Starting a Safe Space for LGBTQ Youth
Starting a Safe Space for LGBTQ Youth in a Church or Faith Community
Congratulations on considering starting a program for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning and allied youth at your community of faith! The alphabet soup, LGBTQA, is a way to try to be as inclusive as possible when referring to people with marginalized sexual orientations and/or gender identities. Labels are never a good idea, but the idea of starting a safe space, a supportive place – now that IS a good idea! And it’s easier than you think.
The founders of OUTreach (see their message below) had a vision – a safe place where any youth could feel accepted. That vision has grown from a small social justice program of a local church (albeit an exceptional local church!) into an independent non-profit with a full-time director. It has been a journey that the founders gladly will tell you about, but you have your own journey that will fit your community and the youth and adults you seek to serve.
You have the best ideas – maybe a combination of these ideas, perhaps something new and different entirely. What is most important is your passion to help those LGBTQ youth who often don’t know even one supportive adult (over 60%). Your faith community might be the catalyst for offering hope, for providing resources or to provide information about resources – that keeps a youth in school, gives awareness of college opportunities – or may even save lives. This passion must be exceeded only by safety – safety for the youth you serve, and also for your volunteers and faith community. There are best practices (you can read about them at http://www.lgbtcenters.org/) and you can modify what OUTreach has used successfully for seven years. This document will describe the OUTreach model and some options you might want to consider.
Is it worth it? The youth agree that it is, and volunteers and the sponsoring church community say that being a part of OUTreach has been a highlight in their lives.
Want to get started? Read on, and know that CenterLink is available for you and that the staff and founders of OUTreach want to help you succeed as well. We are available as a resource for your questions, to share our materials as templates for your own, and perhaps most important, to tell you that what you are doing is some of the most important, most gratifying work you can imagine.
Executive Director, OUTreach
ogdenoutreach.org and on facebook: Ogden OUTreach
OUTreach Resource Center
OUTreach was conceived as social justice program by the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ogden. It started small, a support group for youth in a borrowed office space. It has evolved to become a LGBT Center, a place where youth can find a variety of classes, activities, support network, referral for medical and legal help, educational resources, on-site professional counseling, and more.
Keep in mind, this model is scalable:
- You can have annual or twice yearly events, perhaps social “mixers” where youth can come together for an event such as a movie night, bowling party, community meal, Pride Prom, etc.;
- Your organization could begin a support group for LGBTQA (or “queer/questioning”) youth that would meet periodically;
- You could open a few rooms of your church building to youth as a resource center, outfitted with literature, supportive adults, perhaps even supplies and referral information for homeless youth;
- You could open your church as a regional meeting place for local GSAs (gay-straight alliance groups), or perhaps offer to host a community GSA if your local schools aren’t hosting them yet;
- Your church could host a monthly event for LGBTQA youth and friends, such as an open mic night.
From the founders of OUTreach
In 2004 our Unitarian Universalist Church of Ogden realized there was no place for gay youth to discuss their sexual orientation and be authentic. We decided to open a center for gay youth. This is different from an after-school program - parents do not have to sign a permission slip for their children to attend. This is important since not all youth are out to their families.
We applied for a grant from the UU Funding Program: www.uua.org/giving/funding/102184.shtml. The UU Funding Program awarded us $20,000 of which $5,000 was a challenge grant. To get the latter, we had to raise a matching amount. With this first year’s money we wrote a position description for a part-time director, interviewed candidates, hired the director, and opened our doors in Jan. 2005. Our program did not take off until our church bought a huge building and gave us free space for our office, and free use of the fellowship hall, kitchen and living room, as well as financial support. This was essential since we had no rent money. You can watch a video about how OUTreach came to be here: www.uua.org/lgbt/stories/159626.shtml
We now belong to CenterLink which is an umbrella organization of 100 LGBT centers such as ours. Their Executive Director, Terry Stone, recently facilitated our annual retreat. We realized that he has a wealth of information on all topics, including how to get started. He has the experience of dozens of us and welcomes inquiries; we strongly recommend being in touch with him.
Terry Stone, CenterLink: The Community of LGBT Centers
P O Box 24490, Fort Lauderdale, FL 33307-4490
We wish you the best in your endeavor which will change your lives for the better.
From the Unitarian Universalist Association’s office of LGBT Ministries
Thank you for your interest in creating an intentional LGBT youth ministry initiative! The liberal religious tradition is affirmed every time another congregation responds to the needs of those who are most marginalized in our society. As the skyrocketing rates of bullying, suicide, and homelessness among queer and transgender youth attest to, ministry for and with queer and trans youth is a vital service.
Congregations everywhere are asking the question: How can we make a difference? And where do we start? There are lots of ways to be involved, and no matter your size, denominational affiliation, or capacity, you can be a presence in your community on this issue.
