By Neil “Nikki” Heilpern, PQ Monthly
Isolated queer youth find it scary trying to maintain a balance in the wild, white waters of social and educational life. How do the rest of us help make schools and the world a better place for these kids?
Things have changed a lot since the Stonewall riots in New York ushered in gay rights activism and a growing sense of gay pride. Yet, for children just becoming aware of their different orientation, the loneliness and fear is still difficult to deal with.
The Sexual and Gender Minority Youth Resource Center (SMYRC) is one of the Portland safe havens.
“A lot are homeless, kicked out of their homes by families unaccepting of them being queer,” said Logan Lynn, Q Center’s public relations and innovations manager. “This becomes a place to create chosen family.”
“We all have our horror stories and that is our drive to help this population,” Logan said, recalling being regularly beaten up in school and lacking support from his “devout Christian Midwest family.”
SMYRC recently merged with the Q Center, where trained professionals lead support and social groups, and often take the show on the road to Beaverton, Hillsboro, and Sherwood for young people who can’t travel to Portland.
Harassment has expanded via social media developments like Twitter and Facebook, where cyber-bullying is on the rise, noted Lynn. “But the flip side is that these are also tools we use to engage more youth.”
Oliver Hanson, 17, became aware she was different at age 13 before moving from Seattle to Portland. Residing in a female body, Hanson realized she had a unique masculine-feminine blend of energies. School attendance didn’t feel safe.
“It was hard to talk to teachers and others,” she said. “I was afraid of what they would think.”
Hanson discovered SMYRC and the Q Center. “I met more people who identified as I did, helping me get more comfortable with myself.”
Part of the Teen to Teen education program of the Cascade Aids Project (CAP), she visits high schools to teach peers about sexuality, gender, and HIV issues.
She still feels uncomfortable attending school, uses an online education program, and enjoys seeing “youth and older people getting together, empowering each other.” Last year she delivered a keynote speech about coming out under a trans umbrella and conducted a workshop at the Oregon Queer Youth Summit.
Fellow volunteer at both the summit and CAP, Kailer Ebert, 17, said his “horror stories were turned around as result of GLBT community involvement.”
He came out in his sophomore year, after a breakup with a girlfriend, then developed feelings for a close male friend who came out as gay.
He was “harassed and naïve. Everyone knew,” leading to “severe verbal bullying, and no one did anything about it.”
When his mother discovered him holding a ballpoint pen to a bloodied wrist, she became his stalwart supporter and the two often went shopping at a Eugene mall, talking about his interest in boys and makeup.
Ebert left the oppressive atmosphere of school in Eugene, moved in with his father in Portland, and discovered a more progressive atmosphere at Grant High School, where he is a member of a gay-straight alliance (GSA) — one of numerous such groups sprouting up in Oregon and SW Washington.
His GSA is planning a Day of Silence, “to bring attention to the silence forced upon bullied queer youth, unable to speak out,” Ebert said. “We will organize a petition in the hall for all students, saying they support people who are queer.”
This year’s Queer Youth Summit theme, “Intersectionality,” deals with ways social and cultural categories (gender, race, class, and other identification terms) contribute to systematic and social inequalities, according to Ernesto Domínguez, CAP youth technology specialist, who also helps plan the summit. Youngsters will speak or lead workshops at the May 12 event at Portland State University.
“Just because they are out doesn’t mean it is easier for them,” Domínguez told PQ Monthly, urging adults to become role models and mentors.
“A disproportionate number of the thousands of homeless youth in Portland are in the sexual minorities,” said Pippa Arend of Project Education Arts and Recreation (P:ear), where mentoring programs emphasize individual relationship building, to help youth “see themselves in a positive, constructive way as part of Portland’s vibrant community, and full of value, potential, and self worth.”
Are queer youth safer these days? “Life on the streets is never safe,” said Arend.
P:ear will celebrate its 10th anniversary with a May 12 fundraiser.
A queer youth, whose street name is Hybrid, told PQ Monthly he feels fairly safe because places like SMYRC and Outside In’s Queer Zone “try to protect everybody. They are perfect places to learn more about yourself.”
He’s been off the streets since last year, thanks to Outside In, which provides a safe haven for queer street kids. They hang out together, talk about their life challenges in group situations, and some are provided living quarters.
Young clients of Outside-In’s Queer Zone sometimes get together with elders of Gay and Grey, sharing stories, giving mutual support and having inspirational moments. Last summer, the queer youth were invited to the annual Gay and Grey Barbeque at the Friendly House Community Center in Northwest Portland. The elders also joined the younger set twice at their Outside In meeting room.
“Within a half hour of our first meeting, [the youth] trusted us to tell their stories,” senior Jo Hamilton said.
“It was astonishing,” her partner Sharon Messerschmidt said. “Most teenage kids don’t tell us old fogies personal things.”
Praising them, she noted, “You are fortunate for all the support systems that have developed in recent years.”
Queer youth in rural Clackamas County also have a safe haven, The Living Room, which meets at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Oregon City.
“Youth first come in shy, not knowing what to expect,” said youth program coordinator Brenda Myers. “They open up to one person, realize they can trust that one person, then open to others and realize this is an environment where they can be themselves and work on developing their community and leadership skills.”
She and others visit several high school gay-straight alliances and counselors of younger queer youth in middle schools.
A rural sanctuary
Kelsi Davis, 16, a junior at Molalla High School, called The Living Room “a sanctuary, one of the only places I could feel safe, part of a group.”
Although she has a very supportive mother, Davis described bullying, being called “dyke” in derogatory tones, “getting pushed into lockers, having stuff thrown at me, and the scariest glares the boys give me, like I’m a monster.”
“It is still intimidating to know how many people are so against the LGBTQ community,” she said. “When they tease me, the teachers just laugh it off like it is no big deal.”
Yet queer youth persevere, learn to be true to themselves, educate others, and march in Pride parades along with allies like PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, and transgender people).
The picture is getting better. To get it as rosy as we want, LGBTQ activists continue the good fight, always looking for ways to expand the consciousness of the world to make it a safer place for queer youth who just want to be accepted for who they are.
For more information on organizations and events listed in this story, and volunteering opportunities for adults, contact the following:
2406 NE Sandy Blvd. (#12 bus line).
Queer Youth Summit
For volunteer information call any organization or contact Ernesto Domínguez at [email protected] or 503-278-3871.
Purchase tickets to P:ear’s fundraiser at Leftbank Annex
Outside-In’s Queer Zone
Outside In development and communications director Kelly Anderson, 503-535-3867
The Living Room
Brenda Myers, youth program coordinator, 503-901-5971
Ryan Stabler, for volunteers,