Where the Wild Things Are: Enhancing Resilience in LGBT Youth

By Jeff Levy

This is a transcript of the keynote address presented on September 24, 2006 at the Oregon Juvenile Department Director's Association Annual Conference.

Thank you for having me at this conference. It's an honor to be here, when I know there are so many other qualified people who could be speaking with you tonight. I'm especially grateful to have an opportunity to speak with you about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) youth; children who are often marginalized and ignored. Earlier today I facilitated a pre-conference workshop entitled Integrating Identities: Working with LGBT Youth Exposed to Violence And Trauma. In reality, all LGBT youth are exposed to violence and trauma, which, hopefully, will become clearer as I continue.

First, let me tell you a little about me. I'm a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and have been a social worker for the past 15 years. Prior to being a social worker, I was a recreation therapist; a professional who uses art, music, drama, poetry, games, and sports as a therapeutic intervention. My professional work has had a strong concentration of practice with kids and families primarily in youth service/child welfare agencies. Also, most of my work has involved working with people impacted by violence or trauma. I've facilitated groups for adult male sex offenders, and both male and female survivors of childhood trauma/violence. Presently, I'm a part-time lecturer at the University of Chicago's School of Social Service Administration, where I teach an advanced graduate seminar on working with individuals, families, and communities impacted by violence.

I am also one of the Co-Directors of an organization in Chicago called Live Oak, Inc. Live Oak is a group of psychotherapists and consultants who provide counseling and educational services that enhance the emotional and psychological well being of individuals, families and communities. We specialize in services to lesbians, gay men, families, and youth-at-risk.

At Live Oak, we believe that the roots of a healthy life are integrity, authenticity, wholeness and connection. In an increasingly complex and de-humanizing world, Live Oak helps individuals more fully connect to the deeper parts of themselves and to others. We emphasize fully integrating identity, roles and life experiences in order to maintain psychological health.

Basically, at Live Oak, we believe that one can't provide high quality services to an individual without considering the context in which he/she lives. Context includes family, neighborhood, school, community, state, country, and world. Live Oak believes that for many of us, the troubles we experience in our lives are grounded more in the effects of what we have experienced in the various contexts within which we live. Some might call this a systems approach. We consider it an affirmative approach; that for many people, the problems they experience are not inherent within them, but are responses to finding ways to survive in a world which is more complex, more fragmented, more apathetic, more hostile, and certainly more violent. While it is possible to address the issues that arise within the individual, they can't be fully addressed without understanding how the individual has metabolized the experiences of his life; how people, neighborhoods, communities, and larger political systems have impacted the individual. Many times then, we're treating the effects of someone's life experiences rather than some "disease" that resides within the person.

This philosophy is particularly true with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered youth. And as I transition into talking more about LGBT youth, I want to preface the remainder of my presentation by saying that my goal is not to change anyone's value system, morals, or religious beliefs about homosexuality. Instead, I am inviting all of us to consider how those beliefs might translate into behaviors, and how those behaviors might result in harm to the very young people we are trying to help.

I struggled with where to start today; how to convey some of the most crucial points I covered this morning and how, in a relatively short amount of time, to invite you to think about your work with LGBT youth in a different way. I decided there is no better way to learn, than to tell a story. And, for me, one of my favorite stories and one that is so relevant to our discussion today is a children's book by Maurice Sendak called "Where the Wild Things Are."

Before I start, I'd like to ask for a volunteer to come up here and help me; someone to turn the pages as I read. And, as I read I'd like to invite you to imagine yourself sitting on the floor, on carpet squares, much as you might have in your own childhood.

Second, I'd like to ask for you to find a comfortable place in your chair. Let yourself relax into your seat, put both feet on the floor and find a comfortable place to rest your hands-maybe on your lap. Please take a few deep breaths-preferably from your belly, filling first your belly and then your chest with air. Breath deeply in, hold it for just a moment, and then exhale slowly---at least twice as slowly as your inhalation. As we breathe slowly in and out, I invite you to allow the clutter of your day to leave with each exhalation. As the clutter leaves, consciously invite yourself to be open to new information. One more time, as we breath slowly in and out, I invite you to allow the clutter of your day to leave with each exhalation, and as the clutter leaves, to consciously invite yourself to be open to new information. Allow this new information to fill some of the open spaces you create and permit this new information to rest there for awhile, so that you have a full opportunity to examine it, process it and then release what you no longer need.

