Creating Affirming Environments: A Toolbox to Help Programs Serve LGBTQ+ Relationships Effectively
Matthew Rivas-Koehl,* Menglin Wei,* Mindy E. Scott, and Elizabeth Wildsmith
This toolkit provides research-informed recommendations for existing Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education (HMRE) programming to become more inclusive and relevant for LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning, and other gender- or sexually-minoritized) people. While not exhaustive, we hope this toolkit provides a starting point for practitioners to make their programming more inclusive for people across all LGBTQ+ identities.
These recommendations are informed by key facts about LGBTQ+ relationships, a review of LGBTQ+ inclusive terminology, and research on some of the key stressors and sources of resilience and thriving for LGBTQ+ couples. Importantly, same-gender couples and individuals in LGBTQ+ romantic relationships are similar in many ways to their heterosexual counterparts. However, there are also some distinct features and relationship dynamics among LGBTQ+ romantic relationships that may inform program priorities, content, and delivery. We believe this toolkit can help HMRE program providers, project managers, and educators better understand and serve LGBTQ+ couples and families.
Note on terminology. LGBTQ+, the more inclusive acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, is used throughout this brief to encompass diverse sexual and gender identities. Currently, nationally representative data on the experiences of transgender and gender diverse individuals in romantic relationships is limited. Therefore, much of the information in this toolkit centers the experiences of same-gender/sex and LGB couples. We recognize the diversity in experiences of LGBTQ+ families and strongly encourage future research that supports the well-being of all LGBTQ+ people. If “same-sex,” “same-gender,” “LGB,” or “LGBT” is specified, the use of those terms reflects the language used in the research or data being cited.
Many Americans identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT), and this identification is increasing across generations as social and political environments have generally trended toward becoming more accepting.1 According to data collected in 2022, about 7 percent of American adults and as many as 20 percent of young Americans identify as LGBT.2 Committed, romantic relationships are an important part of life for LGBT individuals; in 2021, the United States had about 1.2 million same-sex couple households, including about 710,000 married same-sex couples.3 The number of same-sex households has steadily increased since 2005 according to United States Census tracking.
Decades of research documents the effectiveness of HMRE programming in helping individuals and couples develop and maintain healthy relationships. Programs have been linked to improved relationship quality, co-parenting functioning, relationship knowledge and skills, and individual mental health outcomes for adult couple program participants.4 Although the populations served by HMRE programs vary widely, most programs are predominantly informed by research on heterosexual couples with limited consideration of potentially different relationship dynamics that occur for LGB couples.5-7 Although some HMRE programs may not intend to exclude LGBTQ+ couples, the lack of representation in program materials may deter LGBTQ+ couples and families from engaging with HMRE programming or feeling comfortable when they do. The purpose of this toolkit is to help existing HMRE programs become more inclusive of LGBTQ+ audiences by raising attention to pertinent issues for this population and providing accessible, evidence-based tips for program adaptations.
Note on intersectionality. We recognize that not all gender- and sexually-minoritized individuals share the same experiences. Although expanding the discussion to include program considerations for race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, geographic location, and other factors that inform identity is beyond the scope of the
current toolkit, we recognize that people have multiple identities that intersect with their gender identity
and sexual orientation in important and meaningful ways.
Recommendations for HMRE Programming
Recent research shows that HMRE programming using heteronormative curriculum can benefit the quality of same-gender couples’ relationships (e.g., through increased satisfaction, greater emotional support), though data show consistently smaller effect sizes in program outcomes than observed among heterosexual couples.8 Thus, HMRE providers do not need to start from the beginning to make programming relevant for LGBTQ+ couples; rather, a few modifications may help improve the inclusiveness and applicability of already successful programs. We highlight the following recommendations as suggestions for HMRE providers to better serve LGBTQ+ program participants based on the strengths, challenges, and unique features of LGBTQ+ romantic relationships that are discussed in later sections of this toolkit.
