As service providers, we can be part of improving the safety of LGBTQ communities by ensuring access to the basic human rights of housing, health care, and necessary supports.
The country is still reeling from the Pulse Nightclub shooting last weekend that left 49 people dead and many others injured. As we mourn the lives that were taken and for those families and communities that will forever be impacted, it is important to remember this tragedy is one event in a long history of violence against a specific community, and to recognize the trauma many of those who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) face on a daily basis.
People who identify as LGBTQ are disproportionately at-risk of experiencing violence—childhood abuse, sexual assault, intimate partner violence, harassment by law enforcement officers, and hate crimes. This is especially true for people who are trans-identified. In addition, members of this community are disproportionately affected by poverty and more likely to experience homelessness than others in our society.
The risk of violence and homelessness is increased for sub-groups of the LGBTQ community with intersecting vulnerabilities like youth, women, or people of color. Despite being only 5% of the total population, between 20-40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ. One recent study from Georgia State University found that over 28% of homeless and runaway youth in the metro-Atlanta area self-identify as LGBTQ. Among the victims of LGBTQ hate crimes resulting in homicide, people of color are disproportionately impacted. This is represented by the fact that the Pulse Nightclub shooting took place on Latin Night.
The pain of this moment highlights the need for competent services for the LGBTQ community in homeless and allied social services. We have a responsibility to create safety and security for the most vulnerable members in our communities. But, our organizations and programs are often not structured to sufficiently meet the needs of LGBTQ participants. In shelters and service programs, clients are often turned away, unable to express their identity, or not offered appropriate services. As service providers, we can be part of improving the safety of LGBTQ communities by ensuring access to the basic human rights of housing, health care, and necessary supports. Increasingly, there are discussions happening about how agencies and service providers can be more inclusive and supportive of people who identify as LGBTQ. For instance, the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force teamed up to create Transitioning Our Shelters, a guide for making homeless shelters safe for people who are trans-identified.
This symbol can be used to indicate that your office is a safe(r) space
Improving the ability of service providers to meet the distinct needs of LGBTQ participants begins with education. Staff and participants alike should be continually trained in cultural competency around LGBTQ issues. We should recognize that our words can be harmful. To avoid that, staff can use inclusive language (e.g. partner instead of husband/wife or boyfriend/girlfriend) and differentiate between sexual orientation and gender identity. We should ask people in our programs about their gender identity and allow them to identify this for themselves. Respect is then further reflected by using people’s appropriate pronouns and chosen names. We should not ignore when LGBTQ participants experience harassment from other participants in our programs but instead encourage respect as part of being a good neighbor and community member. We can make our services more welcoming to LGBTQ participants by offering gender-neutral or single-stall bathrooms in our facilities and simply having honest conversations with these participants about what we can do to increase their sense of safety in our programs. We can also partner with LGBTQ organizations for help with questions and additional resources. This is only a sampling of some of the things we can do to make our agencies and programs more inclusive.
In addition, we should hire people in our organizations who identify as LGBTQ. I am a homeless service provider and an ally of the LGBTQ community. But, without the lived experience of homelessness or identifying as LGBTQ, my ability to understand is limited. Hiring people who identify as LGBTQ and formerly homeless reflects a desire to be representative of the communities we serve and provide spaces where they can feel safer.
The LGBTQ community is vulnerable but strong. One example of the community’s resiliency is the Transgender Housing Network. This group maintains a website that is a temporary housing network connecting trans people with safe and supportive places to stay. Similarly, RAD Remedy is a new website linking people who are trans, gender non-conforming, intersex, and queer to safe and respectful healthcare services. These groups are responding to an unjust system that limits the ability of people who are trans to access adequate housing and healthcare. These are true examples of harm reduction—a community of people exposed to risk and responding in a way to make themselves safer. But the LGBTQ community should not have to do this work alone. Service providers should figure out how to join the efforts that this community is already making to gain security. As programs and agencies committed to social justice, we are all allies in the fight for LGBTQ inclusion and protection.