LGBTQ youth (Event 4-021 with moderator Stephen Russell and panelists Line Chamberland, S. Bryn Austin, and Elizabeth Saewyc)
As a former advisee of Ritch Savin-Williams, revisiting these ideas was, for me, like a reunion with old friends. Study of LGBT youth issues is shifting from concern for the individual to concern for context, and from a focus on risk to a focus on normative development. This opening up of possibilities for scholarship has, of course, co-occurred with an opening of possibilities for youth themselves in a more inclusive society. The panelists are collaborating on an exciting new study in Canada.
Dr. Saewyc reminds us that our ways of thinking about sexual orientation and gender are specific to our context. Her work among the Navajo and around the Pacific Rim find diverse concepts of gender in which our distinctions like "transgender" (which get a little fuzzy around the edges under scrutiny even within context) do not compute at all.
Dr. Chamberland picked on the contextual limitation of the concept of "queer," and went further to discuss how entire interventions may change in translation. We often evaluate school climate by the presence of GSA's. In Quebec, they're "behind" not because they're intolerant, but because GSA's are not as popular among their youth as other interventions. (Of course, I'm of an age to remember the evolution of GSA's from the original design of gay-specific support groups as an accommodation to what the youth wanted.)
Dr. Austin pointed out something I find poignant in my work with homeless LGBT youth, that our conventional wisdom still sees parents as the problem. She drew parallels to obesity work in Australia that would socialize adolescents with healthy eating values only to put them at odds with their parents, who still associated fresh food and thinness with poverty. We need to get parents on board and socialize them early on, e.g., with respect to diversity in gender expression. If they are finding gay-straight differences in health in very early adolescence, then there must have been damage done before that.
There was a discussion about religion that was not entirely a sidebar. It evoked for me my earliest academic work on sexual minority youths' relationships to religious contexts, and made me think hard about the path I took away from that. Where I often see these conversations fail, like certain statistical models, to converge is in not appropriately distinguishing the relationship of an individual to religion from the relationship of a community to religion. Where religion and conventionality are connected (e.g., Salt Lake City), religion and behavior are strongly correlated. Where they are not, religion and behavior are not correlated. Depending on where they are, an LGBT young person and their family either has freedom to make their own choices or is constrained by what the rest of the community will think. In general, when we talk about the relationship of the individual to context, we have to remember that the context has many layers.
Asked what is the most needful thing to work on, Dr. Saewyc said that, although the focus on adolescents as growing autonomy was important while it was going on, we now need to include a focus on adolescents as embedded in family and community. Dr. Chamberland echoed the very theme of this conference, which is to expand our vision to other contexts, not least because it's the only way we'll properly understand our own. Dr. Austin built on a point she'd made earlier that there's no better feeling than being able to look at a government policy that changed because of our research, and research is at its most transformative when it involves partnerships with stakeholders from the very beginning. Otherwise, we run the risk of coming up with stuff nobody cares about.