How to be an Informed Advocate for Transgender Youth
by Liz Cleary, MSW / CASA EDM Volunteer Supervisor
Celebrating International Transgender Day of Visibility on March 31st, I could not stop thinking about the high numbers of LGBTQ youth involved in the foster care and juvenile justice system. Many of whom become clients of CASA. In 2019, research showed that 30.4% of children in foster care nationally identify as LGBTQ+ and about 5% of them identified as a transgender, compared to 11.2% and 1.1% in the larger population, respectively (childrensrights.org).
You may assume that institutions dealing with foster children would have protections in place to allow transgender youth to live their authentic selves, but sadly, that is not the case. While in Philadelphia the courts have adopted language specifically prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity, the state child welfare system only prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or sex, not gender identity. This lack of support to such a vulnerable population makes advocacy work, like the work done by CASA volunteers, vital to creating gender affirming spaces for our youth to grow.
We know that transgender youth who are not supported or accepted at home are placed in foster care and/or are homeless at higher numbers than their peers. This lack of support can also spill over to school, as we know that over 75% of trans youth report experiencing harassment in school. When a transgender child has parents or caregivers, teachers, mentors, and fellow students who offer gender affirming behavior, that can help a child form a positive identity and hopefully reduce the amount of rejection they may feel. The universal support and acceptance by a CASA volunteer can make all the difference to a child’s long-term success.
As an advocate, what can you do to help a transgender youth feel comfortable and accepted?
1) Make sure you are addressing them how they wish to be addressed (name and pronouns of choice), but if you aren’t sure it’s always ok to fall back on “they/them”. This same advice goes for the professionals working on the team, speak up if another professional is not addressing the youth the way they wish to be addressed.
2) Acknowledge their gender specific interests, is the youth excited about their new manicure, or haircut? Listen to them talk about the experience, if they never felt safe enough to or able to paint their nails before, getting their nails done might be a BIG deal.
3) Make sure your youth feels safe and has access to the medical care they need, to feel their best. This includes the appropriate group home or foster home setting, access to physical and mental health professionals that are gender affirming, and a safe place to receive an education. Local programs for youth include: CHOP Gender and Sexuality Development Clinic or the Mazzoni Center.
4) Help youth to connect with other youth that are experiencing some of the same things they are to reduce isolation and improve mental health. Places like the Attic Youth Center or the It Gets Better Project.
5) Attend trainings to become better informed. Here is a link to HRC’s previously recorded trainings along with upcoming trainings: https://www.thehrcfoundation.org/professional-resources/all-children-all-families-online-learning-offerings. Register now for the upcoming May 18th session: LGBTQ Youth Advocate Panel: Nothing For Us, Without Us! Register HERE.
6) Finally, educate yourself on transgender issues, here are some resources that might be helpful to read at your leisure.