Scarleteen Confidential: In the Wake of a Tragedy
We remain deeply saddened, angry, scared and horrified about the horrible events that unfolded last Saturday night on Latin night at Pulse, an LGBTQ club in Orlando which took 49 lives, injured over 50 others and have left millions of us hurting. So do many young people.
The violent loss of so many lives is beyond tragic, and all the more so when it is a hate crime like this: an act of terrorism intentionally perpetrated at a sanctuary, as all of our community spaces so often are, for gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer and transgender people. This was a crime committed, based on all the information we have on it so far, to purposefully cause a great loss of life and great injury to us, those who love us, and our communities great and small. That is harrowing. It is terrible to know and bear, even only as people indirectly effected by this crime.
In the wake of the massacre, we've spoken with young people, including queer youth, going through a range of reactions. They were angry, saddened, and deeply shaken and scared by what happened in Orlando. The reminder -- or a first time of really seeing -- that there are still people in the world who want to, and can, do incredible harm to them and their community was, and still is, something horrible they are currently experiencing.
One of the most painful threads we saw in talking with these users was that they felt unable to reach out to their families for support. They were afraid of outing themselves, of people not understanding their feelings or, g-d forbid, believing that what happened in Orlando was deserved. They experienced, as so many of us did (and still are), political or personal dismissals that this was a hate crime, and one about and aimed at LGBTQ people; they have been likely observing political exploitation of this crime by those who are not and have never been allies of those of us who are LGBTQ, who are opportunistically trying to use this tragedy, and the LGBTQ community, to bolster their own political power and influence.
The pain and fear they already felt was amplified by having nowhere to express it. They couldn't grieve with others, couldn't ask for comfort from their parents. Some had to listen to horrible anti-gay rhetoric in their homes, all while feeling a fear and grief they couldn't share, rhetoric they also didn't feel safe pushing back against. While young people in urban areas stood a fighting chance of finding a vigil to attend, many youth were isolated from places where they could mourn and heal with others like them.
While we're happy that Scarleteen and other kinds of support services like it (and so grateful and humbled by the incredible response of local LGBTQ counseling and support services in Orlando, clearly a city overflowing with heroes) can take the role of sympathetic ear in those moments, in an ideal world we wouldn't have to. Ideally, parents and families would be the first place LGBTQ young people could find support and solace, not the last.
Young people deserve to be in a home where they can talk about their feelings when something like Orlando happens. But, we also know that talking about death, let alone violent, targeted, tragic death, is tricky for many people. For parents and guardians, there may be a genuine desire to support a teen who's affected by Orlando, but no sense of where to begin.
Here are some ways you can support the young people in your family who are or may be struggling right now:
Reach out: There can be a hesitancy, when something tragic happens, to even broach the topic with those who are hurting. Often this comes from a fear of reminding them of the painful event that happened and triggering more upset. What this approach misses is that people who are upset, even if they're putting on a brave face, are likely still thinking about the terrible thing. There's a good chance they're aching for a chance to talk about what's going on in their head and their heart. What this also misses is that bottling our feelings up is never a healthy response. If the young people in your life do not want to talk about this with you right now, they can let you know that, and you can simply respect those limits. Better to give them the option of talking with you than to assume they feel best served by silence.
If you're extended family who know that immediate family are homophobic or transphobic, please reach out to the young people in that family. Adolescents in unaccepting families may have no one to talk to, and may not feel safe reaching out to you or other safe relatives on their own. Do your best to reach out to them.
Listen: If the young people in your home start talking about this, set things aside as best you can right then and there to let them voice their feelings out loud. Take the day off, if you can, or at the very least, sit down, turn your ringers off, and give them what time you can where they have your full attention and care. If any part of what they're saying is deeply problematic -- like voicing hate or discrimination -- by all means, be sure to address that, but otherwise, just try and hear them. Be with them in their feelings. Recognize that even if they are not in or near Orlando, or didn't know anyone involved, this still can have, and for many, has had, a very big and deeply personal impact. Let them know you're available to listen. Let them know you will listen with a supportive, patient ear. Let them know that they get to have the feelings they do, even if others are hurting more deeply, or are closer to this tragedy.