Implications considering inclusivity, visibility, and diversity in HMRE curriculum:
An existing report on providing HMRE services for LGB populations, funded by the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation (OPRE), provides helpful suggestions for funders and technical assistance providers to make relationship education curricula more inclusive9 for LGBTQ+ individuals and families. Many of these suggestions also apply at the programmatic and program provider levels.
- First, HMRE providers should review the images, visuals, language, vignettes, and discussion questions used in their programs to assess if LGBTQ+ individuals and families are represented in the existing material. Providers should include gender neutral names in examples and replace some of the different-gender couple images and/or videos with same-gender romantic partners.
- Second, providers can make some programmatic adaptations. For example, HMRE providers may consider adding materials covering topics that specifically pertain to LGBTQ+ individuals and families (e.g., discussing coming out to family). When adapting materials, providers should provide resources and training for the educators and staff members on inclusion and diversity to ensure they can deliver the modified content appropriately.
Implications based on unique features of LGBTQ+ romantic relationships:
To reduce the burden on LGBTQ+ individuals to make space for their experiences in an HMRE program, gender-neutral language should be used in program materials. Though some people may appear heterosexual (e.g., a man and woman in a romantic relationship), this does not necessarily mean they identify this way. People who identify as bisexual, queer, or another identity are sometimes overlooked and assumed to be heterosexual. Instead of making this assumption, allow space for people to identify themselves and share their experiences if they are comfortable. Simple shifts in language use (e.g., using “partner” or “spouse” instead of “husband/wife”) may help LGBTQ+ participants feel more welcomed as it demonstrates intentional efforts to be more inclusive.
Practitioners should not assume monogamy is the norm for all their participants. Practitioners should be aware of the higher prevalence of non-monogamous relationships among LGBTQ+ individuals.10 It is important to recognize that these relationships can be just as healthy and satisfying as monogamous ones, and practitioners should be mindful of the stigmatization that diverse relationship formations may face. Practitioners should be prepared to address stigmatizing comments that may arise in HMRE classes.
In vignettes or scenarios and in general discussions, practitioners should avoid using examples that impose a gender-based bias or assumption on household labor and decision making. Practitioners should consider the gendered nature of household labor such as cooking, cleaning, caretaking of indoor versus outdoor spaces, etc. This may include recognizing and reflecting on one’s own biases about the division of household labor and how this may impact their teaching.
Implications informed by experiences of minority stress:
HMRE program providers should work with the LGBTQ+ community to ensure that program materials are inclusive and do not inadvertently harm LGBTQ+ participants by portraying gender based or heteronormative biases, which exist in some of the current relationship education programs.5 This can be achieved by working with content experts on LGBTQ+ relationships or with program participants who identify as LGBTQ+ to detect such assumptions or biases in the programs.
Programming should review the effects that minority stressors have on individual and relational outcomes and validate the unique challenges LGBTQ+ couples face. Although LGBTQ+ couples and individuals experience elevated levels of stress on average, stress is not unique to LGBTQ+ individuals and families – it affects the quality of all couples’ relationships.11 Thus, these adaptations are likely to benefit different-gender and same-gender romantic couples.
Implications based on LGBTQ+ individual and families’ resiliency and strengths:
Providers should include activities that allow LGBTQ+ romantic partners to practice their communication and conflict management skills on topics specific to LGBTQ+ couples. Topics may include outness, activism in the LGBTQ+ communities, different options for growing their families, and how to address discrimination or stigma related to their identities or relationship status. Outcomes in these two domains (communication and conflict management) are already a key focus of many HMRE program evaluations, 12 and promoting these skills may be particularly important sources of resilience for LGBTQ+ couples.13
HMRE providers should highlight the positive effects of broader social support for LGBTQ+ couples and provide information on relevant resources in their communities. Social support from friends and family and connections with the LGBTQ+ communities are two factors particularly important for LGBTQ+ romantic partners’ resiliency and contribute to the satisfaction and longevity of LGBTQ+ romantic relationships.13,14 However, few programs explicitly focus on couples’ connections with their social support networks as program outcomes.12