Here at the national headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist denomination we receive a lot of questions from people wanting guidance, and we have identified some best practices and strategies to share.
Strategies for getting started:
- Identify allies in the work, inside and outside your congregation
- Get congregational support and buy-in
- Do a worship service on the topic, or a congregational discussion, or an event.
- Engage intentionally with whether this topic is a good fit for your congregation. Avoid working at cross-purposes or competing for resources with other social justice causes.
- Find out who else is doing related work in your community, state, and/or region
- Identify other faith groups doing LGBT youth ministry and local LGBT organizations, Gay-Straight Alliances, and others doing education and service around youth bullying, suicide, and homelessness.
- UUs, be in touch with your district staff, particularly those in charge of Lifespan Faith Development and/or Youth Programming.
- Build and maintain relationships with these folks and organizations! Find out what’s needed and how you can be of service.
- Engage in discernment and work in collaboration with community members, groups, and leaders
- Host a community forum on LGBT youth bullying, suicide, and/or homelessness.
- Do a needs assessment in partnership with any organizations that work with youth in your area.
- Attend events hosted by organizations and groups doing related work.
Best practices for creating a healthy initiative:
- Involve your congregation’s youth in the planning and leadership of the initiative
- Partner with at least one local LGBT organization
- You may be able to arrange for your program’s volunteers to be trained by your partner LGBT organization.
- Talk with other congregations and organizations around the country that have similar initiatives
- Have a leadership body proportional to the scope of your initiative
- For an ambitious initiative like a resource center or regular safe space, a steering committee works best.
- Create a leadership body inclusive of community members as well as congregation members, and also inclusive of youth.
- Maintain relationships with professionals who can offer guidance and support around pastoral care issues for queer and trans youth in crisis
- Queer and trans youth are disproportionately affected by a host of difficulties and risks and often have particular needs. Be prepared in advance.
- Do related educational programming / Welcoming Congregation work as a congregation
- Help your congregation gain greater understanding and awareness of the experiences of queer and trans youth through events, congregational discussions, and more.
- Doing LGBT youth ministry may well bring more lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people of all ages to your worship services. Expect this and value the opportunity for greater welcome and inclusion.
Thank you again for your interest in doing this vital, life-affirming work! The Unitarian Universalist Association is also here as a resource for you—please visit www.uua.org/lgbt and feel free to come to us with your questions, to connect with other congregations around this issue, and to share your story. We look forward to hearing from you.
Useful information and important elements to consider
Below you’ll find information and ideas from OUTreach’s experience as a resource center offering safe space programs. We hope the below is useful to you as you explore what your program will look like.
The best way to determine what programming to offer is to ask the youth and listen to their answers. If you wish to plan ahead, some favorites are: terminology (what does each letter in LGBTQA mean?); gender diversity and culture; current events (youth are far more aware of what happens in the world and care far more than adults realize); check-in/support groups (no “therapy”, simply talking about life and being supportive of each other); cooking together; crafts and activities; GSA support (making posters, planning activities, etc.); guest ministers from local Welcoming Congregations; guest speakers on LGBT life after high school, transgender issues, etc. You may consider doing a needs assessment to determine what programs would be popular.
Teens who are LGBT often have poorer outcomes educationally. Bullying, violence and homophobic actions and comments lead to days missed from school, higher dropout rates and fewer college admissions than for the general teen population. What to do? One inexpensive, effective strategy is simply having accessible information about college and financial aid options, as well as referrals for information on how to complete high school. A local university might have education/school counseling students available to tutor youth and local high schools and colleges will have free materials. A local high school might have a Gay-Straight Alliance or a LGBT-friendly counselor who could put together a presentation for youth.
You may be asked for help in finding a safe, affirming mental health professionals, physicians, HIV and STD testing, legal aid, etc. Ask around and have a list available, and keep adding to it. Make sure the professionals are safe and affirming. It’s also a good idea to keep a list on hand of local, LGBT-welcoming congregations of different denominations.
A non-negotiable is safety. Your faith community should already have in place procedures for background checks for staff and child care/education volunteers. These may be sufficient or may need to be supplemented. Your insurance company should also be consulted to ensure that there is adequate coverage for your activities.
Volunteers may be part of the support system, may provide food, lead activities, check in/out youth at the door, be available as a mentor, and ensure safety. They are not babysitters, therapists or case workers, but adults who are supportive, affirming and persons who would know where to refer youth to for help (i.e., show the youth where the information is located in the center, refer to a designated volunteer who compiles and maintains referral information).
If you are able to provide hot food, perhaps a dinner or healthy snacks and beverages, it will be not only a draw for youth, but may be the only quality nutrition they receive during the week. Some convenience stores will donate “write-offs” – sandwiches, milk, etc that is fine for consumption but may not be sold. Local grocery stores and restaurants may also be a source of donations.
