Making Gay Youth Feel Safe

Print More

It is virtually a rite of passage for teens to be consumed at some point with feelings of isolation. Studies show that for many gay teens, such feelings are not without foundation.

Advocates for gay youth say that, more than any other group, the kids they champion are underserved from every direction. The hostility and homophobia common among their peers and family members create a need for an array of specialized services, including sex education designed for the needs of gay youth, mental health counseling and safe spaces for the youths to congregate.

Trying to provide these services, however, often raises a fundamental conflict: Should programs aim to provide safe spaces, even if it means segregating gay youth from straight kids? Or should they focus on providing opportunities for peaceful coexistence? The debate gained prominence last July when New York City announced that its Harvey Milk High School would become the nation’s first fully accredited school specifically for gay youth. (See “Out at School,” September 2003.)

The best answer is probably a balance of the two. Working with a diverse group is ideal, but the need for safety is especially evident when it comes to educating gay youth, says Joshua LaMont, communications director for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).

“In a perfect world, we don’t need a Harvey Milk School,” LaMont says. But the existence of such institutions “serve as an indictment of school systems not prepared or equipped to ensure safe and effective learning environments for all students, particularly LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender] students.”

But surveys by GLSEN and Advocates for Youth suggest that acceptance of gay peers among youth is far from being achieved.

About 26 percent of gay youth said they experienced frequent verbal harassment in school because of their sexuality. Such harassment goes beyond teasing and taunting: Forty-two percent reported physical harassment, and 21 percent said they’d been physically assaulted. Eighty-one percent of the gay youth surveyed said teachers did not intervene when they witnessed homophobic comments.

This helps explain some troubling estimates about the behavior of gay youth.

One-third say they have attempted suicide at least once, says Advocates for Youth, and about 30 percent have dropped out of school. Some estimates say as many as 40 percent of homeless youth are gay.

According to a study published in Pediatrics in 1998, self-identifying gay youth are more likely than heterosexual youth to use crack, cocaine, inhalants and anabolic steroids. They are also more likely to engage in sex with multiple partners.

Contributing to the sexual behavior problem, say gay youth service providers, is that sex education often ignores gay youth. A survey of 3,647 youths in Massachusetts (151 of them gay) showed that only 20 percent of high schools had at least moderate “gay-sensitive” health instruction. This in a state where the public’s ideology has never been confused with the conservatism often found in the nation’s heartland.

But not all the news is bad. The same study found that schools that do provide gay-sensitive content have achieved promising results. Youth who received a high amount of gay-sensitive training used condoms during sex 61 percent of the time, compared with only 38 percent of those youth who received a low amount of instruction. Youth in the former group were also more likely to talk to their parents about AIDS (71 percent compared with 52 percent).

The number of programs that serve gay youth has risen over the past decade. Membership in the National Youth Advocacy Coalition, which works on behalf of its largely community-level members in the gay-youth service field, grew from 12 organizations in 1993 to 132 this year. The next step, says Executive Director Craig Bowman, is to expand the organizations’ capacities.

“Most of our members have budgets under $250,000,” Bowman says. “They average three to four full-time staff and serve 800 youth each year.”

The field has diversified its approaches as well. Some have sought to provide spaces for gay youth to hang out without the presence of heterosexual peers, while other programs seek integration, largely by creating alliance organizations that bring together straight and gay teens. GLSEN’s survey found that in schools with gay-straight alliances, gay youth were 9 percent less likely to feel unsafe.

Other programs work with specific ethnicities within the young gay population, a path taken particularly among those populations that have typically shunned homosexuals.

Following are profiles of four groups working to foster safety and self-esteem for gay youth:

The Arts

City at Peace
1328 Florida Ave. NW
Washington, D.C. 20009
(202) 319-2200

To be in a theater production with City at Peace, youth have to learn a lot more than their lines.