If they're asking you for outside help or resources -- like counseling, local LGBTQ centers or reading about being LGBTQ or managing grief -- or are expressing what you recognize as possible needs for those things as they talk, do all you can to hop on that to research or provide those options for them. If they don't want those options, they can always say no. If they don't want them now, they might want them later and will know they can come to you for help.
Know they're listening to you, and they hear what you say: Think before you speak, and make sure that what you're saying helps allay their fears, rather than increasing them, and helps them feel supported, not abandoned, rejected, bullied or otherwise unsafe. Remember that in the wake of terrible violence, more violence -- including in speech, whether that's about LGBTQ people or those who are Muslim -- is not a comfort, but something that increases fear and stress.
We hope we can all agree that at this particular moment in history, the amount of hateful rhetoric, most of it aimed at marginalized people, and its terrifyingly-large cheering section, are simply unacceptable. Any and all of us who want a kind, caring world right now, and for our homes and families to be a center of that kind of world, should be making efforts to do what we can in what we say to counter that rhetoric, in words and in tone, rather than to add to or enable it in any way.
Don't forget: You may be the parent or guardian of someone LGBTQ without knowing. They may not have come out to you, or anyone else, yet. They may be LGBTQ but not know that yet for themselves -- but when they do, what they've heard from you about LGBTQ people will carry great weight and influence, particularly with their self-esteem -- or still be trying to figure it out before they say anything to anyone out loud.
What you say matters and can have incredible impact, be that impact positive or negative. It is difficult to acknowledge, but important to mention: it has been reported that the perpetrator of this hate crime had a parent who voiced strong anti-gay sentiment. It is equally important to know that LGBTQ youth who hear supportive and compassionate messages about the victims of this crime and LGBTQ people on the whole are making clear those messages help them manage the pain and fear of this event, and help them be clear that this did not happen because there is something wrong with being LGBTQ: this happened because some people think there is, sometimes to the point of doing terrible violence to express those ideas and the hateful feelings they have enabled.
When you or other family members are talking about this within any earshot of the young people in your home, talk with the idea that anyone in the room may be LGBTQ and you simply must be accepting of them. Whether anyone is or isn't, will be later on or not, informing what you say with that kind of sensitivity and care is a simple way to guide what you say towards what's truly compassionate, period. And in the event you do have LGBTQ youth or other family members in the home, you can then rest assured you're doing your best by them, and may even be giving them things of great value that will be a big deal for all of their lives at this time that is otherwise so full of loss.
Don't forget to help each other find comfort and joy in the things that are good: Whether it's about appreciating the efforts of many U.S. Senators today (still filibustering for around 12 hours as of this writing!), someone holding a Hugs for Queers sign on a streetcorner (as one of saw, and took them up on, yesterday), donating blood or to a local LGBTQ counseling service, attending Pride for the first time, or just enjoying a walk outside or a simple family dinner, do all you can even in grief or fear to remind each other that something terrible and terrifying just happened, but there is still good in the world and there are still ways to feel safe and hopeful.
We know that incidents like this are so hard on any of us, but can be doubly so with parents and guardians, especially parents and guardians who are LGBTQ themselves, are parenting LGBTQ youth, or both. We also know that with this particular tragedy, Latinx individuals and families, as well as Muslim individuals and families have additional vulnerabilities and wounds. Please be sure that on top of taking care of the children and young people you parent, you also taking very good care of yourselves. You matter so much to the young people we serve: you matter so much to us, too.
- Sam and Heather
More resources and information to help LGBTQ adolescents with this grief and loss:
- When Tragedy and Adolescence Clash, Helping Grieving Teenagers Cope
- From the NIH: Helping Children and Adolescents Cope with Violence and Disasters: What Parents Can Do
- Our blog from Sunday with some local and national helps for those impacted by the Orlando massacre, directly and indirectly
- Advocates for Youth: Ten Tips for Parents of a Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, or Transgender Child
- A scientific look at the damage parents do when they bully their gay kids
- Our Big Five guiding principles can be helpful in parenting compassionately with this
- More Scarleteen Confidential
This is part of our series for parents or guardians. To find out more about the series, click here. For our top five guiding principles for parents or guardians, click here; for a list of resources, click here. To see all posts in the series, click the Scarleteen Confidential tag below, or follow the series on Tumblr at scarleteenconfidential.tumblr.com.