Sexuality is rarely a comfortable topic of conversation for large groups. But, as educators and medical professionals meet more teens who find themselves somewhere “in between” on the spectrum of both gender identity and sexual orientation, they sense the importance of understanding the terminology, the science, and the feelings that can become bottled up in youths questioning their gender and identity, as well as the family members who want most of all for their children to be safe.
Approximately 60 people from a variety of backgrounds participated in the annual conference of the Susquehanna County Coalition for the Prevention of Child Abuse held on Thursday, Nov. 7, at American Legion Post 154 at Elk Lake. The topic this year was “Sexual Identity in This Day and Age.”
Audience members included school guidance counselors, parents of LGBTQ children, mental health advocates and other members of the medical community, and licensed counselors who work with youths on a daily basis.
Goals of the conference included recognizing the challenges and identifying the gaps between the LGBTQ community and resources available to them, understanding the gender role impact on mental health and suicidal ideation in youths, and sharing the struggles and successes of LGBTQ families through their journeys and experiences.
“What really opened my eyes was when I heard the people who were attending talking about Scranton like I talk about Philadelphia as that golden land of resources and connections,” said Karen Waldeck, a “parent warrior” for the Rainbow Alliance, who served as a presenter. “I realize that, when you reach up into the rural areas like Susquehanna County, Scranton becomes that place for resources and connections.”
Waldeck is the mother of a transgender daughter who has been out to her family since she was 15, though her identity conflicts preceded that. Waldeck now works with other parents who are struggling with their own reactions, including grief. Without adequate resources, she related, the stress can be devastating to a family.
“The parents work through their emotions in front of the youths, and the kids are struggling,” said Waldeck. “It’s not their fault. It’s just a lack of resources.”
“We do have limited resources up here, and we want to know what’s available to our students,” said Laurie Papi, one of three counselors from the Montrose School District in attendance. Among the shared goals of Papi and fellow school counselors Joan Roche and Angela Nebzydoski was to better understand the terminology as they encounter an increasing number of students who mature under the LGBTQ umbrella.
“This is something new for me as well – learning how people want to be identified,” Janine Fortney, director at the Children’s Center for Susquehanna and Wyoming Counties, stated in her opening remarks to the audience.
School can become an especially intimidating place for LGBTQ youths and presenters conceded that “coming out” is just as difficult for youths today as it was 20 or 30 years ago when these conversations began. Jessica Lohman-Peters, director of the Women’s Counseling Center of Columbia and Montour counties, suggested that the instances of bullying and verbal abuse of LGBTQ students had changed little since studies began in the 1990s. Most alarming, she suggested, was the statistic that more than 50 percent of the students surveys reported overhearing a teacher or other faculty member using derogatory terms in reference to LGBTQ youths.
Lohman-Peters did her best to simplify an expanding vocabulary of pronouns and other terms used within the LGBTQ community. Despite her many years in the field, she admitted that she is sometimes caught off guard by an evolving expression. “It’s OK to not know all these terms,” she stated. “The only way you’re ever going to learn more is to ask about it.” In fact, Lohman-Peters maintained, an LGBTQ individual is more likely to be offended by an assumption of pronoun use or gender identity than by somebody asking what pronouns they prefer.
Sexual orientation – the type of person to which one is attracted – and gender identity – the type of person with whom one person identifies – are not equal, though both can be fluid and changing among youths, said Lohman-Peters. Teens that appear to be “questioning” these aspects of their lives are as unsure of sexual feelings as with many other pressing issues by which they are confronted.
Developing confidence and expressing who one really is, commonly known as “coming out,” can be a long and difficult process, she explained. “The goal of educators and those who work with youths is to help them feel more comfortable,” Lohman-Peters remarked.
Joel Brecht, a counselor for Community Care Behavioral Health, was one of two presenters who focused on mental health and the suicide rate among LGBTQ youths and services available to them. Statistics produced by the National LGBT Health Education Center suggest that suicidal thoughts and attempts run four to five times higher among gay youths and twice that among trans teens. Victimization, isolation from family and peers, and substance use disorders are contributing factors.
Brecht is also the state trainer for Keystone Pride Recovery Initiative, the goals of which include addressing common mistakes in therapy, identifying suicide and health disparities that include psychiatric and substance abuse risk, and trauma-informed care for mental health professionals.
Conferences like the one on Nov. 7 give him an opportunity to educate the general public and teach them how to create welcoming environments free of stigma and discrimination, both key factors in suicide risk, he explained.
As the parent of a trans daughter, Waldeck cites an ongoing stigma among the broader culture, with many assuming that if trans kids are suicidal, there must be something wrong with them. “There’s nothing different about these kids, but there’s a lot that’s different in how culture and the community treat them,” she offered. “Once they have an adult in the community who sees them for who they are, their suicide rates are no higher than anybody else’s. All that self-loathing can go away.” Research is showing, Waldeck added, that it only takes one adult, and it doesn’t have to be a parent.
Waldeck related that she left the conference feeling revitalized in her efforts to provide help for people who do not have ready access to LGBTQ services. “I was really struck by how great the need is in rural areas,” she stated.
Waldeck related that she is not one to ever believe that goals have been met, but she felt that the efforts of the Susquehanna County Coalition for the Prevention of Child Abuse were productive and needed.
“It was a step on that path,” said Waldeck of the dialog about sexual identity of youths. “Despite what you see in the culture, the reason-based world has never been more attuned to the fact that this is just a human variation.”