Every September, Washington teenagers of all races, classes, religions and sexualities audition for a group whose mission is to build peace through the performing arts. Acceptance to the program is not so much about theatrical talent; it’s about wanting a diverse community.

City at Peace is not geared specifically toward gay youth. But every year, estimates managing director Elizabeth Gill, about 25 percent of its 60-person cast is gay.

Gill emphasizes the need for these teens to participate in a group of largely straight kids. “There are times in a society’s development when you have to be separate, and programs that serve a particular group have a great deal of merit,” Gill says. “At City of Peace, we discover our commonalities and our differences. … It’s important to be together with others.”

One might think that in such a large and diverse group, gay and straight youth might segregate themselves from one another. “There might be an initial inclination to sit next to someone you know, or someone who looks like you,” says Gill. “But that goes away almost immediately.”

That’s probably because the youths spend more than a month getting to know one another before the twice-weekly, four-hour sessions turn into rehearsals. The teens spend the first eight sessions learning about one another, sharing personal information and learning to trust and respect one another. “People just let out a lot of stuff about how they feel,” says former cast member Megan Gilbert.

One effective exercise is “Step Across the Line,” where participants are asked to cross over a line if they agree with a statement. After a few rounds, Gill says, youths find that their fellow teens don’t necessarily base their opinions on stereotypes: Gay youth may agree more with some straight youth than with other gays.

The discussion process has been particularly effective for gay participants, says Artistic Director Sandy Holloway. “The support they get inside the room begins to model behavior they can carry outside the room,” she says.

Support does not always come unfettered. Holloway recalls when a deeply religious youth voiced strong opposition to homosexuality and was surprised to be confronted with equal intensity by a much smaller gay teen. “The gay youth never backed down,” says Holloway. “That is one thing the heterosexual guy really appreciated.” The two eventually became friends.

Once cast members are comfortable with one another, it’s on with the show. One group, the production team, goes on a weekend retreat to come up with a theme for the show, a concept that ties together the many real-life experiences of the kids in the program. After the team’s return, the whole group works to script a play, complete with music and choreography.

“This is a very good place to feel safe for a gay teenager,” says Gill. None of the kids acts out his own story; he can “test out” people’s reactions to the story without being exposed, because someone else is acting it. This makes for interesting audience reactions. “Sometimes parents don’t realize [the story line] is about them” and their kids, says Gill, “but they still sympathize and are concerned.”

Last year’s performance was “Showface,” a tongue-in-cheek lesson on the consequences of not being yourself. A TV reality show selects high-school kids to live in a house and be filmed around the clock, like “Real World.” When the teens conceal their real feelings and personalities to look “better” on television, the producers get bored and start filming other people on the set.
“Showface” was performed twice at major Washington theaters. Tickets and fees paid by local schools for the group to do presentations basically covered the cost of the production, says Gill.

The rest of City at Peace’s $190,000 annual budget comes from philanthropy. In 2003, the Cricket Island Foundation provided a $30,000 grant, and the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation gave $15,000.

The program has taken root nationally. The National City at Peace was founded in 2000, and now has chapters in Los Angeles; New York; Chicago; Boston; Santa Barbara, Calif.; and Baton Rouge, La. The Washington program remains independent, but Gill and Holloway are in touch weekly with directors from the other sites.

Ethnic Focus

‘Ohana House
6115 Selma Ave., Suite 207
Los Angeles, CA 90028
(800) 530-5820

Sumiko Braun was 17 when she was kicked out of her home after coming out to her family. Looking for a place where she could feel accepted, she found the Asian Pacific Islanders for Human Rights (APIHR) program.

Two years later, Braun serves as the youth program coordinator for the center, which touts itself as the only organization dedicated to the human rights of gay Asian Pacific Islanders (API) in Los Angeles County.

More than 200 teens showed up for its opening last July. Executive Director Patrick Mangto says 243 youth have been served by the facility, and 253 more have been referred by ‘Ohana to other organizations, mostly for housing and mental health services.

