By Laura Shiels
LGBTQ2S+ Natural Supports Worker at the Centre for Sexuality, Calgary
As the LGBTQ2S+ Natural Supports Worker at the Centre for Sexuality in Calgary, I support youth and their caregivers throughout the “coming out” process, the majority of which are looking for help supporting their gender questioning or gender diverse kid.
Although I work with families from all walks of life, they reach out with similar concerns and questions. For me, this points to a larger cultural issue whereby families have limited access to information on sexual and gender diversity. Caregivers reach out for support with a strong willingness to learn but often feel overwhelmed by not knowing where to start. Many complain that their Google searches left them with more questions than answers.
In pop-culture and mainstream media, there often exists a single story of what life may be like for LGBTQ2S+ identifying people. Unfortunately, this story is often sensationalized and depicts a lot of hardship and pain. For many members of the LGBTQ2S+ community this does not ring true and having a strong network of natural supports can help when LGBTQ2S+ people do encounter discrimination.
While professionals are sometimes essential in the lives of vulnerable youth, in practice it is rare that service providers spend time linking youth to the people that are core in their lives, their natural supports. Many of the clients I support are biological parents, but natural supports can also be any caregivers in a young person’s life who are not paid professionals. This can include adoptive or foster parents, peers, family friends, neighbours, and extended family to name a few.
For many people, turning to those who care for us may feel like common sense but (often unintentionally) service providers will refer clients to other professional services and forget to link natural supports back in as one of the resources available to youth.
For LGBTQ2S+ youth, this is particularly important. Through research done by the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University, we’ve learned that family acceptance has a profound impact on youth’s wellbeing. Additionally, their research found that family rejection can play a role in increasing a young person’s risks for physical or mental health problems moving forward.
Some of the most common concerns I hear from families are around if this could be a phase in their child’s life. In my work, I take a gender affirming approach which means I do not have an agenda, goal in mind, or end point I am trying to steer a youth toward. Instead, I ask questions for reflection, provide education on sexual and gender diversity, and work on strengthening the supports around the youth to support their wellbeing. While a youth is going through this process it can help caregivers to know what to expect and to follow the lead of the youth to see how additional reflection aids in their sense of self identification.
Our support for caregivers is to acknowledge this is also a process for them. Caregivers often express challenges in consistently using their child’s new name or pronouns as the old ones may carry sentimental value for many families. It is okay to struggle and have feelings about this. This can be an opportunity to turn toward a caregiver’s own natural supports to help process those feelings while practicing using these new pronouns in front of the youth.
No one has to do this alone and caregiver’s natural supports are just as important as the youth’s.
If you’re a caregiver of a youth who has recently come out, reach out to your network of supports, listen to your child, follow their lead, and try to educate yourself on sexual and gender diversity to strengthen the supports in your child’s life.
Centre for Sexuality is a community-based organization delivering programs and services to support healthy sexuality across the lifespan. Our work includes sexual health education in schools, client counseling and specialized programming for specific populations. For over 46 years we have provided relevant, impactful programming to youth which puts us in a unique position to understand the specific needs of diverse populations. A core part of our work is ensuring that LGBTQ2S+ youth can thrive in schools and communities throughout their lives. Through the support of the United Way of Calgary and Area, we were part of initial work in Calgary that focused on natural supports, and they continue to fund us to work with LGBTQ2S+ youth and their families or other caregivers.