How Do You Support LGBTQ+ Families in Community Work?

Patrice Powers-Barker, CFLE
/ CFLE Network, Winter 2020

See all articles from this issue

Recognizing that Family Life Education (FLE) does not impose any arbitrary definition for family and that families reflect an endless combination of individuals, my work in the community needs to “respond sensitively to community concerns and values respecting all forms of diversity,” as stated on the 2011 poster and PowerPoint versions of the Family Life Education Framework edited by Bredehoft and Walcheski. At a recent diversity workshop, my colleague opened her presentation with one slide titled, “Positionality.” She used the slide and a few bullet points to briefly share about herself and her goal of letting workshop participants know what might inform her point of view and potential biases.

In a similar way, it might be helpful for you to know that I work in an urban county in a Midwestern state. I use the pronouns she, her, and hers. I am a community educator who teaches a wide variety of Family and Consumer Sciences (FCS) topics such as household budgeting, first-time homebuyers’ class, mindful wellness, nutrition, and home food preservation. I am not a researcher on LGBTQ+ topics, and I don’t consider myself to be an expert on LGBTQ+ individuals or families.

I respectfully offer this article from the perspective of an FLE practitioner with the intent to complement the contributions of the experts shared in this current publication of CFLE Network. I anticipate those who will benefit most from my article are practitioners who not only want to offer a positive learning environment for all families but who also recognize that we need to communicate through our work that “all families” includes LGBTQ+ families.

In public settings such as a community class, “What’s said here, stays here” is a basic way to request respect and privacy for individuals within the group space. Recently, I learned the second half of this directive. The following instructions were originally shared by a camp counselor working with youth programs. They started with, “what’s shared here, stays here” and finished with, “What’s learned here, leaves here.” That simple, additional phrase immediately became a positive challenge to me. In what ways can I share with others who were not in the same learning space?

As professionals, we follow FLE methodology, which includes ground rules or identifying group norms. It is important for professionals in all fields of work to understand that “what’s said here, stays here” includes a broader set of directives for facilitators to respect, include, and protect individuals in LGBTQ+ communities. For example, we are all entitled to the right to self-identify or to disclose identifying information—meaning it is not anyone else’s job to determine others’ pronouns or to share anything about individuals’ personal stories, particularly any private information that could be used against them by others.


Safe Space and Brave Space

The following recommendations are applicable to all 10 FLE content areas and are specifically listed in “Chapter 18: Human Sexuality Across the Lifespan” in Family Life Education: The Practice of Family Science. Family Life Educators should know general definitions and terminology; provide accurate, useful, and nonjudgmental content; establish a safe place; and use appropriate terms and pronouns.

Although safe space might sound positive, one challenge is myriad assumptions about its meaning because “safe space” has been used in many contexts. One understanding of safe space is a physical location to allow “marginalized individuals opportunities to retreat from the very real threats and demands they face by their very existence,” as defined in 2017 by Ali in the online article, “Safe Spaces and Brave Spaces: Historical Context and Recommendations for Student Affairs Professionals” ( Although I would like the various settings where I teach to feel safe and I can use best practices to create a safe learning environment, I cannot guarantee a public, community space is a place of respite for everyone.

Fortunately, an additional term and related principles are more useful for my community work than an ambiguous concept of safe space. The term brave space and the five principles of brave space have been offered to help create inclusive learning and discussion. I recommend reading Ali’s online article, cited above, where the author shares the five principles of brave space (Controversy with Civility, Owning Intentions and Impacts, Challenge by Choice, Respect, and No Attacks), popularized by Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens in Chapter 8 of The Art of Facilitation, “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces: A New Way to Frame Dialogue Around Diversity and Social Justice” (2013).

As mentioned earlier, I am not an expert on LGBTQ+ families and I work in an urban area. Usually, I have access to a wider number of resources and organizations compared with my colleagues in more rural environments. When local, physical safe spaces do exist for LGBTQ+ individuals and families, I can make appropriate recommendations to people who attend my general community classes.