The program provides safe space and information for a group of kids that Mangto says are too often considered a disgrace to the family name.

“Asian youth are trained to be part of a family unit, not be individual,” Mangto says. “They must carry the family name, so they need an heir. So the family looks at it as shame if a child is gay.”

The ‘Ohana hangout is the central attraction of the program: a place in Hollywood near enough to the Asian enclave to be accessible, but far enough away to ensure anonymity. Gay youth can have a good time and be themselves while reading books, listening to music or watching movies.

The center also provides more structured information sessions, including a workshop called “Let’s Talk About Sex” that broaches a subject Mangto says is particularly touchy.

“Sexuality is taboo in the API community,” says the 38-year-old director. “The mainstream has failed when they come in with blunt info: Here’s a condom, here’s how to use it. We build up to it, do multiple workshops, allow for more privacy if necessary.”

Another major focus of ‘Ohana House is helping members with their family troubles. Mangto says that when a young man recently called because his sister had outed him to his parents, who then kicked him out of the home. Workers found an aunt
who agreed to support him and intervene with the family, then helped her carry out the difficult mission.

‘Ohana’s work has extended outside the facility as well. The group launched a media campaign within California’s API community, which accounts for about 10 percent of the state’s 33 million people.

The California Anti-Homophobia Campaign places advertisements in Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Korean, Vietnamese and Tagalog. The ads show a picture of a gay Asian, informing readers that he or she is a regular person who happens to be homosexual.

The most significant effect of the ads was increased support in the Asian-American media, Mangto says. “We used to have to pay full market price for the ads, and most didn’t want to run them no matter what we paid,” she says of the local Asian media, most of which are small newsletters and supplements. “They just had a lack of information. If you provide info, people will generally support a rational cause.”

With grants from the California Endowment ($50,000), the Gill Foundation ($30,000) and the Liberty Hill Foundation ($11,000), the group’s 2002 budget of $85,000 grew to $110,000 for 2003.

School for Gays

Walt Whitman Community School
P.O. Box 181781
Dallas, TX 75218
(214) 855-1535

While teaching English at an alternative prep school in Texas, Becky Thompson and Pamala Stone noticed a problem: A disproportionate number of youth they knew to be gay were dropping out of high school. So they set out to bring gay youth into the classroom and keep them there.

In 1997 Thompson and Stone founded the Walt Whitman Community School, a gay-friendly high school. They named it after the acclaimed gay writer and poet, says Thompson, because his concentration on “being an individual” seemed appropriate to the school’s mission. That mission, she says, is to provide a “kind of safe haven for kids who are really being harassed” at their regular schools and need to be in an environment where they are accepted and can thrive.

Fulfilling that mission has grown difficult as more students become interested and the staff remains bare-bones (particularly the administrative staff, which is basically just Thompson). Because of this, the school is closed for an overhaul and plans to reopen in 2004.

Whitman’s faculty of three full-time and three part-time teachers handled 18 youth in 2002, more than double the number they started with in 1997. Most of the students commuted from the surrounding metropolitan area, but each year a handful came from farther away, sometimes as far as North Carolina.

The out-of-towners live with volunteer host families. The families are trained by the school after going through reference and background checks and psychological evaluations.

Youth hear about Whitman primarily through its national outreach program or news coverage. A huge boost came with the release this summer of the MTV film “School’s Out: The Life of a Gay High School in Texas.” Filmmakers documented the experiences of eight Whitman students, which sent the phones ringing off the hook, Thompson says.

The students pursue a courseload not unlike their counterparts at other high schools. They take math and science, but profit from small classes of no more than 15 to 20 students. Students also take a psychology class, where they can talk about some of the hardships they face because of their sexual preferences. Otherwise, there is not a huge academic focus on gay issues or gay history.

On Fridays, instead of attending class, students are required to perform community service. This offers hands-on education and a way to stay involved with the larger world around them. Because of harassment they’ve suffered at other schools, Thompson explains, many of the kids have grown confrontational in social interactions. They need tools to “build skills to deal with the real world,” she says. “They still live in it.”

