The Kids Are Not All Right
Why we must foster positive career identity in our queer youth.
When you were growing up, did you dream of all the things you could become? Or did you suppress your deepest desires for fear of not having those dreams come true? Did you see yourself in a business suit as the CEO of a company? An attorney standing before the jury? A senator voting in Congress? A professor or a minister or a doctor? An author? A filmmaker?
To have professional success, healthy career growth, and abundant financial well-being, you must have two key elements in your life. One is dreaming—imagining, exploring your options for the future. The other is support—positive reinforcement, acceptance, and mentorship from the adults that surround you. Leadership skills, personal achievement, confidence and assertiveness, all are influenced by your childhood and adolescent experiences. Parental support, community involvement, positive interaction with peers all create the launching pad to a positive relationship with work and financial independence for the rest of your life.
Here is a story about Simple Simon—a parable of sorts, about an uncomplicated man who repeatedly saves his village from catastrophe, only to be told that he can’t. The town floods, and Simple Simon pushes back the waters with his hands, until someone tells him, “Simon, you can’t do that—it’s impossible.” And Simon says, “Oh, it is?” Then he drops his hands, and the destructive waters rush forth. A huge boulder dislodges from a mountain and rushes toward the town hall where all the citizens are gathered, and Simon runs up the hill and holds it back—until, once again, someone says, “Simon, you can’t do that—it’s impossible.” And, once again, Simon says, “Oh, it is?” And he drops his hands and the boulder rushes forward and brings destruction.
Like Simon, many LGBT youth are full of talents and innocence, brilliance and gifts, dreams and hope, until the rest of the world steps in and tells them they are wrong. They are not good or strong enough, not capable. Our LGBT youth face all the same stressors that straight teens experience, with the additional challenges of prejudice and heterosexist bias in the schools.
When our LGBT youth are not supported by family, educators, and community, not accepted for who they are, not given the same opportunities for personal growth and development as the other kids, they miss the two primary elements necessary to become confident leaders who can accomplish their dreams and have meaningful, lucrative careers.
Research studies show that LGBT adults live in poverty at much higher rates than heterosexuals do. The anti-discrimination bill (ENDA) that ends workplace prejudice against LGBTs has been before Congress since the 1990s and has never passed. According to a recent poll published by the Human Rights Campaign, 53 percent of LGBT employees remain closeted at work; and, according to a recent report from CNN, one in four LGBT respondents continue to hear offensive comments in the workplace.
These statistics reinforce the messages our LGBT youth are receiving—that the world of work is a limiting and hostile environment. What messages did you get? Have you met a fate similar to Simple Simon’s? Did you get a chance to dream of a life filled with opportunity? Are you living the life you want to live? Did you pick a career from scarcity instead of abundance? Are you performing to your full potential? Are you a leader in your field?
The answers to these questions begin with dreaming.
If not for the realized dreams of LGBT teens, we would not have been dazzled by their achievements as adults, when they became our heroes. What if Oscar Wilde had given up and seen himself as worthless? What if Gertrude Stein had decided she’d make a better baker or seamstress than a visionary and writer? What if Billie Jean King had believed she’d never be anything more than a ball girl on the tennis court?
The parable of Simple Simon does not have a happy ending—the boulder kills him in its destructive path—but at his own funeral he sits up, alive and well, only to be told once again he can’t do that, it’s impossible; so he lies back down and dies. How many of our LGBT youth meet the same symbolic fate, eventually giving up their dreams, not striving to excel. Consider the talent that is lost when positive career identity among LGBT youth is not fostered. What potential doctors will not take the path to healing? What inventions will not come forth because we as a community did not step forth to help our children dream and explore?
LGBT youth can be given a completely different world of opportunity, broader and with far fewer limitations, provided they are able to hear the voices of those telling them what is possible instead of what is not, provided they are shown that we believe in them and support them, as any parent or mentor should. And we, too, as adults, can experience a different outcome; at any time along our own path, we can stop and look back at all that we have let go of or shut away, and decide that we can believe in ourselves, as well. All of us should be pushed and encouraged to dream, and should encourage one another.
If there are LGBT teens in your life, be sure to foster and mentor them. Many LGBT programs in cities throughout the country provide opportunities for gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth to develop their full potential in a safe and supportive environment. Those programs could use your support. Consider taking on an LGBT apprentice. Allow a queer youth to shadow you throughout your workday. And be sure to take some time for yourself, to reflect and wonder how your own dreams and explorations may have been thwarted. Now may be the perfect time to consider those dreams that were long ago sent away to die.
About the Authors
Sherry Platt Berman, MA, is a career and employment counselor specializing in LGBT professional development. (lavendercareers.com) (careerwisdomeinstitute.com)
Joy Read is a writer and a photographer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. (bhaaluphotography.com)