How can we, as troop leaders, best support our LGBTQIA+ Girl Scout youth? As a troop leader for Girl Scouts, I LOVE what we do. I love building up our youth, helping shape their lives and experiences, and seeing them grow into who they are meant to be. We started our troop back when they were Daisies, with cute little faces that delighted in everything we did; when the biggest question was ensuring that snack was provided at the right time for the meeting. I didn’t know then that my troop contained queer and gender-expansive youth, or that learning to provide a safe space for them would be part of my work as a troop leader. The journey that my Troop and I have been on has only expanded my love of being their Troop Leader.
What does it mean to have gender-expansive youth in my troop?
It means I have kids in my troop who identify as female, male, or neither. Yes, you read that right—I have boys in my Girl Scout troop. You might be thinking, “Wait—I thought Girl Scouts was a space just for girls! Well, all of the members of my troop have identified with the experience of being or being seen as a girl at some point in their lives. Most of my troop have been together since they were Daisies; we are now Cadettes.
As a leader of older Girl Scouts, I have watched them grow from curious and funny little people and begin to blossom into their true selves, all while making the world a better place. We have a saying in our troop: “It’s because of Girl Scouts” which means we take risks to stand up for ourselves, and others, and problem-solve together. When they decided that there was not enough support at their school to make new kids feel included, they created a “New Kid Welcome Packet”, ensuring each new student had a buddy assigned to them to help ease them into school. When they had a new teacher start at their school and the teacher’s library was nonexistent, they decided to run a book collection event to build their new teacher’s library. When a troop member came to us and said; “I am a boy” he was met with understanding, love and acceptance. In our troop, sixth grade was a big year of “coming out” and some of the Girl Scouts in my troop went into middle school with new names to share and a stronger understanding of their own gender identity.
We all know that entering middle school is a very scary time. Sharing a new name and gender identity can be terrifying. The first day of middle school was the day our male troop member first walked into a school as his true self, without knowing how whether he would be accepted or rejected. Our troop members, without any prompting from the adults, or any planning at all, gathered around the front of the school to wait for him so they could walk in together. They all knew that he needed his troop to support him and to be with him on his first day and they made sure that he was not alone. This small move made by his Girl Scout troop ensured his year started out on the best foot possible, and he knows he always has unwavering support at school.
Embodying Belonging in Your Troop
In Girl Scouts, youth take the lead, and our troop works hard to embody this ideal. So, I went to them and asked: “How do we, as troop leaders, best support our friends who are discovering who they are? How do I, as the Troop Leader, provide the most inclusive and supportive space without making any troop member feel excluded or othered? What are your expectations from the adults to ensure this space is safe and welcoming for all of us?” These are some of the important needs my troop shared with me:
- Share your pronouns when introducing yourself. By using our pronouns when introducing ourselves at meetings, outings and other activities, the troop’s youth know and understand that it is safe for them to do so as well, if they so choose
- Never “out” a person, to the troop, their parents, or anyone else. Someone who lets you know that they are part of the LGBTQIA+ community is trusting you and they deserve for you to respect them and their needs. Always ask what and with whom they are comfortable sharing.
- Make a dedicated effort to use everyone’s correct pronouns, meaning the pronouns they identify with, if they have shared them. When you make a mistake (because you will, and that’s ok), correct yourself, apologize, and move on. Don’t make a big deal out of the apology because that makes your mistake about you and not them, and can draw unwanted attention.
- Supporting someone’s identity and safety may look different in different contexts. Ask questions like “What pronouns would you like me to use at troop meetings?”, “What pronouns would you like me to use in public?”, and “Should I change your pronouns when emailing with the adults in your life?” So that you can have a strong understanding of their needs. Let them know they don’t have to answer if they are not comfortable, and understand that they may not have the answers themselves.
- If a troop member comes to you to discuss their pronouns, allow them to lead the conversation. Understand and acknowledge that it’s not their responsibility to be your teacher about this, but that you are willing to learn anything they’d like to share, and assure them that you will learn more on your own. It’s not their job to teach why pronouns are important, or what certain pronouns and other gender expansive terms mean. Let them know you care and accept and love them for who they are and not who you think they should be. One of the best ways to show this is by being proactive about educating yourself.
- Be honest in what you do not know and what you do. If a topic comes up and you are not sure of something, be honest. Reach out to local groups who help support queer youth and ask questions. Your troop members may not say anything about how you change your own behavior, e.g. consistently using their pronouns, but they will notice it and it will make them feel like they belong.
- Language can impact a person’s sense of security, whether we realize it or not. When a Girl Scout troop is out and about, the adults tend to get their attention by saying “Hey Girl Scouts” and similar phrases. To be as inclusive as possible, why not use “Hey Troop #####“, or call them by their troop crest name or other chosen name instead. When speaking to the troop in public, using a non-gendered name can help not only the youth in the troop feel safe but can show the world around us that Girl Scouts is a safe, inclusive space.
- Have conversations about Girl Scouts being LGBTQIA+ inclusive before someone comes out to you or troop. This way any youth in the troop knows they belong.
- Actions can speak louder than words. Don’t treat anyone who has confided in you any differently. Our Girl Scouts will notice if you treat someone differently. They will notice if someone is not asked questions as often or if a kid is now not included when handing out patrol assignments. Even when they feel safe and accepted for who they are in the troop, they will worry about what they share and who may share this out. A troop-specific code of conduct helps to ensure that what happens at Girl Scouts stays at Girl Scouts.
- An important reminder that my troop gave me is that they are still young and still learning. That sometimes they do not know how to be the best ally for their friends, and sometimes they are looking to us for guidance without necessarily asking out loud. Although LGBTQIA+ inclusivity is something that is talked about a lot at their school which is in a fairly accepting area, they still may not feel like they know what to do or say all of the time to best support their friends, and they will look to adults for guidance. As troop leaders, we aren’t expected to know everything but guiding with an open heart and a growth mindset will always help the kids in our lives.
Has welcoming gender-expansive youth in Girl Scouts changed my troop?
If you’re wondering how our troop has changed now that one of our members has come out as a boy, I will be honest: it hasn’t. The only thing that has changed is the way I refer to my Girl Scouts. I call them kiddos or young folk, and I call their parents’ folks now as well. The troop is still led by Girl Scouts, we still work on the same badges, activities and adventures. I still see my young folk working out where they fit in with one another, and I still hear “it wasn’t too bad”, when asking for feedback on meetings activities and projects, which in my opinion is high praise from middle schoolers.
While this learning process may seem like a lot for a troop leader to navigate, just remember: you know these kids. You may have helped your shy kids become more outgoing and seen them speak up in ways they never thought possible. You may have taken your troop camping and helped a Girl Scout that had never spent the night outdoors learn to navigate the wilderness confidently. You may have taught them new skills or helped them safely use new tools. You’ve likely had several years of walking alongside them in their personal journey of discovery. This is just one more step.
As troop leaders we constantly change and grow and figure out how to help our troops reach their goals. Even if we ourselves are unsure of the best path forward, we take risks, we try new things, and we support each other. Creating an inclusive space our LBGTQ kids is no different. As Juliette Gordon Low said, “Scouting rises within you and inspires you to put forth your best.” And after all, this is what each troop leader does each and every day. You got this!
- Learn more about supporting the LGBTQ+ Community with your Troop with Troop Leader Jennifer Roper!
- Curious about what our commitment as a council to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging means for you as a volunteer? Dig into our volunteer policy and culture code!
- Read about how Phoebe made LGBTQ representation the focus of her 2019 National Gold Award Girl Scout-winning project!