transcript for episode 33: supporting lgbtq youth

nasw social work talks podcast

greg wright:
welcome to the social work talks. i'm your host, greg wright. the human rights campaign is the largest civil rights organization in the nation that serves people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer. hrc works fiercely to ensure lgbtq people at basic equal rights and can be open, honest, and safe at home, at work, and in the community. the organization that has three million members. the social work profession at nasw also have a long history of supporting people who are lgbtq. so it's no surprise hrc has a social worker in a key role. today we’re talking with ellen kahn. ellen is the director of hrc's children, youth and families program. welcome to social work talks, ellen.

ellen kahn:
thanks for having me. i'm excited to be here.

greg wright:
first off, i was wondering if you could give us more information about what hrc's children, youth and families program does.

ellen kahn:
well, the human rights campaign is the nation's largest organization pursuing full equality for the lgbtq community. and although many people know about our political work, whether it's walking up and down the hills of the capitol to pass federal legislation or mobilizing voters to elect fair-minded candidates to office. we also have the nonprofit division, which is our hrc foundation programs. and the children, youth and families portfolio, which i oversee is, housed in that part of hrc. we do systems change work in many of the institutions of daily life that directly interact and interface with lgbtq young people, lgbtq-headed families, so k-12 schools, child welfare organizations, social service organizations, healthcare providers, for a few examples.

greg wright:
how did you first come to work at hrc, ellen?

ellen kahn:
i've been here nearly 14 years and sometimes i can't really believe that. the position evolves and expands, and so i've certainly never felt stagnant or that i wasn't adding value, which is a great way to feel at work. i had been working at whitman-walker health here in washington dc. i spent many years doing hiv work, which then kind of expanded to lgbtq health promotion, kind of broader lgbtq health work. and then ultimately in my last year at whitman-walker clinic, i had really focused on programs to support lgbtq folks who were building families and sort of learning how to navigate life. you'll remember this was before marriage equality. this is when many states didn't allow lgbtq folks to foster or adopt, and social attitudes were still a little bit more negative. this is quite a number of years later. so having done that body of work at a local organization, i saw this opportunity at a national organization to bring a lot of the knowledge and experience and passion i had into a platform where potentially i could have greater impact.

greg wright:
why is hrc such a good fit for a social worker? how do your social work values, education, training, actually come to bear there?

ellen kahn:
you know, every day i can point to some examples of how i'm guided by the sort of code of ethics and core principles of social work. i should also add, just as sort of a fun fact, that when i started here i was the only professional social worker. and since then, two of my direct reports went back to graduate school to earn their master's in social work. and we've hired a couple of other folks who had already established their careers in social work. so we're seeing more relevance and connections. i think for me the reason it's a good fit for a social worker is that we're really looking at creating more equitable inclusive systems of care services and institution. if you look at issues related to being, you know, everyone being able to access culturally responsive, competent healthcare regardless of their identities, including their sexual orientation, gender identity, for every young person to be able to go to school every day and be safe and recognized and appreciated and valued for all of the different parts of who they are, including their sexual orientation, gender identity. and being able to, at the very macro level, we do this work, help to create frameworks for these organizations and institutions that bring these best practices into full implementation from leadership down, and be able to really see everybody in these systems and organizations and institutions finding a way to lean into the work to make a difference. and that's social workers as well as other folks who are working in these organizations.

greg wright:
why is it that you are so passionate about lgbtq youth and their families and how their families treat them.

ellen kahn:
well, it definitely has defined a lot of the work we've done here in the past five years or so. you know, greg, we'd seen in a lot of public opinion polls and certainly in the direction of the law, we've seen a lot of advancement for lgbtq people. i mean i think that, certainly when i was growing up, there were no out lgbtq celebrities, elected officials. there was incredible shame and stigma. i certainly didn't have role models who were lgbtq folks raising families or being leaders in their community. and while so much has changed in terms of the law and public opinion overall favoring fairness and equality for lgbtq people, at that very critical place of home, our original home where children hear their early messages about who they are, who other people in the world are, when things their parents and caregivers say or do are really planting seeds around how they see themselves in relationship to the rest of their family, whether they feel loved, valued, really seen. that's just such an essential foundation for the ultimate well-being of lgbtq youth. so for me, i have focused a lot of our programmatic work and our public education work and our partnership work with organizations like yours to really help influence the parents of today, and future generations of parents, to have more knowledge and to be more empowered around allowing their children to have healthy identity development, including healthy identity around their sexuality, their gender identity, their gender expression. because it's really in those formative years, and from the people closest to you in your life and in your family, that are the key determinant of whether you're going to succeed in really important ways related to school, relationship, mental health, those kinds of things.

