Have you noticed that most of our trainings have the word “affirming” in their title? Or that our mission includes the word “affirming”? (At OUT Maine, we have an ambitious goal: to help Maine’s diverse queer youth thrive by demonstrating how much they matter. We do this by creating more welcoming and affirming communities for LGBTQ+ youth in all of their intersectional identities.) But what does it actually mean to be affirming?
August Sender, our Training Coordinator, talks about the spectrum between affirmation and tolerance by saying “Tolerance is better than outright violence, but tolerance refers to a limit. It is how much we are willing to put up with. We should have limits for certain behaviors, but identities deserve affirmation.”
Everyone has tolerances for things like medications or certain sensations – there are limits to what any individual can handle, and those limits are determined by the person experiencing them. Affirmation is seeing the whole person for who they are, believing them that they know who they are, and accepting them in all their identities.
LGBTQ+ youth are often not believed that they know who they are, and often hear adults say phrases like “I don’t care that you are gay, as long as I don’t have to hear about it.” or “Do you have to make everything about your gender?” or, my favorite “Could you just bring a girl to your cousin’s wedding so you don’t make anyone uncomfortable?” These are all examples of tolerance.
The statistics around LGBTQ+ youth mental health are staggering, especially in our current political moment. We repeatedly hear from our kids that tolerance isn’t enough to buffer the fear and hate they are experiencing. So how do we actually affirm the kids in our lives?
First, believe them when they tell you who they are. Unequivocally. Even if the words they use to describe themselves change over time, keep believing them.
Ask what they need to feel the most supported by you. Every child is different, and support looks different for everyone.
Celebrate them! Tell them their outfits/haircuts/nails look great when you notice them pushing past their comfort zone. Tell them they did great when they tried a new thing that was specifically brave for them. Be proud of who they are and how they are growing.
Use the correct name and pronoun. Correct others if the child consents.
Immediately intervene in any anti-LGBTQ+ jokes, comments, actions, etc.
Do not OUT them without their consent.
Challenge your own assumptions and internal biases around sexuality and gender. We all have them. Learn what yours are, and tools to dismantle them by taking an implicit bias test. Notice your own defenses and discomforts, as those sometimes protect biases, and can illuminate unconscious assumptions and fears.
LGBTQ+ youth deserve and need affirming relationships and communities in order to thrive. What do you need in order to continue to be more affirming of the LGBTQ+ youth in your life?