11/01/2011 03:14 pm ET Updated Jan 01, 2012

The Problem with "Girls Only"

This summer I mobilized the Survival Girls, a theater group for refugee girls from Congo in a Nairobi slum, and witnessed the profound power of healing a space designated "girls only" gave to them. Thing is, as a writer, I obsess probably too much about words. And I -- the same person who founded a group for young refugee women with "girls" in its very title -- have trouble with terminology like "girls only." There are a ton of young people left out by language that perpetuates the gender binary, and I'd like to see the conversation about international development reflect that fact more than it has.

I acknowledge there's a great deal of cultural backlash against folks who feel or act on sexual or romantic attraction to people anatomically similar to them, and that this is a profoundly complex issue especially in cultures with a strong tie between church and state. I don't mean to trivialize that or label it with a blanket judgment. I just know that humanity has never seen such a rapid global re-organization as that which has recently unfolded (and continues to unfold), and I continually wonder what the advent of technology that enables an unprecedentedly inclusive, international conversation makes possible, especially for youth. We don't need any more murders/suicides of adolescents who identify as anything from "homosexual" to "bi-curious" in response to MySpace bullying here in the United States to consider actively and well how desolate, how lonely, it is for any young person anywhere in the world who doesn't quite fit -- and how the emergent frameworks of our global society might address that in new ways.

The Internet and social media have done more than literally revolutionize revolutions in Africa and elsewhere; they have rendered bullying easier to do anonymously, incisively, indelibly, and instantly. (They have also rendered support, solidarity, a more democratic access to information and other hopeful processes just as fingertip-ready.) This isn't breaking news; Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" campaign is out there now. So is Anderson Cooper's focus on bullying in some of his recent programming. This very Friday in Washington, DC, Monique Coleman, a High School Musical celebrity and the UN's first Youth Champion, will speak at a TEDx event about the engagement and social change that media makes possible for youth. It's about time we stopped wringing our hands at behavioral and attention-span-related changes in youth brought about by new technology, and started working with those changes by treating them as fertile givens that can improve the quality of life for a generation that thinks globally rather than as threats or purely negative influences.

Social media isn't going anywhere. It's here, it's changing governments as much as it's changing homerooms, and it's the new town square, the most public space we've got. Youth now manage and maintain their own public images at as early as elementary school age. Simultaneously, cultural and political frameworks are dissolving and reforming beneath our feet partly as a result of these developments in technology, from imprisoned bloggers to live-tweeting government take-downs. As long as we're in that time of rapidly-shifting organization, a conversation around international development made unprecedentedly dynamic and inclusive by the use of Twitter and Facebook, how can we consciously allow for the youth on our planet -- who make up over half the human population -- and the pains and needs particular to them?

One of the great gifts of a period of upheaval and uncertainty is, in the words of a CEO in Manhattan I overheard once, "The opportunity cost of pursuing our dreams has just fallen." In the words of Jill Irwin, "It's a wide-open time for creative thinkers." Well, as long as that's the case, what about things we've never thought about seriously before (or been able to effectively and sustainably implement strategies and efforts in response to thinking about), like safe space for youth who identify somewhere between widely constructed gender roles? Most of all, what can be done to change our worldview so as not to conceptualize these questions as only those asked by the comparatively peaceful developed countries more likely to allow for "wayward youths"?

I've said already that I consider the concept of safe space to be essential to the development of new democracies precisely because the future leaders of those very societies have often experienced trauma as a result of the strife and war likely to occur in "third world" countries. I've also said that a sense of being located--which social media, as a community former, can help to give--is extremely important to the healthy development of a human brain, and essential to the recovery from trauma the majority of young people on the planet do and will need in their movements forward as citizens and co-planners of newly forming societies.

What I haven't said is how worried and sad I feel for the young men who surely exist in that Nairobi slum where I worked with the Survival Girls, young men scarred and wounded and ashamed of their sexual feelings for men and/or of their experience with sexual violence at the hands of other men. What about them? There are youth that my "Girls Only" project left behind, probably youth of all anatomical persuasions. If they had access to MySpace and school dorms, and their roommates wrote nasty things about their "dirty little secret," would they hang themselves, like our precious adolescents have been doing here in the land of the free? I wonder about the extremely difficult, heartbreaking and hopeful sociopolitical period in which we find ourselves. How far can we go to acknowledge the needs of marginalized, voiceless demographics as we re-imagine our own society, in Zuccotti Park and in our lesson plans? I wonder how possible it is to identify and act according to the needs of vulnerable populations, hopefully (as is the goal of development work) empowering citizens in other societies to do that re-imagining with each other. It's a tall order, but there are not only more youth to do it, but there are more tools at their disposal to do it than ever before.