greg wright:
you said earlier that we've made a lot of progress since you and i were younger people. however, is there a lot more that needs to be done at this point, and also is the trump administration at all worrying you, because their policies on people who are transgender are a bit backwards, so it's kind of rolling back things. is this a worrisome thing for you?

ellen kahn:
yeah, i mean even if you, for the moment, we take the trump administration out of the equation just for my first part of the answer, we've done two national surveys of lgbtq teams. we also look at data that glsen and the cdc have, and all of this data really point to some quite shocking findings with regard to lgbtq teens. and frankly it's really an emergency situation, especially when you look at the cdc's data from their annual, it's actually a biannual survey of high schoolers. and in the last few years they've added data collection around sexual orientation. so now they actually can compare non-lgbt teens to those who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. they will add questions about trans teens in future versions of the survey. lgbt teens are like three times more likely to contemplate or attempt suicide. and i really, i always emphasize, and i know that social workers know this, we certainly should, it is not some innate thing about who we are that we're sort of wired to be depressed or anxious, or be more likely to use drugs, or contemplate or attempt suicide. it's the impact of oppression. it's the impact of bias. it's the impact of discrimination. in our most recent research, when we looked at lgbtq youth who are youth of color, a latinx, african american, or who identified across multiple minority races, they have higher levels of anxiety, fear for safety. they all report experiencing the impact of racism as well as the impact of anti-lgbtq bias. imagine how that burdens the mental health and overall wellbeing of these young people, and 70% report hearing negative comments in their own homes about lgbtq people. so we absolutely have a lot more to do. adding back into this equation the trump administration, yeah, i mean one of the first things they did, betsy devos, the secretary of education, rescinded a policy that had finally provided such important and very practical guidance to school administrators around supporting transgender students in their schools to rescind it and to then essentially refuse to investigate grievances that are coming into the office of civil rights that are based in discrimination related to sexual orientation, gender identity is turning your back. you're supposed to be looking out for students and you're literally turning your back on these students. and then to see, i think, in my opinion, and i think that the southern poverty law center backs us up, an increase in hate motivated attacks toward people of color, toward immigrants, toward lgbtq folks. i think all of these communities that have always been marginalized, some more so than others, are certainly being more victimized under this very hostile administration.

greg wright:
are you hearing more of a concern from young people that you are working with? are they more anxious or frightened now? is there a way that hrc's helping them through this period that we're living through?

ellen kahn:
yeah, we do hear from young people. we heard it in the national survey, which was conducted after trump was elected. so it certainly factored in that added concern, anxiety. nearly 90% of lgbtq youth have difficulty sleeping at night. many fear coming out to their families. only 25% say they feel safe at school. you know, 50% of trans youth literally hold their bodily functions all day because they don't have access to a bathroom that aligns with their gender identity. we definitely are hearing that there are a lot of problems. we work directly with quite a number of young people. we have a cadre of youth ambassadors who span the ages 14 to 21, and they have shared on public platforms like at our time to thrive conference. the added fear that has accompanied this administration, that where they might have finally begun to feel very optimistic about what their futures could hold, they are now worried that we're going to dismantle some of the protections we've put in place. the supreme court's going to hear a couple of cases that are very key to lgbtq rights. so yes, there's definitely a heightened sense of worry.

greg wright:
i want to talk about two projects that you have been working on for a while. one is called all children - all families, and then there as an hbcu project, which reaches out to historically black colleges and universities.

