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University of Minnesota Extension

Inclusive youth development programs for LGBTQ+ people

What it is

Only when youth feel safe emotionally, as well as physically, are they able to present themselves in an authentic way and engage in positive development. Without that authenticity, true development cannot take place. LGBTQ+ youth (Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning) need safe spaces to develop peer-to-peer relationships and coping strategies and build community.

Even if young people themselves don’t identify as LGBTQ+, they are likely to have family members and friends who do. So inclusion efforts that de-stigmatize biases related to LGBTQ+ youth are essential for a positive youth development experience.

Youth development programs are in a unique position to provide equitable spaces and other opportunities for LGBTQ+ youth. It is essential for all young people to find safe and affirming spaces in which they can present who they are authentically, explore sexuality and gender without fear of retribution and build supportive relationships. Creating spaces where youth can present their authentic selves is imperative.


Understanding and correctly using language is foundational to creating inclusive and affirming youth programs. The definitions I share here will help you to understand this brief. This list is not comprehensive of all gender identities and sexual orientations. The language describing identities is constantly evolving and can vary locally.


An acronym that stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer. The acronym can also refer to and include other sexual orientations or gender identities that are not explicitly named in it. Queer is an alternative term used for this marginalized group, and is more common in academia. It is important to recognize that this label includes both sexual orientation, gender identity and expression. Gender identity and expression are each independent of sexual orientation.


A medical term that refers to a combination of physiological attributes. These attributes include reproductive organs, chromosomes, gonads, hormones and secondary sex characteristics. Generally, people are assigned male or female sex at birth based on the appearance of their external reproductive organs.

Sexual orientation

Who a person is attracted to (Note: Ongoing research defines patterns of emotional, romantic, or sexual attraction as one’s sexual orientation). Gender identity and sexual orientation are two separate aspects of a person’s identity.

Gender identity

A person's deeply felt inner sense of their own gender, including being male, female, or something else or in between. For transgender people, their gender identity typically does not match the biological sex they were assigned at birth. 

Gender expression

A person's characteristics and behaviors such as appearance, dress, mannerisms and speech patterns that can be described as masculine, feminine, or something else. This can include how a person dresses, styles their hair, speaks and many other factors. Gender identity and expression are each independent of sexual orientation, and transgender people may identify as heterosexual, lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer or another orientation.

Why it matters

Research on LGBTQ+ youth involved in youth development or out-of -school-time programs is limited. But youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or and queer (LGBTQ+) are at risk of experiencing stigma and victimization in their schools and communities based on their gender or sexuality. These experiences <are associated with mental health concerns, including depression, anxiety, and suicidality>. 

Effects of victimization

LGBTQ+ students who experienced higher levels of victimization because of sexual orientation:

  • Were more likely to have missed school in the past month (63.3% vs. 23.1%)
  • Had lower GPA’s (3.0 vs. 3.3)
  • Nearly 2x as likely to report no post secondary plans (9.5% vs. 5%)
  • More likely to have been disciplined at school (54.1% vs. 30.3%)

Those with access to supportive inclusion systems reported:

  • Lower levels of victimization
  • Higher levels of belonging and self-esteem
  • Lower levels of depression


  • 39% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past 12 months, with more than half of trans and non-binary youth having seriously considered it.
  • 71% of LGBTQ youth reported discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
  • LGBTQ youth who come from highly rejecting families are 8.4 times as likely to have attempted suicide as LGBTQ peers who reported no or low levels of family rejection.
  • Each episode of LGBTQ victimization, such as physical or verbal harassment or abuse, increases the likelihood of self-harming behavior by 2.5 times on average.

Research attempting to pinpoint the number of people under the age of 18 who identify as LGBTQ+ is limited. However, Gallup reports that the number of adults in the US who identify as LGBT has steadily increased from 3.5% in 2012 to 4.5% in 2017 . The Movement Advancement Project reports that between 2.9 million and 3.8 million LGBTQ+, or 10-15% of the total US LGBTQ+ population, live in rural areas. Additional research also indicates that young people are coming out younger than ever before. So we can assume that LGBTQ+ youth numbers are increasing and that LGBTQ+ youth participate in out-of-school-time programs regardless of where they live.

Effective strategies

  • Teach all staff and volunteers to build their equity and diversity competency
  • Use print materials and forms for your program that portray diversity and acknowledge LGBTQ+ identities -- photos, language, policies, opportunities to express gender identity, etc.
  • Partner with LGBTQ+ groups, such as local Gender and Sexuality Alliances, PFLAG organizations, college or university LGBTQ+ centers.
  • Model inclusive behavior and language
    • Respect and use the names and pronouns youth say align with their identity
    • Ask questions in a way that avoids implicit assumptions about sexual orientation or gender identity. For example, recommend time with a friend rather than a “boyfriend or girlfriend”.
  • Have policies and practices that promote LGBTQ+ inclusion


  • Reflect on your personal biases. We all have them -- political, educational, religious, socioeconomic, etc.  It's important for us as youth workers to recognize them and the effects they have on equity and inclusion efforts.
  • Respect varying degrees of “outness.” Youth may be “out” to you or in your program. But they might not be outside of the safe space you provide. Make sure you understand a young person’s degree of outness and whether they permit you to share that information. Know what to do when a youth self-discloses their sexual or gender identity. You might offer support, engage in conversation if the youth wants to, maintain privacy, or locate appropriate services.
  • Use familiar and age-appropriate language. Use words and phrases similar to the words that young people themselves use. Don't try to place labels or definitions on youth about their identities or relationships.
  • Intervene. It's important to intervene when LGBTQ+ discrimination occurs. Education is an important way to improve behaviors. But be careful not to escalate the situation and further victimize youth affected.

Author: Joe Rand, Extension educator

Reviewed in 2023

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