By Jeremy T. Goldbach, Ph.D., LMSW
Chair, USC Social Behavioral Institutional Review Board
Director, Center for LGBT Health Equity
University of Southern California
Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work
I remember it like yesterday. I stepped into the small, cramped meeting room of a local LGBTQ drop-in center. The room served triple duty as a social milieu, computer lab, and meeting room. Posters and homemade art covered the walls, displayed proudly everywhere the eye could see like wallpaper, almost demanding inspiration and hope from passive onlookers. The warm room, paired with the anxiety that no title or position can ever seem to overcome, made my hands clammy. I had arrived seeking feedback on an intervention we had been developing for nearly a decade. Bracing myself for the brutal honesty only found in adolescence, I opened the floor. “So, what do you think?”
Silence. I thought back to my lessons on pedagogy—it takes people an average of seven seconds to respond to a question, Jeremy. Relax. One … Two … Three. More silence. I could feel my carpe diem moment slipping away, so I looked awkwardly to the posters for solace and inspiration.
“Well—.” Someone finally spoke. Relief. “We talked a bit before this meeting, and we are trying to understand. Why do you only seem to want to talk about the bad things that happen to us, when there is so much good, too? We come to this center to be affirmed. I mean, look around—it’s literally all over the walls.” They pointed to the posters I had sought refuge in earlier, which now seemed to mock me.
I didn’t know how to answer. I had spent my entire career to this point so focused on the disparities that LGBTQ+ youth experience, it was difficult to even begin to consider the good things in their lives. Indeed, my own work (and that of many others) has found copious evidence of the stigmatizing, discriminatory, and violent experiences these youth encounter every day and the resulting impact on their health. Like many others, I have drawn on my own experiences growing up a gay kid who was told that being gay meant never being happy and probably dying a lonely death (a narrative I still write at times).
But they were right. Despite all the negative and heartbreaking things we have been programmed to study in this deficit-based world, there are good people out there: parents, teachers, mentors, and even school systems trying to make a difference and pass good policies to protect LGBTQ+ youth and enhance their health and well-being. The problem is, we’ve spent so much time trying to understand the things that do damage, we still know almost nothing about the programs, practices, and policies that promote resilience and safety.
Our research on the effects of the COVID-19-related quarantine show this, too. Although many young people in our studies did report difficulty in family relationships and isolation from supportive peers, this wasn’t always the case. Many described being home as a reprieve from their challenging experiences at school, where the safety of their family (and ready access to a private restroom) ensured they could avoid navigating a highly stressful learning environment. As one youth told us recently, “Me and my family…have been taking walks every other day or so. I think I’ve actually gotten closer to my parents from this.” Similarly, in meetings with local schools, one superintendent said, “We want to support our students, but someone has to tell us how!”
So, the question remains: how do we learn from these unprecedented times, not only to confirm what is wrong in the world, but also to explore what is right? For my sake, at least, I’m trying to regularly remind myself that although it is true that LGBTQ+ youth need support when they experience stigma, violence, and victimization, life is not all bad. Youth live in a dynamic world now, where stress and resilience commingle to create the fabric of their lives. And to support them in their journey, we need to understand all facets of their experience—certainly the painful and difficult ordeals, but also the life-affirming, wholesome, and supportive moments that bring them joy and hope.