Rainbow young people need to know they belong and are accepted for who they are. This means youth places must signal that they welcome people with diverse sexes, sexualities and genders. Any young person might identify with the Rainbow community, so it’s important to not assume any young person is straight or comfortable with their assigned gender. Chances are that there has already been rainbow young people who have attended your centre. Learning to better welcome rainbow young people will assist your organization in supporting rainbow young people who will most certainly be attending your centre in the future.
Physical safety and bullying
Bullying is a significant issue for rainbow young people in New Zealand's secondary schools. Bullying hinders learning and young people's chances of remaining in school. The problem of bullying is clearly evidenced in the Youth '12 survey which revealed several alarming results. Some of these results included:
- More than half of Rainbow students are afraid someone would hurt or bully them at school
- Half of trans students had been hit or harmed by another person in the last year
- Same and both-sex attracted students are three times more likely to be hurt or bullied at school at least weekly.
Of course, with such alarming rates of bullying, it's important youth workers begin to form strategies to address this situation. As one 2015 cross-agency New Zealand report into best practice in preventing bullying in schools recommends, it is important for schools or other youth spaces to acknowledge and normalise rainbow identities, have strong anti-bullying policies for all rainbow students, educate students and teachers on sexuality and gender diversity, establish support networks and guidance channels for rainbow students, and offer facilities and clothing options that are gender neutral.
No such thing as “typical”
During our countless daily interactions, we often mindlessly assume someone’s gender or sexuality. If someone appears to have masculine features, we assume that they are male. If someone talks about their partner, we often assume they are speaking about the opposite sex and/or gender. However, not everyone identifies with these heterosexual and/or cisgender norms. Rainbow young people often express their identity as not fitting into gender or sexuality norms (i.e male/female; heterosexual/homosexual) but somewhere in the between. When young people do not identify with such norms they often face discrimination, stigma and exclusion in daily life, from businesses, schools, and other social institutions. Discrimination and exclusion is specifically challenging for transgender and intersex people who have difficulty accessing or feeling safe with “gendered” parts of daily life like using the bathroom and wearing uniforms.
It’s also important to remember that even within the rainbow community, people’s lives can be very different from each other due to intersections of ability, ethnic,cultural, economic, religious background. As New Zealand’s diversity continues to grow we are seeing more and more groups being set up in New Zealand to support specific identities within the rainbow spectrum including for young people who identify as Māori, Pasefika or Asian. It’s important to make sure our youth spaces provide diverse range of rainbow resources that account for all types of ability, cultural, and economic differences within the rainbow community.
One of the most normalised parts of one's identity, is gender. Much of the world is gendered--or believed to be only for one particular gender--even when it doesn’t need to be. Such things include toys, books, clothes, shoes and bathrooms act as gender markers, guiding our assumptions about someone's gender. Yet, using gender markers to determine how someone's gender may be problematic, especially for rainbow young people who are transgender, genderqueer, or non-gender conforming.
When your gender identity is not acknowledged by people around you, many “gendered” parts of daily life become extreme challenges. This might include using a bathroom other people don’t think you should, or wearing a uniform that denies one's gender identity. These situations can be dangerous for trans youth who are vulnerable to bullying.
In order to ensure the safety and physical comfort for trans students, youth spaces can remove opportunities for bullying such as introducing gender neutral uniforms and bathroom options. Additionally, one of the most important ways to make young trans people feel welcome is by using the correct pronoun--that is, the one they ask you to use. If you’re not sure of someone’s gender identity or pronoun, ask. If you make a mistake, apologise, correct yourself and move on. It's okay to sometimes make mistakes if you are genuinely trying your best!
Benefits of becoming a welcoming youth space
Rainbow young people often look for opportunities to come out so they can be themselves. They will choose when to do this and may do it in some spaces but not in others. Youth spaces can make coming out easier by demonstrating that they welcome rainbow young people. However, when rainbow young people fear discrimination, stigma, and exclusion for being different, they may not feel safe or comfortable coming out. For young rainbow people discrimination, stigma, and exclusion, often take the form of bullying (verbal, online, or physical). Bullying may not be disclosed to adults if young people do not feel homophobia, biphobia and transphobia will be well dealt with.
When rainbow youth are unable to come out because they believe they will experience discrimination or bullying, such fear can act as a barrier to participating or accessing help they need from doctors, social workers, and psychologists. Without access to care, rainbow young people are more vulnerable to mental health issues, abuse substances, self-harm, and suicide.
Rainbow young people who feel safe and supported enough to come out are more likely to disclose their needs to teachers, doctors, and support workers, related to sexuality, gender identity and experiences related to homophobia, biphobia and transphobia. When their needs are addressed appropriately in youth spaces, rainbow young people are more likely to engage, participating in organization/program activities, attend school, and have experience better mental and physical health.
What Welcoming Means in Aotearoa New Zealand
The ways staff greet young people and manage their youth space environment reflects their ability to welcome Rainbow young people. In Aotearoa New Zealand, tikanga Māori influences greeting and welcome processes as well as group protocols and rules, even when not on marāe. Initial welcomes reflect the pōwhiri or mihi, and involve preparation and care in order to make sure people feel able to participate in safe ways. Manaakitanga, respect towards young people, guides the kaupapa for most youth spaces. Whakawhanaungatanga, or the making of connections between people, may extend beyond iwi connections in many youth space contexts, and can be seen in the “rounds” many spaces operate to check in with young people. Sharing food or kai is a very typical part of many youth spaces strategies to engage young people.
In order to show manaakitanga towards rainbow young people, it’s important to treat all rainbow identities as normal and welcome in your youth space. Becoming a welcoming youth space that ensures bullying and policies explicitly address sex, sexuality and gender discrimination will also make your youth space safer and more respectful for all young people. Considering what welcoming means in different cultural contexts will be helpful for Rainbow young people from varied cultural backgrounds.
Examples of what makes Rainbow young people feel welcome – seeing themselves·
Information to support coming out or transitioning, including kaupapa Māori and other culturally specific resources.
Positive, inclusive Rainbow images and posters in public spaces e.g. trans, bisexual or Rainbow flags.
Promotion material for your organisation that uses Rainbow inclusive language and diverse images of Rainbow people.
Resources, programmes and courses that include diverse Rainbow content.
Celebrate/acknowledge Rainbow events (e.g. Day of Silence, PRIDE, Bisexual Awareness Week, Love Life Fono, Hui Takatāpui, Trans Awareness Week, World Aids Day)
Examples of what makes Rainbow young people feel welcome – being safely themselves at your space
Safe physical environments (e.g. gender neutral bathroom options for all staff and young people).
Gender neutral uniform options in schools, on sports teams and other youth spaces.
Recognise their important relationships (e.g. with partners or “chosen family”).
Display complaint and discrimination policies which include sexuality and gender identity for both staff and young people.
Zero tolerance for overt bullying (e.g. “that’s so gay” or deliberate misgendering).
First point of contact staff are comfortable interacting with Rainbow young people and do not make assumptions about sexuality or gender identity.