As I read the story, if you notice yourself drifting, or having a reaction, just notice the drifting and reaction and bring yourself back to my voice. Ready? And now for the story...Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak.

The night Max wore his wolf suite and made mischief of one kind and another, his mother called him "WILD THING!" and Max said "I'LL EAT YOU UP!" so he was sent to bed without eating anything.

That very night in Max's room a forest grew and grew and grew until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around and an ocean tumbled by with a private boat for Max and he sailed off through the night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year to where the wild things are.

And when he came to the place where the wild things are they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws till Max said "BE STILL!" And he tamed them with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once and they were frightened and call him the most wild thing of all and made him king of all wild things.

"And now," cried Max, "let the wild rumpus start!" "Now stop!" Max said and sent the wild things off to bed without their supper. And Max the king of all wild things was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.

Then all around from far away across the world he smelled good things to eat so he gave up being king of where the wild things are. But the wild things cried, "Oh please don't go-we'll eat you up-we love you so!" And Max said, "No!" The wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws but Max stepped into his private boat and waved goodbye and sailed back over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day and into the night of his very own room where he found his super waiting for him and it was still hot.

Max was a lucky boy. When he came home from where the wild things are, he found a hot supper waiting for him---a metaphor for love, support, and acceptance.

What if Max wasn't so lucky? Stay with me while we think about Max a little differently? What if Max is gay? That's right---what if he's gay? Even if he's 7 years old and doesn't know what gay means, he might know that he's somehow different from other kids. Most gay boys and transgendered youth report knowing from an early age that something is very different about them and that somehow this difference is "bad." If others found out or saw that they were different, they would be in trouble. This awareness sometimes comes a bit later for lesbian youth and bisexual youth but the initial feelings of difference and "wrongness" remain the same.

So, what if Max is gay?

Well, if Max is gay, then who are the wild things? If Max is gay, the wild things aren't actual beasts in the forest. The wild things are the beasts that Max may encounter each day; beasts who challenge his self-esteem, his self-acceptance, his balance, and his ability to move through his world with confidence and a sense of belonging. Who are the wild things? Here's just a sampling of a pack of wild things Max might encounter:

Stigma is the largest beast of all, and one that labels Max with wrongness and a fundamental sense that he is not ok. Stigma brands with an identity that by its very existence, marks him as flawed. Stigma scars Max, frightens him during the day and haunts him in his dreams. Wherever Max goes in the forest, Stigma is not far behind, trailing after him, shouting at him, and branding him for further assaults and injury.

Shame is a beast related to Stigma-in fact, his twin. Shame comes as a result of Stigma's bite. Different than the best called Guilt, which convinces Max that whatever he does is wrong or not enough, Shame surrounds Max and traps him with a fundamental sense that HE is wrong and bad; much more pervasive than Guilt. Max feels shame because he is gay. Shame creates a shroud around Max so that he cannot see any of his goodness. Instead, he sees only that he is bad and, in fact, that he is ALL bad.

Judgment is a wild thing who is sometimes quite confusing. One of the older beasts, judgment hides behind a façade of wiseness, berating the other beasts with pseudo-knowledge based only in his own limited experience. Judgment will push Max around, berate him, and tell him he is wrong, creating self-doubt so that it is harder for Max to trust his decisions. Judgment is subtle, but his pushes and shoves leave Max always questioning himself, which makes it much harder to survive in the forest where the wild things are.

Harassment is a cousin of judgment and much less subtle. Harassment takes over where judgment leaves off. Harassment is overt, domineering, mean, and abusive. On a good day, harassment only roars at Max, gnashes his teeth, and scares him with his yellow eyes. On a bad day, harassment hits Max, bites him, kicks him and disables him-all because Max is gay.

Heterosexism is one of the more sophisticated of the wild things. He takes his time with Max and slowly deprives him of what he deserves as a living, breathing creature in the world. Heterosexism uses words that don't include Max. Heterosexism focuses on giving rewards only to other wild things and limits the extent to which Max can take care of himself. Heterosexism acts like the wild things are the only ones who matter and treats Max like a second-class citizen in the forest. He instills in Max a belief that he doesn't deserve what the other creatures receive; that Max is not entitled to happiness, and that he is doomed to be somehow "less than" for the rest of his life.

Homophobia is the daughter of Heterosexism. She pretends she is scared of Max and that somehow Max will hurt her. She whispers to the other wild things about Max's evil ways; how there is something about Max that will infect the other wild things. She convinces others that Max is someone to be avoided, but she also convinces the other wild things that Max is someone to be hated. Homophobia breeds hatred. Her children and her grandchildren don't only fear Max, they hate him and, ultimately, they make Max hate himself.

