Reaching across the gap

By |2006-01-12T09:00:00-05:00January 12th, 2006|News|

By Dawn Wolfe Gutterman

AMHERST, Mass. – LGBT elders and youth frequently feel as though they are living in separate worlds. In many ways, they are according to a report by the Institute for Gay and Lesbian Strategic Studies. The report not only documents the reasons for the communications gap between LGBT elders and youth, but also makes recommendations for improving the situation.
“In interviews with LGBT youth and adults, we found a noticeable gap in communications across generations,” noted Dr. Glenda Russell, an assistant professor of psychology at Eastern Michigan University and a co-author of “The Gay Generation Gap: Communicating Across the LGBT Generational Divide.” “LGBT adults tend to project their own experiences onto today’s young people, when in fact the lives of today’s young people are often quite different.”
The study notes several examples of this generation gap. “Alternative proms” organized by LGBT adults for LGBT high school youth often seem to be designed to meet the needs of the adult organizers who missed their own proms rather than the needs of today’s young people. Adults tend to focus on the suffering and isolation of LGBT youth, even though many LGBT teens are actually doing well, according to the report. From the other direction, young LGBT people sometimes complain that no one is doing anything about discrimination, apparently unaware of decades of prior activism by LGBT adults.
The challenge for the community is to turn these differences into opportunities for learning and growth. Co-author Dr. Janis Bohan notes, “The good news is that both sides can learn from each other. LGBT adults should be willing to follow the lead of young people, and young LGBT people should be willing to use adults as mentors.”
Local LGBT professionals who work with the community’s young people agreed with many of the report’s suggestions.
Cass Varner, the youth services coordinator at Affirmations Lesbian and Gay Community Center, said, “I definitely agree with this study. I think there is a huge gap between generations, young and old. I even notice it – not that I consider myself old, but things were a lot different when I was in high school than they are today.”
Varner said that many of Affirmations’ youth programs try to target both communities.
“We do intergenerational programming,” she said. “We have a hip-hop dance program that’s open to everyone – it’s promoted and marketed in the youth program, but there are a lot of different adults that participate. Last year at Motor City Pride, adults and youth performed. Although the program is really small, I think it’s a beginning.”
“This article is kind of reaffirming for us – it’s really nice to look at it and think about why we do the things we do,” said Grace McClelland, executive director of the Ruth Ellis Center. “We do them for different reasons than spelled out in the article, but the results are the same.”
McClelland said that REC is proactive in trying to help young people have a sense of LGBT history. In addition to cross-generational programming that brings youths and adults together, McClelland said that the center uses storytelling to teach the community’s history to younger people.
“We do a lot of storytelling around history because that’s a piece that a lot of people miss these days,” she said. “Young people these days – they’re not necessarily concerned about the history unless you give it to them in a way they can relate to. So we tell stories about our elders, about Ruth Ellis. We also talk about our long history of activism, going back to Stonewall and before.”
“We’re really careful that people don’t come in and preach to young people,” McClelland added.
One of the study’s recommendations involves “youth empowerment,” a strategy McClelland says that her center employs on a regular basis.
“Another thing we do with our young people is that they are part of the decision-makers. Our young people decided where the drop-in center would be located,” McClelland said. “We use them to make decisions about themselves because we’re not here to make decisions for them, but to teach them to make decisions for themselves.
“I think a lot of us, from an activist perspective, that we always try to give young people a voice – but does it matter what they say? Because if it doesn’t matter, why are you asking them in the first place?”

To read the complete IGLSS report, visit

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Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.