04/10/2014 12:36 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

4 Key Ways to Make a Safe Environment for LGBTQ Youth

In my work as a sexuality educator, I have daily opportunities to help young people learn skills that will help them make good decisions. I have also had the privilege of working with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning (LGBTQ) identified youth, their families and their teachers to create both programs and spaces that support and affirm LGBTQ young people. I am humbled by what I am constantly learning from working with youth who often deal with a lack of understanding and support around their identity and needs.

I didn't grow up with a true understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity. If you told 15-year-old Alison that she'd be training teachers on these topics, she wouldn't have believed you. Growing up, my schools and community made heterosexuality appear to be required. When some of my friends started coming out in high school, I had so little information about what it meant to be LGBTQ that I didn't know how to react or what to do. I made the decision to be the best friend I could by listening and learning. What I learned helped lead me do the work I do today. I'd like to share a few key lessons I've learned that can help potential allies affirm LGBTQ youth and promote healthy sexuality.

  1. Listen to young people. As adults, we often think we know better. We've "been there, done that" so we feel comfortable telling youth what their experiences are and what they should do. This is referred to as "adultism." In my role at Planned Parenthood Keystone, I oversee three weekly programs that serve LGBTQ youth and the guiding philosophy is to create a space where all voices matter and are heard. Creating that space helps to ensure that we are meeting the needs of the youth in our programs ... It also builds a sense of empowerment and self-efficacy- both tools that assist young people in making healthy choices.
  2. Learn more about sexual orientation and gender identity. LGBTQ identified youth shouldn't have to educate everyone in their life (parents, family, friends, teachers, etc.) about being LGBTQ. You can gain a world of information by reading books, attending trainings, and having open discussions. It is also easy to get resources through organizations, such as PFLAG and the Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network, which exist to support the LGBTQ community.
  3. Provide sexuality education that is inclusive. Comprehensive sexuality education is so important for all young people. Information about their bodies, pregnancy prevention, sexually transmitted infection prevention, consent and healthy relationships are key components of healthy development. Too often I hear from LGBTQ youth that they feel ignored when it comes to these topics. Ironically LGBTQ youth are often left out of discussions about sexual violence even though sexual violence disproportionately impacts the LGBTQ community. Make sure that what is being taught addresses the needs of your students regardless of their orientation or gender identity.
  4. Be an adult ally. Take what you learn from listening to youth and put it into action. Be an adult who advocates for safe spaces, policies that meet the needs of all youth, comprehensive sexuality education, and inclusive curricula. Don't fall into the trap of "adultism." If you aren't sure where to begin, there are many resources available to help you become an adult ally.

I am truly grateful for all the young people who have taught me so much over the years. The reward in doing this work lies not only in seeing youth thrive and succeed, but also in knowing that we are working towards a future where all of our young people feel safe, supported and heard.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center in conjunction with Sexual Assault Awareness Month. To learn more about the NSVRC and how you can help prevent sexual violence, visit here. Read all posts in the series here.