Wolowic, Jennifer, Heston, Laura, Saewyc, Elizabeth, Porta, Carolyn, and Eisenberg, Marla. “Embracing the Rainbow: LGBTQ Youth Navigating “Safe” Spaces and Belonging in North America. “ Journal of Adolescent Health 58(2016): S1. Print.


While rainbows and safe space stickers have been a part of health care and school interventions promoting LGBTQ youth health and well-being, little research has been published describing how youth perceive and use the symbol. As part of a larger study on LGBTQ youth wellness, we explored youth perceptions of the rainbow and other symbols in creating supportive environments.


Self-identified LGBTQ youth (N=66; 14-19 years of age) in 23 cities across Minnesota, Massachusetts, and British Columbia were recruited through community settings and participated in audio recorded go-along interviews from November 2014 to July 2015. In go-along methodology, interviews are conducted while participant and researcher visit areas identified by participants to help understand environmental contexts. Access to resources and supportive persons were discussed, and youth were asked what kinds of visual cues helped them assess safety and solidarity. During the coding process, visual cues and the popularity of rainbows emerged as a common theme, and were selected for further constant comparative analysis. Guided by semiotics and symbolic interactionism frameworks, we reviewed and descriptively coded youths’ comments about visual cues, rainbows, and safe space stickers. Participants’ quotes are used to highlight key findings.


Four themes emerged from participants’ shared perspectives: Navigation, Affect, Affiliation, and Limitations. The majority of participants who mentioned rainbows identified stickers or other kinds of rainbow markers as part of how they navigated towards medical, emotional, and social resources as well as supportive individuals such as teachers and counselors. A majority of youth expressed positive affect and associations with the rainbow. One stated, “I trust more, if I see the flag–the rainbow flag–and the LBGT signs. I trust that person more than if I didn’t see it.” Others chose to display the symbol to disclose their affiliation with the LGBTQ community. Youth identified rainbows as a recognizable and visible statement of solidarity, but acknowledged the limitations of the symbol. Youth noticed the rainbow, but its display was not always recognized as inclusive or enough to create supportive environments. For example, a trans participant highlighted, “[School officials] post safe spaces [stickers] all over, but there’s no fucking safe space, honestly…Maybe for gay people, but trans? No.” Many youth associated rainbows with supportive teachers and LGBTQ friendly spaces, but few mentioned the symbol in connection with supportive health care providers.


Incorporating symbols, like the rainbow, in clinics and health centers in particular, may mark these spaces as safe for and supportive of LGBTQ youth. Most participants recognized and navigated towards these symbols. However, these displays should be backed up by the presence of knowledgeable, supportive persons sensitive to the needs of LGBTQ youth. Understanding the meaning of these symbols for youth may provide useful information for service providers working with this population.

Sources of Support

Funding was provided by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute Of Child Health & Human Development of the National Institutes of Health (grant #R01HD078470; PI: Eisenberg).

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