ellen kahn:
i mean, i'm so blessed to be involved in many programs that are all really life changing. so all children - all families is a child welfare practice improvement program that launched about 12 years ago. we collaborated with a lot of thought leaders and experts in foster care adoption to understand how an organization like hrc could add value to finding safe and permanent families for children and youth in foster care. now we knew, again at the time, this was 12 years ago, that many lgbtq people who had hoped to foster or adopt were not welcome to, or experienced implicit bias, or sometimes overt discrimination in the process. and in fact, some states had laws that didn't allow "unmarried couples" to adopt. so there were…

greg wright:
and some are working on laws like that now, so it's a reality.

ellen kahn:
well, when you talk, having just mentioned the trump administration, i mean that's a perfect example of rolling back some of the progress we made. so over the years we certainly have seen child welfare organizations, the nasw child welfare league have always really been out front in the public square to say there is no legitimate reason to prevent a qualified person who might be lgbtq from fostering or adopting. but as you know, what we have to say doesn't always land or get turned into practice. so in how we shape all children - all families, we engage with child welfare agencies, we work with nonprofit, we work with county level, state level, multi-site, large, small, religiously affiliated, engaging with the leadership to really roll out an agency-wide practice improvement model. so the leadership is committed, there's a plan for staff training. there's a review of your intake forms, your assessment tools, how you partner with the lgbt community that you're close to, whether you have representation on your boards or advisory councils, how you address anti-lgbtq sentiment that might come up among your staff or other clients. and it's really a holistic approach, and that we've had great success. next month we'll be putting out our first ever report that shows how far the field has really moved, in large part through these partnerships where all children - all families partners with a really intentional leader and makes incredible change in their organizations.

greg wright:
how many organizations have you actually touched through this program?

ellen kahn:
formally and informally combined? definitely a couple hundred. we also do a lot of training at large adoption conferences. we've been at dave thomas' wendy's wonderful kids summit. we've been at the adoption exchange association. we've been at the north american council on adoptable children conference and others where we can speak to larger groups of people or offer a series of workshops. but in terms of agencies where we're invited from the leadership level to partner and to train their staff and to team up with them, probably about a hundred have been formerly engaged, really working. one of the features of all children - all families, which is kind of an hrc style when we do system change work, is to create a set of benchmarks that measure key lgbtq policies and practices, and to use that as kind of the road map for agencies to achieve these benchmarks. a lot of agencies have been very highly motivated to check off all those benchmarks so that they can be recognized as a leader, and we do recognize them. you can go to our website and if you're, say a single bisexual person, or a trans person, or a same sex couple and you want to foster, you can look at our agency database and feel pretty darn confident that they are really walking the talk.

greg wright:
are most of these agencies that are receptive to this program in urban areas, east coast, west coast, or are they all over?

ellen kahn:
contrary to what we might think, kind of the default thinking, we are working in kentucky, ohio, texas, florida, pretty conservative states, missouri, michigan. we're doing really incredible work right now with prince george's county, which is right outside of dc and they have made lgbtq inclusion a priority, and they have just really dug into the work. it's not that it's necessarily a conservative county per se, but i think it may be a less likely suspect than some of the other agencies.

greg wright:
we haven't even touched upon this hbcu project, so tell us a bit more.

