4-H ‘saved me as a child’: gay speaker

Awareness and acceptance are improving, but delegates at 4-H summit warned to learn about laws when travelling

OTTAWA — Bed-wetting was part of the emotional turmoil Jeff Howard endured as a child dealing with his homosexuality.

He said he knew he was gay by age seven but never shared it.

“I would pray to God to please make this stop.… ‘I want you to fix me,’ ” the state director of University of Maryland Extension 4-H Youth Development said during a session at the Global 4-H Network Summit in Ottawa this month.

Raised in an ultra conservative Christian farming family in Texas, he said his father used corporal punishment when he wet the bed. He believed his father didn’t like him and was often referred to as a sissy.

It was in 4-H that Howard found solace and positive activities that he could do with his family.

“I found an outlet where I was celebrated for the things I could do rather than what I couldn’t do. The leader accepted me unconditionally,” he said. “I believe that saved me as a child.”

A Centre of Disease Control study on youth risk behaviour reported higher rates of suicide and self-harm in the homosexual population than among heterosexuals.

LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, queer) youth are at a higher risk of violence from bullying and teasing than their straight counterparts. They are also twice as likely to attempt suicide.

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4-H delegates discussed ways to create “safe and same” environments that are inclusive and nurturing for all young people.

“As we reach out to new audiences, there is a larger possibility of including LGBTQ so you have to be prepared to nurture and understand them as they come into the program,” said Howard, noting many are coming out earlier because of improved awareness and acceptance.

Howard said language and forms should be gender neutral, listing words like parents instead of mother and father.

Be aware of signs of bullying for all young people and educate members that homosexuality cannot be cured, caught or chosen.

“When you’re born, you’re either straight or gay,” sad Howard.

He warned leaders and young people to be aware of the laws when travelling, noting homosexuality is illegal in 76 countries, including Tanzania, where the next global 4-H summit will be held in 2020.

“Social media is a connection, there is knowledge about you,” he said.

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Participants agreed that if children reveal their sexual orientation to 4-H leaders, it should not be shared.

“It’s inappropriate for us to tell the parents. It’s their (children’s) decision,” Howard said, noting many gays are not comfortable coming out to their own families.

He suggested educational workshops for volunteer leaders to increase awareness.

Cera Youngson, 4-H Saskatchewan’s executive director, plans to work with her provincial 4-H counterparts to create policies to address inclusiveness.

She said it will help them prepare for situations that might arise, such as rooming options for persons identifying by gender.

“Even though we don’t have a specific policy in place, it’s always been our intent that 4-H is a place for all youth,” she said.

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