Things I’ve Learned Through the Generosity of Others

This following list is shared as my “what’s learned here, leaves here.” These suggestions are basic, especially for those who are experts within LGTBQ+ topics. One checklist isn’t going to make anyone an expert. I offer this as “things I’ve learned through the generosity of others” that have not always been obvious to me at different points in my career.

  1. I recognize that I benefit from my employer having a detailed and inclusive non-discrimination statement. I follow that policy and am committed to practicing the directives. Have you read your policy lately? Is it comprehensive and inclusive enough from your point of view as a Certified Family Life Educator? If not, who is able to expand the policy?
  2. Creating a welcome learning space is more than just knowing a nondiscrimination policy statement. As Certified Family Life Educators, we are all committed to ongoing learning and professional development. CFLE Network and NCFR are great resources. In addition, do you have local organizations to help you learn more?
  3. Practice principles of brave space in all settings. Notice the word “practice.” This is ongoing. In addition to practicing brave space, I also have the responsibility to know about safe spaces in my community to connect people to them.
  4. As noted earlier, know general definitions and terminology. In addition to professional development opportunities, this might include following stories in the media as well as local, state, and national public policy related to LGBTQ+ topics.
  5. For class facilitators, a few, basic steps to make learning spaces more inclusive:
    1. Share brief, appropriate information about yourself in a class. Include using your preferred pronouns. This can be during your introduction at the beginning of a class and added to your email signature.
    2. Avoid gender binaries like “boys and girls” or “ladies and gentlemen” when welcoming a group. It can be as simple as “welcome everyone.”
    3. Use non–gender-specific terms for relationships such as “spouse,” “partner,” or “parents” versus “husband” or “wife” and “mom” or “dad.”
    4.  Use examples and photos of a variety of families in social media and print materials.
    5. Use open-ended statements on registration materials to request demographics. For example, if it is important to ask about gender, just list “gender” and leave an open space for individuals to either self-identify or to not answer.


Beyond Formal Professional Development

Sometimes inspiration and hopefulness can come from unanticipated places. A couple of years ago during LGBTQ+ History month, the entrance display shelf of my main library was filled with children’s books. Some of the books shared family stories about children who have two moms or two dads. Other books weren’t focused specifically on LGBTQ+ family structure but used humor, sensitivity, and beautiful artwork to address gender diverse topics (e.g., all children can enjoy dressing up, using imagination and envisioning oneself in any type of career, and all colors are for everyone). Again, I realize not all library systems are as comprehensive as mine, but there are inspirational stories online about small to large libraries finding ways to promote healthy, diverse communities and families. In addition, enjoy the artwork of Elise Gravel, specifically, “All Kinds of Families” ( Gravel states, I “love to illustrate free printables for parents and teachers: my goal is to promote diversity, tolerance, respect, and empathy.” There are many ways to celebrate and learn about families. Not all ways are from formal professional development.

After reading this issue of CFLE Network, what specific questions do you have? Although it might be presumptuous of me to promote filling their email inboxes, I have found that most professionals and experts are willing to take a few minutes to answer questions or to share a couple of links to refer me to an article or reputable organizations for additional high-quality information. Are there any experts or authors in this issue whom you are inspired to contact?

As I share these suggestions that I have learned from others, I am also eager to learn more from the experts. I would like to end with “what’s learned here, leaves here.” Maybe you already do most of the previously listed suggestions. Have you had the chance to work with your colleagues and families and community to help others learn more to better include and respect LGBTQ+ families?  In what ways can you share and teach others who have not read this edition of CFLE Network?


Patrice Powers-Barker, CFLE is an Ohio State University Extension Educator in Family and Consumer Sciences (FCS) in Lucas County (Toledo, OH). She employs a contemporary perspective on the 1949 description of home economics, by scientist and author, Ruby Green Smith: “where science and art meet life and practice.” She would like to acknowledge the recent work and inspiration from her colleagues Whitney Gherman and Kayla Oberstadt. Patrice can be emailed at [email protected]