While planning an intensive training on creating inclusive and affirming environments for transgender and gender non-conforming staff for The Night Ministry in Chicago, IL, I caught myself saying to a colleague: “Even though this organization has roots in the faith community, they are doing this really amazing work to affirm LGBTQ youth and staff.”
I caught myself as soon as the words came out of my mouth. Wait. I just said “even though.” Without even thinking.
My unconscious bias became clear in that instant. I thought aloud: “Maybe it is because of. Because this organization has roots in the faith community, they are doing this really amazing work to affirm LGBTQ youth and staff.” What a paradigm shift, I thought. What harm has this assumption caused my work thus far? Who have I written off as being unhelpful, or as the opposition, without knowing for sure?
I know that ‘because of’ statement will not ring true for all faith-based organizations or all communities of faith. In my years of direct practice experience with LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness I’ve heard many stories of religious abuse – of exorcisms, of ex-communication. One of the things I learned through my experiences with The Night Ministry is that we can’t let the deeds of some predict the intent and actions of all. Faith-based organizations provide shelter for youth experiencing homelessness all over the country. Some will not be open to creating an affirming and inclusive environment. Some may think a “don’t ask don’t tell” mentality is ok, and others might adopt a “love the sinner, hate the sin” framework, both of which are damaging for LGBTQ youth. Others, though, will (in the words of The Night Ministry) “recognize that we are all part of the human community,” and that “each person is important and of value.”
The Night Ministry is not affiliated with any specific congregation, denomination, or religion. The staff and volunteers follow a range of faith and spiritual traditions. The organization offers a range of programs and services, but I will highlight their emergency shelter: The Crib. The Crib is housed in the basement of a community Lutheran church, providing 20 youth each night with a place to sleep, 2 hot meals, showers, laundry, referrals, and group activities. Of the young people who go to The Crib, 70% are LGBTQ. When The Night Ministry began seeing more and more LGBTQ youth showing up for a bed at The Crib, the leadership team made an important decision – to ensure the staff of The Crib was as diverse of a group as the young people engaging in their programming. Many LGBTQ young people lack strong role models and adult allies, and may rarely see themselves reflected in the professionals they interact with on a daily basis. This may be particularly true for transgender and gender non-conforming youth.
The Night Ministry has made a concerted effort to create an inclusive and affirming environment for both LGBTQ youth and also staff people within their programs, and recently focused specifically on how they can create a more inclusive and affirming environment for transgender and gender non-conforming staff people. The success of their program’s inclusiveness has a lot to do with their organizational belief in the inherent value of all people, the inclusive nondiscrimination policies the organization adopts, and their commitment to responsive and effective services. I want to highlight several things that The Night Ministry did that can serve as examples for other organizations:
1. They recognized the importance of hiring folks that share identities with the youth they serve.
2. They acknowledged the limits of some existing organizational practices (re: options on paperwork, for example) and sought consultation on how to move their organization forward.
3. They engaged a working group of current staff members in this process.
4. They sought assistance from a trainer with expertise on creating inclusive and affirming environments for transgender and gender non-conforming people.
5. They asked all staff members to attend a training on the topic and held 4 different trainings over a 2-day period to accommodate varying schedules and work demands.
6. They extended the training opportunity to community partners and others doing similar work, communicating the importance of transforming community organizations to be more inclusive and affirming of transgender and gender non-conforming people.
7. They recognize the need for ongoing training and dialogue.
No organization is perfect. And we all have more to learn. Thank you to The Night Ministry for engaging in a process of learning and growth. Learn more about The Crib, one of The Night Ministry’s many youth-focused, LGBTQ culturally competent programs.
If you’re a service provider and would like assistance in becoming more inclusive and affirming of LGBTQ youth, we’re currently piloting an assessment tool that will get you started!