Furniture and Computers
Donations of both are ideal, but comfort is key. Internet connected computers are very desirable, as is a printer. Some youth will work on their homework at your center if there is sufficient time, others will enjoy surfing the Internet.
There can be trauma associated with figuring out sexual orientation and gender identity, rejection from family and friends, or a host of other issues that are simply part of life and growing up. Having an affirming mental health professional on site and available for counseling is ideal. Some professionals are willing to donate their services, or a local university might designate your center as a place for counseling students to provide a listening ear and to facilitate groups (not provide counseling). If you wish to offer counseling it is very important to work through a licensed, professional therapist and to consult with your insurance company to be sure that your organization is complying with all regulations.
A disproportionate number of youth (24 and under) experiencing homelessness self-identify as LGBT (approximately 40%). The majority of these youth are kicked out of the home because of their identity, and studies show that they fare worse than non-LGBT homeless youth on the streets (violence, sexual exploitation, etc.). Many of these youth feel unsafe to seek assistance or access services. You can help! By having an area with resources that is accessible to everyone, a homeless youth can avoid the shame of having to self-identify to receive help, and then may feel safe enough to follow-up and request additional assistance. What to have on available:
A list of:
- Emergency shelters (check for age ranges, ask around to find how safe they are for queer-looking youth and transgender youth)
- safe places for hot food and supplies
- safe free clinics
- free counselors that specialize in family reconciliation/reunification
80% of youth reunite with their family within a month, either parents or members of an extended family. Often youth need a safe place to be for a short period of time, and help with finding professional counselors who can mediate with family members. Your referrals make a huge difference in the lives of very vulnerable, at-risk youth.
If you have room, have on hand:
- Fresh socks
- Lighters for camp fires
- Water bottles
- Portable, nutritious food
- Blankets (nice to have are air mattresses and pop-up tents)
- Light jackets, hoodies, sweat shirts
- Also helpful: free Internet access; use of a phone
- Compassion and respect and a willingness to listen without trying to solve their problems. Your resources will help them, your role is to be present, safe, and a person who relates to them as a human being without an agenda. Don’t give them money, give them resources and referrals
How OUTreach can help you:
Yours for the asking, templates of forms and documents we have used:
o Sample denominational grant application
o Needs Assessment Template
Volunteer forms, including:
- Volunteer Application
- Volunteer Manual
- Ethics Forms
- Confidentiality Agreement
- Sample Background Check
- Availability Sheet
- Badge Template
- Sign-in Sheet
- Age Policy
- Visitor Form
Note: Be sure to consult your legal counsel and financial advisor. Although we are happy to share forms with you, legal requirement vary from state to state.
And we are always available to answer your questions or to be a sounding board.
The direct line for the Executive Director, Marian Edmonds, is 801-686-4528 or you may email
Family Acceptance Project
Family Acceptance Project (FAP) at SF State University – a research-based education, support and policy initiative that helps ethnically and religiously diverse families – including Latter-day saint families – support their LGBT children in families, schools and faith communities to prevent suicide, substance abuse, HIV, homelessness, school victimization and family disruption. FAP uses a culturally grounded approach that strengthens families and promotes their LGBT children’s well-being. FAP’s family education materials are available online in 3 languages at: http://familyproject.sfsu.edu/publications
Working With Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) Youth and Families
Resources for faith-based affirmation of LGBT persons
Institute for Welcoming Resources(http://www.welcomingresources.org)
A project of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the Institute for Welcoming Resources works toward the goal of facilitating a religious paradigm shift toward welcome and affirmation of all congregants regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity. Their website provides a wealth of resources for people of many faiths on all sorts of issues around sexual orientation and gender identity.
HRC’s Religion and Faith Program (http://www.hrc.org/issues/religion-faith)
HRC seeks to engage all faith traditions in a deeper dialogue on questions of fairness and equality for LGBT Americans. Through initiatives such as Clergy Call for Justice and Equality, a Seminary & Mentorship program and Putting Faith into Action, HRC has been working to build a diverse faith-based movement speaking out for LGBT justice. (http://sites.hrc.org/scripture/)
Soulforce recognizes that oppression is most often rooted in religious belief and ideologies of power in which women, people of color and non-gender conforming (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer) people are subjugated and subjected to the violence of exclusion. We are committed to decriminalization of sexual minorities by all church and state sanctioned organizations worldwide.
Believe Out Loud (http://www.believeoutloud.com/)
A partnership of the country’s leading LGBT advocacy groups, both religious and secular, Believe Out Loud seeks to accelerate the existing Christian movement toward LGBT inclusion and significantly increase the number of local churches and denominations that are fully-inclusive of LGBT individuals, both in practice and policy. In doing so, we seek to create a widespread Christian movement for LGBT equality in the church and in broader society. http://www.believeoutloud.com/learn/resources
Welcoming and Affirming Denominations and Religious Organizations