ellen kahn:
i'd be happy to. this is a program that's been around a good 13 or so years. this was kind of initiated after a couple of anti-gay attacks at very prominent hbcus. these are historically black colleges and universities. there are about 103 of these across the country. they are predominantly in the south, but also a few dots in other parts of the country. they are really an incredible bastion for african american young people who are able to, not to say there aren't some sort of microaggressions that happen within the black community in terms of how we "other" each other, but... i don't mean we. i'm not part of the community, but just how within our own communities we also find ways to other each other. but overall, like if you can imagine going to a college or university where it's not a dominant white culture and you can just be comfortable in who you are and not feel some of the institutional racism that a lot of young people would feel at a predominantly white university. they also tend to skew a little bit more socially conservative. many of them had their foundations in a church and had financial backing from a church, which tend to be more socially conservative churches. after these couple of incidents, a few folks here at hrc partnered with a few hbcu leaders, and we started doing these annual student leadership summits where we would bring lgbtq students to dc and help them cultivate their skills to be change agents on their campuses. for most of the students, and we hear it across the board, being in this space was the first time they could bring their lgbtq self and their black self into the room at the same time. in other words, they didn't have to compartmentalize one identity or another. so it's incredibly transformative. and then these students go back to their campuses and they advocate for inclusive policies. they address public safety. in the last couple years, we started doing work with hbcu presidents and vice presidents and deans of students to do more of a top-down approach. that kind of mirrors what i was saying earlier about the essential ingredient of leadership. so now we've got about 15 hbcus that are really focused on changing their policies, training their staff, hiring and retaining lgbtq faculty, recruiting lgbtq students, making sure they are lgbtq student groups on campuses. so that's a program i'm incredibly proud of and is doing really groundbreaking work.

greg wright:
morehouse, which is traditional male hbcu down in georgia is now accepting students who are transgender.

ellen kahn:
we do work very closely with morehouse, and in fact, we just had one of our student summit on their campus, spelman, which is the traditionally women's hbcu, also in atlanta, introduced a trans inclusive policy about a year ago, so that trans women can apply and matriculate at spelman, and likewise, then morehouse introduced this policy about a week ago that trans men can in fact participate in everything morehouse has to offer. i have seen on social media, which it's probably better not to read comments there.

greg wright:
yeah. no, it isn't. it isn't good.

ellen kahn:
yeah. i mean different opinions, but i think what i'm excited about is that the leadership of morehouse understands that trans men are men. and the bottom line is that that's really what we want people to understand, that we cannot diminish the identities of people. we cannot deny that trans people exist. so it's groundbreaking for them, as you say, a pretty conservative mainstream university to say, "yeah, i mean, why shouldn't a trans guy have the same opportunity to be a morehouse man. we're proud of morehouse men, and so sure."

greg wright:
absolutely. now, a final question. there are 300,000 social workers around the nation who are working with families, children are in a school. so from what you've see, are social workers really ready to address issues that affect our youth who are lgbtq?

ellen kahn:
i think it's kind of all over the place. i think that social workers who care about lgbtq people and have done their work to address their own implicit bias, like we have to do with any communities we work with, they're ready to do the work. the key thing here is willingness to be a good provider, supporter, counselor, therapist, case worker, whatever the case might be, to lgbtq people and to kind of know what you don't know, be open to learning, advocate, dig in for fairness, equity, inclusion. i think a lot of folks have that willingness, certainly among the millennial workforce, which is 18 to 34 years old. there's just generally more liberal attitudes toward lgbtq people. you're more likely to know someone in your family or in your network of friends who's lgbtq. so you come with, i think just a more open attitude. however, across generations, across people of different backgrounds, faith traditions, parts of the country, it's very uneven. even just doing some training here in dc a couple years ago, i was training dc child and family services, within the group i was training, which was like 40 people, we had folks who were 25 years old. we had folks who were 60 years old. we had folks all over the map and they're really different ideas and different experiences. and i think that for me what's missing, and i think should be a priority, is workforce development, professional development. only a handful of social work schools would have a lot of curricular related to working with an lgbt community. you can certainly build some muscle in school, but once we're out in the field, we've got have those continued opportunities to learn and grow. one thing i'll plug is we provide an annual conference called time to thrive. it's every president's day weekend. the one in 2020 will be right here in the nation's capitol. we have educators, school administrators, social workers, professional counselors, other youth service professionals. it's essentially a deep, deep dive into best practices working with lgbtq youth. understanding the needs and experiences of trans youth, looking at child welfare, juvenile justice, k-12 education, looking at sexual health, looking at mental health. so, there are opportunities, whether it's a big conference like that or bringing in someone to do a brown bag at your organization.

greg wright:
ellen, thank you so much for the valuable work that you do and also for being our guest today.

ellen kahn:
thanks. i'm honored and i'm a proud social worker.

greg wright:
thank you.

ellen kahn:
take care. you too.

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