what haven't you seen and then try to uncover that.

[00:38:54] LaWanda: Oh, so much, I love it. What are your social media handles, and where can listeners go to learn more about you and your work, Ellen and Jodie?

Jodie Patterson: I am on Instagram a lot of the time, and I am Jodie Patterson and my website is jodiepatterson.com.

LaWanda: And Ellen?

[00:39:22] Ellen Kahn: Folks can reach me through HRC. My name and email address are on the HRC staff list,

Helen: And that website is, for our listeners, hrc.org.

Ellen Kahn: Yeah. hrc.org. And you can look by topic or a particular resource you're looking for. Welcomingschools.org is, is a really great place to go for anything related to supporting LGBTQ students across the K through 12 continuum.

Helen: Great. Well, we want to just thank you both Ellen and Jodie for taking some of your time today and just sharing your advice and your personal journey. Thank you for joining us.

Jodie Patterson: Thank you for having us.

Ellen Kahn: It's a pleasure

Helen: And audience listening, thank you for joining us before you go, we want to remind you to please rate and review the podcast, your reviews and ratings, help others find our show and we love hearing from you.

As always more resources related to today's episode can be accessed at notesfromthebackpack.com and please tune in next time.




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