Montana is an incredibly large state that spans nearly 150,000 square miles and represents just over one million people. The majority of our population and landscape is set in very vast and sometimes isolating spaces.
There is no lack of beautiful areas to explore, but for LGBTQ youth it can be particularly challenging to connect with one another, feel safe coming out, and find ways to live honestly and authentically. On top of these challenges, many youth are also dealing with discrimination, fear, and family rejection.
Fortunately there are wonderful organizations in Montana that support and empower local LGBTQ youth; including Pride Foundation grantee NCBI Missoula.
NCBI Missoula shared that one of the greatest challenges faced by LGBTQ youth in the state is isolation, “…from peers, family, religion, and the LGBTQ community. Coming out in a large rural state, many youth find themselves the only visible LGBTQ individual in their classroom, school, or community. Though it is thought that today’s youth have more resources since they have access to the internet, we know that ease of internet access is not universal across the state. Many of the youth we work with seek basic human connection through conversation—which is not easily facilitated on the internet.”
In addition, NCBI noted that LGBTQ youth in Montana often struggle to access safe and affirming healthcare providers; “Most youth do not have control of when or whom they see as a medical provider. This can provide challenges for youth who are seeking a safe medical provider to discuss mental health challenges, feelings of isolation, or family disconnection. We also have many teens who cannot find access to a medical doctor or mental health professional in their community when they come out as gender diverse.”
In a state like Montana, there are limited healthcare resources available for LGBTQ youth that are safe and accepting—meaning youth may need to travel hundreds of miles out of state to access a culturally competent provider.
NCBI Missoula is also seeing a rise in LGBTQ youth that are leaving home or being kicked out by their parents because of their sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. Many of the emergency shelters and services in Montana do not serve youth under the age of 18—leaving youth to fend for themselves by couch surfing or sleeping in unsafe or high risk situations.
This is a heart-wrenching reality that we are seeing across Montana and the country—national statistics estimate that up to 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ. For NCBI Missoula, this percentage feels accurate for Missoula County, western Montana, and the youth that they speak to and work with on a regular basis.
Considering the various challenges faced by LGBTQ youth in a rural state like Montana, the role that NCBI Missoula plays is more valuable than ever.
One way the organization supports young people is by training youth to co-lead violence prevention and prejudice reduction workshops for their peers, educators, and other youth across the state. These workshops create a space for youth to teach others about the impact of oppression and useful skills for being an ally.
The organization is also very thoughtful about how they empower the young people they work with.
When asked how they do this, they shared, “we empower youth by creating space, listening to their challenges, and assisting them with the creation of programs that meet their needs. This leadership development opportunity is how both our LGBTQ youth group, Youth Forward, and the Montana GSA Network came into fruition.”
NCBI also provides leadership opportunities outside of their programming. Youth working with the organization have been part of a national discussion to create a federal enumerated anti-bullying policy—which would help ensure that LGBTQ youth are a protected class. This has led to youth being invited to national conferences where they have been able to network with students from other rural states, and give presentations about the important work they do here in Montana.
“Grant support from Pride Foundation helps us grow our programs that support and empower LGBTQ youth in Missoula and throughout Montana,” said NCBI. “These programs have proven to not only support the youth participants, but also their families, peers, and educators; and create safer and more inclusive schools and communities. Funding helped us get the Montana GSA Network off the ground by having an amazing Pride Foundation fellow who did a lot of foundation research on helping to structure our network. Pride Foundation support has also assisted us with traveling to smaller more rural communities to provide one-on-one leadership development skills to GSA leaders and supportive allied adults. Lastly, funding from Pride Foundation has helped us to dedicate time to co-developing curriculum and resources with our youth leaders for them to share with peers across the state.”
As LGBTQ youth continue to grapple with obstacles such as bullying, suicide, and being kicked out of their homes, NCBI Missoula provides an accepting and welcoming space for them to feel comfortable simply being themselves.
In the words of a 10th grade NCBI trainer and Youth Forward member at Hellgate High School, “I feel that NCBI and Youth Forward are like the Wizard of Oz. Everything before it is in black and white, and then you open the door and everything is happy, and full of color and love.”
NCBI’s leadership development and empowerment programs provide additional support for LGBTQ youth and create the structures necessary for a healthy and accepting Montana; “By supporting our queer and allied youth, we are targeting homophobia, breaking isolation, dismantling barriers, and building bridges. We are creating role models and change agents to inspire others to stand up, speak out, and get involved.”
Kim Leighton is Pride Foundation’s Regional Development Organizer in Montana. Email Kim.