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The essential philosophy of serving youth with diverse SOGIE (Part 1 of 2)

A case study

At Los Angeles Youth Network (LAYN), an inclusive philosophy meets trauma-informed care to create an effective model for SOGIE-conscious programming. CARF spoke with LAYN and one of the transgender youths it serves to explore what successful programming looks like.

(SOGIE: sexual orientation and gender identity/expression)

Background

The rural town where Adam grew up is small by most measures. With a population hovering around 13,000, a single high school serves the area’s teenagers. The temperature rarely rises above freezing in the winter, and storms have been known to drop blankets of snow in a single night. A person can easily walk from one end of town to the other in half a day.

The community is tightly woven; business owners and farmers, teachers and civil servants are often the same person. Adam’s uncle was the family’s landlord. As in many rural communities, residents grew up together, know each other by name, and share similar backgrounds. Opinions and judgments are shared by many and spread quickly. Support and scorn alike are delivered with a force that can feel monolithic.

In such an environment, if someone does not fit into established cultural norms, the fishbowl setting is often amplified. Too large a deviation from what is familiar can result in widespread ridicule and limited advocacy. This was the struggle that Adam confronted at age 15.

Born female, Adam had never felt comfortable in his own skin. When he decided to come out publicly and identify as male, community support was nearly nonexistent. Among peers and family, only his father seemed to appreciate Adam’s situation, and stood up as his lone backer. But even with such minimal support, Adam couldn’t have anticipated the amount of adversity and bullying he’d face.

The wave of ridicule built quickly over the span of two months. The environment at school worsened so much that Adam was forced to drop out. In the dead of winter, his uncle refused to continue providing him residence because he identified as male. It seemed that nearly everything and everyone he knew had turned against him.

Driven from school and home, and with no alternatives in their small town, Adam and his father decided to make a drastic change. The two of them would head west with few prospects and start a new life in Los Angeles. They figured that the warmer climate would take pressure off their financial situation, and a larger city would offer more opportunities for Adam to be himself. But the move had consequences. The first night after arriving, the two slept in their car. With nowhere else to stay, they were homeless.

But Adam had a plan. Before leaving for LA, he had researched organizations online that serve youth in crisis and discovered Los Angeles Youth Network (LAYN), which provides drop-in services and is inclusive of diverse gender identity. The first morning in his new city, Adam made his way to the organization’s Taft House.

The moment a youth walks in

LAYN is based in Hollywood, California. It provides emergency shelter, transitional living, education, job development, counseling, and other resources for foster and homeless adolescents. It uses a trauma-informed approach to care that implements data-driven and evidence-based practices. Services place strong emphasis on teaching self-advocacy skills, education, and establishing connections within the community.

But the success of those services relies heavily on how safe a youth feels from the moment of first contact.

The reasons a youth becomes homeless are numerous. Many times, it stems from some form of trauma—be that physical, emotional, or sexual—or the youth may have run away after being rejected for their sexual identity or gender expression. LAYN—like any organization serving youth—has to be open to a wide range of situations. More importantly, it has to demonstrate to the youth from the start that they are in a safe place.

“It’s the cultural competency of an organization,” says Mark Supper, CEO for LAYN. “You have to be all-inclusive of everything. Whether a youth is LGBTQ, Latino, African-American, or in a gang. If you really look at what trauma-informed care means, which is identifying and addressing the youth from where they are coming from and how they are behaving and reacting based on that, that is the cornerstone.”

A common challenge for some organizations’ cultural competency efforts is serving youth with diverse sexual orientation and gender identity/expression (SOGIE). Questions that CARF has received from organizations range from how to approach the question with youth to questioning whether the population they serve even includes youth that identify diversely in those areas.

LAYN, as Supper shares, has come across similar questions. “About six months ago, we were at a large community group gathering and someone actually said something along the lines of, ‘We don’t have those types of kids at our organization.’ The response back to everybody to consider was, ‘Well, have you ever asked?’ It goes back to that introduction into the organization. If you don’t ask the question and allow a kid to know they have a safe space, they’re not going to express that to you and they’re not going to think they have anybody. You have to earn it.”

“You don’t necessarily have to ask, ‘Are you gay or straight?’” adds Supper. “That’s a hard question. Instead, ask, ‘How do you want to be identified?’ If a youth that comes in has been abused and they are expressing themselves as LGBTQ, and they don’t feel the staff is open to that aspect of them, they certainly are not going to open up about the major abuses they’ve just experienced, right? Those things have to be addressed together or you just aren’t going to make a tremendous amount of progress.”

In Adam’s case, the housing instability and abuse he experienced were a direct result of his gender identity and new expression of it. Successfully addressing that aspect of him was crucial in providing the foundation needed to put him on the path toward success and self-sufficiency.

Room placement

When Adam arrived at LAYN’s Taft House, the program director listened to his story and asked how he wished to identify and whether he would prefer rooming with a boy or a girl. When Adam said he would be most comfortable with a male roommate, LAYN staff honored his request. They then took steps to help him process his trauma, assigning him to a therapist who met with him regularly, and helped him begin his gender transition. LAYN staff even worked with him and his father on the process to change his gender identification on official records. Adam knew his identity would be supported at LAYN.

