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Homophobia and HIV Risk: What's Family Got to Do With It? Part One

June 9, 2011

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"Build Your Own World": The Role of LGBTQ Youth Institutions

Olivia Ford: Switching gears a bit, back to the notion of institutions: Kara and Darnell, the two of you are involved in a unique institutional environment. Can you talk a bit about the work you do? How does the impetus for these projects connect back to creating, in an institutional setting, the sort of safe environment that youth might not find in the institution of the family?

Kara Olidge: The mission of the Hetrick-Martin Institute is to provide a safe-space environment, as well as supportive services, for the LGBTQ community. We work with young people in crisis. We provide counseling, on an individual basis as well as with families in many instances -- when families have engaged in the process of working with their child in this way. It's not just about providing services, but also cultivating a sense of engagement on a community level: How do you take the skills you're acquiring through these services, and actualize them in your life so that you can impact community change?

The founders, Drs. Emery Hetrick and Damien Martin, found that we really needed to focus not only on creating safe spaces, but also on providing sensitivity trainings for service providers, health professionals, places that house homeless individuals and transient youth, so they could understand that this is a population that has a unique set of needs, and an identity that should be respected and also cared for. Thirty years later, here we are.

We also have the Harvey Milk High School, a partnership between Hetrick-Martin and the New York City Department of Education; and now we're working with the City of Newark to replicate some of these programs and services there -- and to create the Sakia Gunn High School for Civic Engagement, which Darnell can talk more about.

Darnell Moore: Because of the lack of options available in New Jersey, we had youth that were traveling across the Hudson from Newark to New York City looking for services, as well as safe spaces -- in the same way LGBTQ youth and adults travel across the bridge to places like Christopher Street or, when there weren't spaces there for them, to the Pier.

The Sakia Gunn High School is named after a 15-year-old black lesbian basketball phenom that was murdered for being a lesbian. She was stabbed in her heart and died on the street in Newark in 2003. Years later we're naming this school in her honor, as a way to symbolize the emergence of a space in Newark where youth can go and, hopefully, these instances of violence no longer have to happen.

Kara did a good job of laying out an overview of Hetrick-Martin and our services, and I wanted to point out a key aspect of our work with regards to familial homophobia. At Hetrick-Martin, we don't define family as the biological unit. Family for us is something that is a bit more nebulous. For some, family can mean a house or community that they are connected to. Family could be a cadre of adult mentors or role models, or a cadre of individuals who provide support services, that might be in a youth's life.

A lot of our students and youth that come to us have, because of various circumstances, had to redefine what family is. I've worked with youth who have been kicked out of their homes. In one case, the grandfather was a preacher of a church; he put his trans grandchild on the street. That youth had to redefine what family meant for her. So if this thing called familial homophobia exists, how might we help youth to find, or recreate, or connect to quote-unquote families?

Rather than using deficit models, we use strengths-based models to help youth to learn from their context -- and even in the midst of heterosexist spaces, help them find a voice, and use that voice in their connections with others. So we're not just about providing safe space; we want the students and youth who come into these spaces to walk away empowered as citizens, as socially aware and conscious activists, as human beings who might begin to the do the work of changing the society that they're living in.

Kara Olidge: We also do a lot of work with youth around unpacking the idea of heteronormativity. What does heteronormativity mean? What are the ideas surrounding this assumption of heterosexuality as normal and neutral? And then, let's look at our families, and see if our families fit that mold.

"How do we get young people to understand those differences so that they can begin to articulate with their families that their sexuality is one among many differences that exist in families?"
-- Kara Tucina Olidge, Ph.D.

What people often find is that nobody's family actually perfectly fits this middle-class paradigm. So what we're talking about then is differences: How do we get young people to understand those differences so that they can begin to articulate with their families that their sexuality is one among many differences that exist in families?

We talked earlier about holding families accountable. I think one level of making families accountable for familial homophobia is also making them accountable for their own differences. Because what we find in families is that people might suppress their differences to fit some commonality. But when you hold them accountable for their own differences, they have to recognize your difference, as well.

In giving the young people the tools and resources to talk about it, and unpack it, they are in many ways not only working on strengthening a relationship that might be strained, or working through areas in common, but they're also getting their families to think about these issues. That kind of spiraling out really impacts communities.

Sarah Schulman: Yes; it's not an either/or. There are all these different places of approach. In 1975, when I got in trouble with my family, and I went to my guidance counselor in a New York City public school, he told me, "Don't tell anybody that you're gay or they'll shun you." That was the level. And gay kids used to hang out at the pier then, just like they do now. These are ancient queer spaces, right?

Now there are all these services. But one of the things that's happened in the subsequent 30-something years is that queer people have changed a lot, but straight people haven't changed enough. So now we know that there are so many queer people in the shelter system, especially kids, because of familial homophobia. When queer people get in trouble, they don't have the support of the family, and they don't have the safety net of the family. That's why we're overrepresented among the homeless. We're seeing really dire consequences of straight people not evolving.

So, totally, yes: self-empowerment for queer people, and build your own world. But at the same time, as more and more of us have authority, are teachers, are social workers, are in these kinds of positions, we need to talk about social transformations -- and that it's very clear that homophobic behavior is not acceptable.

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This article was provided by TheBody.
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Reader Comments:

Comment by: Henrieese R. (Marietta, Ga) Sun., Jul. 3, 2011 at 1:41 pm UTC
We can say tha tha tha some of us did not grow up with LGBTQ folks in our communities, in our families, never ever knew any. So u say lots yet we do have beliefs about behaviors that we will not partake. Same with disabilities folks did know bout them just like LGBTQ so tha tha tha!! Learning to value life folks different than us is a door opening. We can adjust to the Door with exposure, conversation, value of life, and agape love. U r judgmental as I scanned ur stuff! My Best!
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