By Ty David Lerman, MA, LPC, CHt
I have always had a passion and vision to work with adults, so when I was asked to work with children while getting a master’s degree, the answer was an easy “nope.”
This memory has proven to be one of those moments where we humbly swallow our words and play it off as though it never happened. The truth was they – the children – scared me. Young impressionable children and youth who latch on to every word I said. Words to be challenged, repeated, and sometimes thrown back at me? This did not sound like my idea of fun. I was also under the false impression that youth, due to all sorts of reasons, were not insightful enough to make any real change for themselves. Ha! It’s almost humorous looking back, knowing just how wrong I was.
One of my colleagues and I started the first semester of the Safe Zone’s Project in 2010. Our mission was to facilitate peer support groups for self-identifying LGBTIQ students; to present real and relevant information; and, to provide a safe zone (see what we did there?) for the youth to talk about topics free from any discrimination. Despite my initial misgivings, these very quickly became favorite groups.
There were a few things that surprised me almost from day one. I was wrong – oh so very wrong – to have ever thought that these young adults were not insightful. They were, at times, more insightful than some adults. And they were honest. Now, don’t get me wrong, they are teenagers and just because they are LGBTIQ, does not make them exempt from stretching the truth. But when it came to talking about their feelings about being marginalized, their fears of rejection, bullying, discrimination, peer pressure, lack of sex education, safety, dating, insecurities, uncertainty about the future – they spoke it like it was. I was floored by their candidness; and this, perhaps more than any other reason, is why they won my heart over so quickly. They were raw.
I also learned the perseverance of the age. Many students are dealing with very real stressors of teen pregnancy, being HIV positive, domestic violence and verbal abuse, religious guilt and confusion, substance abuse and even addiction – to name just a few. Add on top of those issues the standard pressures of being, or questioning being, a member of the LGBTIQ community, family pressure, and discrimination from peers, teachers and admin, and we’re past the threshold of stress where many adults would have imploded. They frequently have nowhere to turn, no one to talk to, and yet continue on. They continue to fight for what they want, and refuse to allow themselves to be labeled and boxed into a stereotype. The resiliency of our youth is astonishing, and gives me hope for future advocates of the equality movement.
The third lesson they taught me, and I grew to lean on, was the very thing I initially feared – they listened. My students were hungry for real information. They earnestly wanted to hear about the Stonewall Riots of ’69, they wanted to know why there is still a stigma against bisexuals even within the gay community, they wanted to know how they could adopt a baby with their future partner, how they could possibly be out in the workplace, how they could find support when they move on to college, and most of all they wanted to know they would be all right. They needed to know that it did, in fact, get better.
The past three years of working in the Safe Zone Project have proven to be a time of growth for me as a clinician, and as a person. I only hope the youth have learned a fraction of what I have learned from them. If the youth I’ve spent time with over are any indication, it can’t help but get better – way WAY better.