“Coming to LAYN was actually the first time where I felt accepted since I came out,” says Adam looking back on those first few days in Los Angeles. “I had dropped out of high school because nobody there was respecting my name. With LAYN, it was no question as to what room they were going to put me in or what pronouns or names they would call me. It was automatic from the start. They gave me the option of what I felt most comfortable with.”

Questions about room assignments are common among organizations looking to serve youth with diverse SOGIE. But according to LAYN, it isn’t the barrier people make it out to be.

“It throws organizations into a tailspin,” says Supper. “What I attempt to do in the community is reverse that in their minds. Honestly, I can say that we’ve had next to nil challenges or concerns from the other youth about trans-youth being placed into their room. We certainly talk to them as well to make sure they’re comfortable, but we just have never had an issue because it is what it is, and we talk about it from the moment they walk in. Trust me, the youth have a lot bigger issues going on in their life than that. If you really embrace and fully implement it [a SOGIE-conscious culture], the youth themselves are not the challenge.”

Addressing bigger challenges

After clearing Adam’s plate of worries surrounding his immediate housing situation and gender identity, LAYN was able to begin working with him on the larger issues that stemmed from the trauma he’d experienced. As his father continued to struggle in finding stable employment and housing, Adam’s primary challenges were learning basic life skills absent a family structure, and confronting the trauma he’d been exposed to in the school system. “Going into public schools [In Los Angeles] was terrifying,” says Adam. “I wanted to give up so many times. I kept saying, ‘I can’t do this, I just want to go get my GED.’ I didn’t want to because I had a lot of trauma with school back home.”

LAYN’s Education & Enrichment staff played a vital role in helping Adam advance in school and gain work experience. At LAYN High School (offered in conjunction with the LA Unified School District), he passed an entire school year of Geometry in less than two months. This achievement was aided by LAYN’s long-term relationship with School on Wheels, whose volunteer tutors work with shelter residents every weekday afternoon.

At the shelter, residential staff taught Adam critical life skills and intervened when problems arose with housemates or fellow students. In one important lesson that stemmed from a bullying incident with a fellow student, Adam learned that the harassment was not focused specifically on his gender identity. The disruptive classmate was in fact challenging many other students as well, and Adam learned to confront the situation from that perspective.

When he wasn’t focusing on academics and life skills, Adam was preparing for eventual employment. He successfully completed two in-house internships through LAYN’s Job Development Program, and the skills he acquired led to regular employment at Trans Lifeline, a hotline where he helps fellow transgender individuals work through crises. Adam also began participating in advocacy efforts at the Los Angeles LGBT Center.

With LAYN’s support, Adam also continued to have a close relationship with his father as he worked to get on his feet.

Empowering self-advocacy

Self-advocacy is a vital component of LAYN’s services, and something that Adam began to excel at. In April 2016, for example, staff took Adam to the annual California Coalition for Youth conference in Sacramento where he spoke with an assembly member and two state senators regarding legislative proposals that promoted the success of homeless youth. About the conference, Adam said, “That was probably one of the best experiences that LAYN gave me. I never knew the process of how bills got passed. I was able to learn how anybody can propose a bill as long as it goes through the proper channels. I learned a lot from that.”

The self-advocacy skills that Adam learned at LAYN proved valuable almost immediately. When he reached the six-month limit at the Taft House, his team identified the Los Angeles Job Corps as the best living situation. But Adam quickly learned that Job Corps’ administration had not yet embraced policies and practices supportive of youth undergoing gender transition.

Working in conjunction with one of his case managers, Adam advocated through Job Corps to allow him to become the first transgender male to stay in the male dorms. He attended meetings with supervisors and other higher-ups at Job Corps and was successful in changing their stance. “There is now an official policy so the transgender youth after me no longer have to have these really specific meetings,” he says. According to Adam, there have been at least two additional individuals coming into the LA Job Corps who have benefited from the change in policy.

For Supper, Adam’s success in self-advocating with Job Corps gives LAYN a sense of pride. “For homeless and foster youth, they don’t have the parental advocacy that normally takes place, right? So we have to work continuously on their self-advocacy, how do you do that, and how do you stand up for yourself. That goes for all of our youth, regardless of sexual orientation or anything. We are so proud of Adam, as well as our case manager who helped him through that process.”

Moving forward

Adam earned his high school diploma while at Job Corps. He is currently in LAYN’s 18-month Transitional Living Program, which provides shelter and supportive services to prepare young adults ages 18–21 for self-sufficiency. He is enrolled in Los Angeles City College pursuing an Associate degree in Communications and plans to transfer to a university in the Bay Area for his Bachelor’s degree. His goal is to work in management of a nonprofit organization with the possibility of running his own someday.

The support network and connections he developed at LAYN are likely to be strong for years to come.

See Part 2 of this blog series to learn how LAYN fosters a SOGIE-conscious approach in its services.

Disclaimer: Some names and locations in this article have been changed or withheld for privacy.

3/21/2017
(Child and Youth Services)


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