Ostracism singles Max out from his place in the forest. Just when Max thinks he may have a friend in one of the wild things, Ostracism makes fun of Max, calls him names, summons Shame and Stigma to help him berate and belittle Max. Ostracism tells all the other wild things about Max's faults, accentuating all the ways Max is different and ultimately, leaves Max feeling alone and isolated. Ostracism introduces Max to Rejection.

Rejection teases Max. She leads Max around the forest, introduces him to other wild things, and then she calls upon Shame, Stigma, and Ostracism. They tease Max into thinking he has a chance for friendship and happiness, but then leave him alone, crying and unprotected. They set him up for a meeting with one of the most dangerous of wild things: Exploitation.

Exploitation is one of the sneakiest but most powerful of the wild things. He waits for Max to be at his most vulnerable; waits for Max to have been beaten, bitten, pushed, kicked, and berated by the other wild things before he steps in. When Max is most in need of a friendly beast in the forest, Exploitation uses Max to do what he tells him to do, and Max acquiesces because he is so lonely and in such need of a friend. Instead of being Max's friend, however, Exploitation forces Max to do his bidding, putting him in more dangerous situations in the forest and exposing Max to circumstances he doesn't understand and from which he can't protect himself. Because Max is so vulnerable and Exploitation is so sneaky, Max doesn't even realize Exploitation is doing him harm. Instead, he is tricked into thinking all that he does is his own fault and Exploitation was just trying to help him. This is so confusing for Max. Worst of all, Exploitation introduces Max to the biggest, most insidious, and most powerful of all wild things: Oppression.

Oppression, though he doesn't admit it openly, is the King of all the wild things. All the beasts follow his commands and all that happens to Max in his journey through the forest leads him to his meeting with Oppression. Oppression uses the other wild things: Stigma, Shame, Judgment, Harassment, Ostracism, Rejection, Heterosexism, Homophobia and Exploitation as a gang; a hugely powerful herd of wild things that trap Max, strip him of his rights, his power, his ability to protect himself. They surround him and move him to a place in the forest from which he has no escape. Worst of all, they create in Max an incredible sense of loss that leaves him both sad and enraged. There is no escape for Max from Oppression, and out of desperation, Max tries to attack. He hits,, kicks, spits in the faces of the wild things who have joined Oppression. With their mock outrage, they only laugh at Max and tighten their grips on him, trapping him further. Oppression is the ringleader and, as long as Oppression reigns, Max will forever be helpless.

It's important to remember each and every one of the wild things. Would you say each one once out loud, together, after I do?

Stigma STIGMA
Shame SHAME
Judgment JUDGMENT
Harassment HARASSMENT
Heterosexism HETEROSEXISM
Homophobia HOMOPHOBIA
Ostracism OSTRACISM
Rejection REJECTION
Exploitation EXPLOITATION
Oppression OPPRESSION

This provides a greater understanding of the impact of these beasts as we hear their names spoken aloud and together. This is much closer to how it feels for Max as he experiences them.

These beasts-these wild things-they roar their terrible roars, gnash their terrible teeth, show their terrible claws, and stare at Max with their terrible yellow eyes. They engulf Max and hold him hostage. Hard as he may try, he may not even be able to return home to his warm supper. And, as a result of Max's journey into the forest where the wild things are, he is:

  • four times more likely to be threatened with a weapon
  • five times more likely to fail to attend school because of his fear about safety
  • three times more likely to drop out of school
  • going to hear anti-gay slurs as often as 26 times each day or once every 14 minutes with school faculty intervening in about 3% of these (less than one time per day)
  • twice as likely to carry a weapon for protection
  • four times more likely to be sexually abused AND more likely NOT to report it
  • three times more likely to attempt suicide; 30% of completed suicides are by gay or lesbian youth-every five hours, someone like Max--a gay youth takes his life
  • more likely that his straight peers to use tobacco, marijuana and cocaine before age 13 and more likely to use crack, anabolic steroids, inhalants and injectable drugs
  • he has 50% chance of being rejected by his parents because of his sexual orientation and a 26% chance of being forced to leave home (40% of all homeless youth identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered)
  • more likely to engage in prostitution/survival sex in order to live while on the streets

Did you know that the wild things could do this to Max?
Did you know they had such power?
Did you know how pervasively they could hurt Max?
Did you know such wild things exist?
Did you know you may be one of the wild things?

