How natural mentoring relationships support gay, bisexual, and questioning male youth

prideflagTorres, R.S., Harper, G.W., Sanchez, B., & Fernandez, M.I. (2012). Examining Natural Mentoring Relationships (NMRs) among Self- Identified Gay, Bisexual, and Questioning (GBQ) Male Youth. Child and Youth Service Review, 34 (1), 8-14.

Summarized by Chelsea Kearin, CEBM Editorial Associate

Introduction: Many gay, bisexual, and questioning (GBQ) teenagers experience isolation and hostility due to persistent homophobia and heterosexual privilege within society. Since natural mentoring relationships (NMRs) have proven successful with other at-risk youth, looking into these kinds of relationships among same-sex attracted (SSA) youth is overdue. Learning about NMRs that promote support and positive development among SSA youth can inform interventions aimed at addressing challenges that SSA youth face.

Method: This study examined data from a subset of 39 participants who met the following criteria:

  1. Biological/cisgendered male
  2. 14-22 years old
  3. Self-identify as African American, Hispanic/Latino, or White non-Hispanic/European American
  4. Self-identify as GBQ
  5. Have no knowledge of being HIV positive
  6. Chicago metropolitan area residence
  7. English fluency

Results: Participants cited individuals typically recognized as natural mentors (e.g., teachers, coaches, school nurses, counselors, and neighbors), as well as those less frequently associated with this role, such as siblings, significant others, and peers. Paraprofessionals in learning institutions or youth-related organizations were also mentioned as mentors. Youth named mentors from a diverse range of ages, including some same-age peers.

Natural mentors in the lives of SSA youth provided general social support (e.g., guidance, encouragement, encouragement, reassurance), as well as more specific forms of support, including:

  • Emotional Support: characterized by empathy, care, concern
  • Informational Support: advice and information, including information about safe sex and HIV
  • Self-Appraisal Support: characterized by implicit and explicit messages to challenge youths’ negative perceptions of self and identity
  • Unconditional support: characterized by unconditional acceptance

Participants discussed school based groups (such as Gay Student Alliances) and community events (such as Pride Parades) as important activities with their NMRs. Other important factors, such as companionship and exchanges among mutual interests, were cited.

Discussion: Like many “at-risk youth”, GBQ teens value the presence of teachers, counselors, and other school-based personnel, because their presence challenges the belief that schools can be unwelcoming – if not out-and-out hostile – towards SSA youth.

While many subjects cited romantic partners as NMRs, the data does not indicate that formal mentoring programs should recruit them as mentors. Because many youth don’t have models of healthy same-sex relationships, they might not have a sense of boundaries between emotionally supportive and emotionally intimate relationships.

Subjects most frequently cited emotional support. Due to heterosexual privilege within society and (in some quarters) extreme homophobia, many SSA youth may feel they need to hide their sexual orientation. This study suggests that identified NMRs can help youth negotiate this by supporting them and helping them make healthy decisions.

Implications: Findings that natural mentoring relationships between SSA mentors and SSA mentees can result in positive youth outcomes may be used to enhance formal mentoring efforts. While SSA adults may better understand the unique developmental challenges that SSA youth experience, however, findings from the present study suggest that a NMR with an understanding and supportive adult may be more important to SSA male youth than having an SSA mentor.

Mental health professionals should adopt a framework for interacting with SSA youth that doesn’t foreground the challenges in their lives. This will allow providers to help these youth find a support system that will promote health and well-being.