The school has been open to any high school-aged youth nationwide, but the enrollment last spring was about 70 percent gay. Some of the others are children or siblings of gay people.

Aside from hosting students, the community members have also donated money and supplies, which helped to create the school’s computer lab. The school received funding in 2002 from the Texas Instruments ($7,000) and Freddie Mac ($35,000) foundations.

Each student is charged $7,000 a year in tuition, but the money comes from a scholarship fund financed from local contributions. Thompson recently implemented a work-study program for kids to pay off their tuition by doing community work.

Funding aside, Thompson’s biggest problem is obtaining state accreditation. After two applications to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (one in 2000, the other last year), Whitman is still not accredited.

Both applications were denied because of Whitman’s outside funding and lack of tuition base, Thompson says. The association says the school also didn’t meet several requirements dealing with leadership experience, staff development, and the provision of mental and physical health services.

The MTV documentary yielded an influx of interested students nationwide, many of whom were interested in Whitman but also in higher education opportunities. To accommodate that need, Thompson decided to close the school for 2003 and focus all attention on getting accredited.

The goal is to forge a partnership with an accredited school and maintain 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, which Thompson describes as “imminent.” She’s hoping the move will allow the school to continue covering tuition while also making it more accommodating to students who want to go directly to a four-year university.

Without accreditation, Thompson says, Whitman’s students have still been able to attend community colleges, most of which accept diplomas from nonaccredited schools. About 20 have done so, and about 16 others have received GEDs.
Most other youth enter the work force directly, says Thompson.

Asked for a five-year plan, Thompson’s answer is bittersweet: “I’d like there to be acceptance for these kids. I’d like there to be no need for the Walt Whitman School.”

Group Support

We Are Family
P.O. Box 30734
Charleston, SC 29417
(843) 762-3275

The Holy City, as Charleston is sometimes called, is not the easiest place for a gay kid to grow up.

In the largely conservative Christian city, where many view homosexuality as unnatural and sinful, kids often struggle to acknowledge their homosexuality, even to themselves.

In 1994, Tom Myers Jr., the father of a gay teenager, started We Are Family to provide counseling and support for gay kids and their families. It remains the only program of its kind along South Carolina’s coast.

Executive Director Ciri Colee estimated that the community’s reaction was “about 50-50.” Every year, however, she is surprised to find that “there are people who are willing to learn.”

The nonprofit WAF serves youth from throughout the region. Half of its $37,000 annual budget comes from private donations; the rest comes from foundation grants, such as Gamma Mu ($10,000) and the Gill Foundation ($5,000).

The program is geared toward 16- to 23-year-olds, but younger children can participate in counseling sessions with parental permission. A number of social activities are offered at WAF’s 1,200-square foot facility, including an annual prom to which kids can take anyone they wish.

Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), a separate organization that also works with ‘Ohana House and the Walt Whitman School, facilitates a group solely for family members of gay youth who attend WAF. This group aims to equip parents with a “basic education” about homosexuality, “since a lot of what they think about the gay community is based on TV sitcoms or terrible stories they heard growing up,” Colee explains.

The cornerstone of WAF is the Tuesday night peer support group, called Safe Space, where the youths can talk openly about their sexuality and any other subject of interest. “At Safe Space, kids can relax and be themselves, and also find solace with people who share similar experiences,” Colee says.

A major problem for many youth in Charleston is what they’ve heard about homosexuality from local pulpits. Religious denunciation of homosexuality “is a very serious issue here,” Colee says. “A lot of these kids have been very wounded by statements through their religious affiliation.”

WAF provides brochures that offer alternative and more accepting interpretations of Bible passages that many construe as frowning upon homosexuality. The agency also provides a list of “open and affirming chapels” in the area. Colee herself is a minister at one, the United Church of Christ, which is also a major funder of the program.