I'll bet you don't see yourself as a "wild thing." You're here because you have a commitment to help young people; to make the world a better and safer place. To keep others from being hurt; to rehabilitate those who cause harm. You've chosen the work you have because you want to make a positive difference. You want to help.

And yet, wild things live among you. You work with them, eat with them, share a drink with them, socialize with them, befriend them, and sometimes both knowingly and unknowingly, you encourage them. Sometimes you might even agree with them.

As I said previously, I am not here to change your values or your morals. I am not here to tell you what you should believe is right and wrong in your heart. I'm here because I know that ultimately, none of you want to hurt a child. And as you can see from Max's time in the forest where the wild things are, he gets hurt.

Your challenge is to hold your own values and honor your own morality while at the same time, not engaging in any behavior that make young people like Max more vulnerable in the process. Regardless of who you are and where you come from, your goal is to strengthen ALL young people, not to oppress them or disempower them.

How do you strengthen character, foster mental health, build self-confidence, and enhance resiliency in LGBT youth? You must be a person who has a warm supper waiting for Max and others like Max when they return home from where the wild things are. There are many ingredients to this supper. I'd like to discuss some of them:

Ingredient 1: Engage in affirmative practice with LGBT youth. What does this mean? Gay affirmative practice means you SEE the wild things. You know that whoever Max is, whomever he loves, the problems he experiences do not reside in him. They are a result of all of the effects of the wild things. Max's sadness, depression, isolation, his substance use, his truancy, even his offensive behavior toward others, are all symptoms of being oppressed. The goal of affirmative practice is to help Max feel better about himself and to diminish the harm caused by each and every one of the wild things. When possible, affirmative practice seeks to identify and rid the world of wild things altogether; to make the forest a safer place for all young people.

Ingredient 2: Recruit, hire, train, and supervise men and women who self-identify and are open about LGBT status. Ensure diversity at all levels of your organization, (Board members, managers, supervisors, caseworkers, child and youth and families care workers, administrative staff, foster parents, etc.) and ensure that diversity includes LGBT youth and families as role models.

Ingredient 3: Get accurate knowledge about LGBT youth. While LGBT professionals will undoubtedly have special insights into the experience of the LGBT youth and families, being LGBT is not a prerequisite for working with and/or understanding this population. Both LGBT and heterosexual professionals have been effective in addressing the needs of this population. Feeling comfortable with and having an accurate knowledge of the population, as well as being understanding, empathic, giving, and non-judgmental are the only attributes which are essential when working with LGBT youth and families.

Ingredient 4: Advocate for inclusion. Advocate at policy as well as practice levels. Do not support organizations that state they are providing sensitive services to LGBT youth and families but will not hire LGBT staff or license LGBT foster parents. How can a young person feel affirmed and safe in the same context that discriminates against his/her role models?

Ingredient 5: Open yourself to the possibility that ANY child might be LGBT. Do not assume all youth and families are heterosexual. Use gender-neutral language. Say "sexual orientation" as opposed to "sexual preference". Ask "are you dating anyone" or "do you have anyone special in your life" as opposed to "do you have a boyfriend or a girlfriend?" Have information in and around your agency that is inclusive and affirming of all sexual orientations. Be intentional about the posters you have in your offices, the pins you wear on your jacket, and the books you have on your bookshelf.

Ingredient 6: Do not assume that you will be able to identify all LGBT youth and families, or that they will openly disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity to you, even if you come right out and ask. Some young people may not be able to accept their orientation and may still be struggling with their feelings. Not all LGBT youth and families are gender non-conforming or identifiable by the stereotypes which are most commonly associated with LGBT youth and families. Remember, Jack from Will and Grace is a stereotype rather than a prototype.

Ingredient 7: A basic human services principle states that workers should meet the client where s/he is. Let youth know that it is okay to be LGBT, that it is okay to be confused; that it's okay not to get involved or enter into a relationship; that it is okay to go back and forth and change his/her mind.

Ingredient 8: Give information to LGBT youth. Youth serving professionals should be able to provide accurate and adequate information, which is readable and understandable to LGBT youth. Literature written by LGBT youth and families for LGBT youth and families is most helpful. Posters or literature that includes LGBT issues will allow young people to know that your office is an affirming environment. These can be helpful as a bridge in opening discussion about the area of their orientation. This can also help alleviate the youth and families' myths and stereotypes about being gay or lesbian.

