HHS visits Pennsylvania to learn about LGBTQ+ youth

LGBTQ+ youth from the Rainbow Room pictured with Rainbow Room director Marlene Pray and Planned Parenthood Keystone CEO Melissa Reed.
LGBTQ+ youth from the Rainbow Room pictured with Rainbow Room director Marlene Pray and Planned Parenthood Keystone CEO Melissa Reed.

“The leadership team here at HHS has been traveling to various parts ot the country during Pride Month to say very clearly that when we talk about achieving our mission — which is to improve the health and well-being of the American people — that we are very clearly saying that it includes LGBTQI+ individuals all across the country,” said Andrea Palm, United States deputy secretary of Health and Human Services.

“Part of our work is to make sure they are able to thrive and be happy and successful and healthy wherever it is that they live in the country,” she added.

Palm recently visited the Planned Parenthood Keystone Rainbow Room in Doylestown, Pennsylvania to participate in a listening session with a diverse group of Bucks County LGBTQ+ youth, some as young as 12 years old, who shared their concerns and voiced their needs. She said the gathering offered her an opportunity to hear more about what ideas like “health” and “happiness” mean to young people in tangible terms.

Youth told Palm about microaggressions and experiences of discrimination they’ve faced in their schools and communities. They also sought more comprehensive and accurate resources for their questions about body development and other aspects of sex education.

This helped her recognize the ways the Department of Health and Human Services can develop stronger partnerships with the Department of Education to make sure teachers and school administrators have the resources they need to better serve their students.

“They often had ideas for how to make things better,” she noted. “It is always helpful to hear not only challenges but solutions,” she noted, emphasizing that this group of young people had thoughtfully considered the concrete ways institutions could better work together to improve outcomes and experiences.

Some asked specifically for Palm to help establish federal protections through legislation that would protect LGBTQ+ youth even after she and other queer-affirming representatives are no longer in leadership. One attendee spoke about the lack of real actions taken by those who claim to be allies and another noted performative tendencies.

“I see the White House put up a couple of Instagram posts about Pride month. I saw the vice president in a rainbow jacket,” Drew Levy, a recent high school graduate, wrote in a statement. “And yet I still don’t feel safe in my country and my local communities.”

“They very clearly said they want to feel safe — and that is not their experience right now,” Palm underlined, noting that many talked about the way safety concerns impacted their mental health and acknowledged that mental health is an important aspect of overall well-being.

“The youth took this meeting very seriously,” said Marlene Pray, director and founder of Planned Parenthood’s Keystone Rainbow Room. “There was laughter, joy, pain and deep concern shared by the Rainbow Room youth and definitely tears shed by some youth as well as the adults listening.”

“It was beautiful, hopeful — but also devastating because the kids are hurting and they are basically begging our federal government and the White House to care about them,” said Pray.

Some of their concerns reached beyond white-washed versions of LGBTQ+ progress, which one youth, Sky Mandel, noted is an easy way for liberal leaders to seem more progressive than they actually are.

They called for “true collective liberation,” including demands to address colonialism, capitalism, systemic racism, pollution, and other systemic issues that affect people’s intersectionality. Mandel, who is a proud Jewish youth, also called for the liberation of Palestine and universal healthcare.

“There is no chance for real queer liberation” without that, they underlined.

Palm said she wants LGBTQ+ people to see themselves in the work the HHS is doing and truly see their efforts to support them and raise awareness about their needs. She also wants to increase their awareness of resources that already exist to support them — such as the 9-8-8 crisis hotline, which can connect LGBTQ+people to professional, queer-competent support via call or text. HHS has also expanded school-based health clinics to increase access to entry points for health care. The department also recently finalized a policy that more clearly prohibits anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination in healthcare settings.

But some of the youth gathered said they don’t see the impact of those policies. Levy noted his own fears about state-level discriminations that still exist and whether policies on paper could even translate to “real world” protections.

“I come to you today grateful that you are taking the time out of your schedule to speak to queer youth such as myself but also to request that the United States government makes good on its promise of the pursuit of happiness it made to all of its citizens,” wrote Jamie Ludwig, another 2024 high school graduate.

Commissioner of the Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Rebecca Jones Gaston, recently visited Allegheny County, Pennsylvania to engage in a roundtable discussion about LGBTQ+ youth and foster care experiences. She also believes these opportunities to speak directly with those who are impacted by policies can be helpful to inform people about available resources.

She and other leaders have been connecting with community members for over a year as they developed a new rule that aims to protect LGBTQ+ youth in foster care — which goes into effect on July 1.

One aspect of the new ruling implements specific processes and requirements that ensure LGBTQ+ youth in foster care will be placed with caregivers who are trained to meet their specific needs. This includes facilitating age-appropriate LGBTQ+ services to support their health and wellbeing.

“No child in foster care should experience harassment and mistreatment or abuse,” said Jones Gaston. “[The ruling] also says if children have come out and identified themselves as LGBTQI+ they can’t experience retaliation as a result of that.”

During the discussion, Jones Gaston said federal representatives aimed to lift up resources and support systems for agency partners who need to implement this new rule. She also said these and other similar listening sessions help the necessary leaders better understand the needs of LGBTQ+ youth and families and inform their approach to thinking about policy, consider new policies, and implement rule changes.

She also underlined that these touchpoints with the community help government officials check-in to ensure the impact of the changes are positive and make adjustments where needed.

“That will continue,” she underlined. “We absolutely value the voice of those who have lived experience and expertise.”

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