Ingredient 9: Help LGBT youth meet other LGBT youth. Refer youth and families to non-sexual, healthy peer support groups within their local communities or schools. Social interaction between other LGBT youth and families will help to alleviate the extreme social isolation and loneliness which most LGBT youth and families experience.

Ingredient 10: Watch for the effects of oppression-the ultimate of which are suicide and homicide. Be aware of suicidal ideation. Know the resources to which clients can be referred in order to deal with these issues.

Ingredient 11: Help the client deal with a wide variety of family issues and be prepared to help families also. Whenever possible, LGBT young people should be encouraged to reunite or reconcile with their families. If this is not possible, then help the young person find a supportive, gay/lesbian-affirming placement and encourage them to develop life skills to enable them to live independently. Youth serving professionals should proceed very cautiously when assisting LGBT youth who want to disclose sexual orientation to their family. They must understand the risks involved as no one can know in advance how a family will respond. Be prepared to refer the family to support groups such as Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG).

Ingredient 12: Assist in training other professionals, by providing them with accurate and adequate information about LGBT youth and families issues. Help other professionals to view homosexuality from a non-judgmental, non-pejorative perspective; to understand the impact of stigma and stigma management on identity integration. Help others assess and address the effects of homophobia and oppression on LGBT youth rather than focus on being LGBT as the problem.

Ingredient 13: Provide opportunities for LGBT youth and families and their straight peers to openly discuss their orientations, creating a forum for the elimination of myths, stereotypes, and homophobic attitudes on a peer-to-peer basis.

Ingredient 14: Develop and enforce an anti-harassment and anti-slur policy for all youth, families and staff members in all programs. Remember that the wild things hurt everyone, not just LGBT youth.

Ingredient 15: Emphasize good care for all children regardless of race, culture, physical abilities, religion, or sexual orientation. This warm supper is not just about improving care for LGBT youth. If the wild things are out there, they're biting EVERYONE who is, in some way different or vulnerable. That means there are MANY young people who are dealing with the effects of the wild things and may not be managing them very well. When you provide a warm supper for Max, you're providing a warm supper for ALL young people in your care.

Ingredient 16: Help youth and families to develop effective interpersonal mechanisms for handling conflict, peer pressure, friendship and safer sex practices. Remember the King of all wild things, OPPRESSION, compromises sound decision-making. Helping LGBT youth learn how to deal with peer pressure and conflict helps them feel empowered and, by default, less oppressed.

Ingredient 17: Help LGBT youth and families to deal with family and school issues. Advocate for them, and teach them to advocate for themselves. Remember how wild things might impact Max's ability to feel safe at school. Remember how infrequently school personnel intervene when LGBT youth are harassed. By helping LGBT youth and their families in school settings, you're helping LGBT youth stay in school. You're also helping families feel more positively about their LGBT children and reducing the likelihood of severe home conflict which may result in LGBT youth having to find alternative living arrangements. Or even worse, may result in LGBT youth living on the streets.

Ingredient 18: Respect confidentiality at all times. Relationships must be based on trust, understanding, and respect.

These are just a few of the ingredients you might include as you cook your warm supper for Max and others like him. The more ingredients, the tastier the soup. Regardless, however, some soup is better than no soup.

I now invite you to consider your options. You can no longer unknowingly join the ranks of the wild things. I've shared with you their power. I've shared with you what they can do to Max and to other gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered young people. And, remember, that the wild things don't just attack LGBT youth. They attack all young people who in some way do not fit what the majority considers normal. Wild things attack LGBT youth, but they also attack youth of color, youth with disabilities, youth who are overweight, youth who are shy, youth who are Muslim, youth who are Jewish, and the list of vulnerable young people goes on. When you cook a warm supper for LGBT youth, remember you are cooking a warm supper for ALL youth.

And now for the important question: Will you be a wild thing, or, will you be the person who has a warm supper waiting when young people come home from where the wild things are? While the warm supper may take some time to cook, it's well worth the effort.

I'll close with a brief story about my own warm supper. I remember as a little boy, sharing with my mother stories of my own experience with wild things. My mother came from poor, Russian, Jewish immigrant parents. She grew up during the great depression and was not unfamiliar with wild things, having had some experiences managing their nasty bites herself. And yet, each night as she sat on my bed to tuck me in, my warm supper soothing my soul and healing the day's injuries, my mother would ask me to say my prayers. At the conclusion of my prayers each night, I was taught to say: and "God bless everyone and make me a good boy". At that moment, no wild things could come near me.

And now, as Max would say, "Let the wild rumpus start!"