Seventeen years ago on the first Saturday in October, I sat in a park in Naperville, shivering and uncomfortable, dressed too lightly for how the temps dropped after the sun went down. I was at a Take Back the Night rally for domestic violence awareness, one of the first assignments of my brand new job running an agency for LGBT youth. I was living in new state (one I wasn’t particularly fond of) and taking on my first executive director role which scared me down to my socks.

Much has changed in the seventeen years I’ve held this job. I’ve been here long enough to watch Gay Straight Student Alliance groups open in almost every high school in that first county where we worked, to watch Don’t Ask, Don’t tell take a nose dive and to watch the United States Supreme Court address same sex marriage rights. Yesterday, I handed off stacks of brochures and other materials to one of the agency interns who is covering that annual rally this evening. Yesterday, I led a training for a group of new volunteers, the thirty third group of volunteers whom I’ve trained to do what Youth Outlook ( does.

I came to this job from working in the HIV field in the days before drug cocktails were introduced, when HIV was still an almost immediate death sentence, when PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophyaxis for HIV prevention) could not even have been imagined and fear was the letter of the law when it came to unprotected sex. In my first year in that position in the HIV field, thirty two of the people I worked with, friends, co-workers, and clients, died. Many of them were alone, abandoned by their families, and some of them had AIDS dementia eating holes in their brains as they walked around the group home naked and urinating down heat registers, losing all sense of the people they were before they got sick. My graduate degree in social work did not prepare me for that. It did not prepare me to follow men around with towels to place gently across their laps in my efforts to afford them some privacy and some dignity. “Would you mind if I just set this here? Is that okay for you?”

It was a challenge to leave that position given what I saw of the opportunities to be of service to people who had rarely—and in some situations, never—experienced having support and it was even more a challenge to move halfway across the country to do it. I’m not sure I would have worked up the nerve on my own.  It was only after conversations with my closest friends that I realized taking the position running an agency for LGBT youth was the next logical step in my career.  As one friend observed, “What a privilege to go from helping people die with dignity to helping people live celebrating who they are!”

Since the days when the board of directors first hired me (despite the fact that at 32, I looked more like Harry Potter than Daniel Radcliffe ever did), this job has been about creating space that is safe, celebratory, and empowering. Surrounding myself with like-minded folks, the reach of that safe space has grown from one county to five counties, covering more than 2200 square miles, and pushing from the edge of Chicago into a rural IL farm community where I have to bet that LGBT issues are not often a topic at the dinner table.

Our growth as an agency is wonderful, no doubt. The number of our programs has grown from two in 1998 to seventeen at the end of this last school year, with a waiting list of programs we’d like to launch but need additional funding and people power to do well. All good. Who could complain? But I wouldn’t say that’s the best part. Maybe the best parts are things like what I saw happen this week when a thirteen year old boy joined me to do a community education program and spoke openly for the first time about being bullied to the point of not wanting to use his school’s bathrooms because they were not safe. As if it weren’t enough to hear his moving story, I also got to watch him receive a standing ovation for his presentation from the hundred or so professionals who were there to hear him.

Or maybe the best parts are the changes I’ve been here long enough to see in relation to parenting and parent acceptance of LGBT kids. Ten years ago, it was rare that I’d hear from a parent. If I did hear from one, it was likely to be along the lines of, “My kid cannot attend THOSE groups. My kid is not allowed to be gay.”  It’s entirely possible they said those things because I DID look like Harry Potter. It’s kind of hard to tell. But, I digress. So after hearing such comments back in the day, I would chuckle to myself and think, “Yeah, you let me know how that goes, okay?”  Now when I hear from parents, it’s one of two things. First, they want information about the drop-in centers. And second, they tell me things like, “I know my kid is gay. I’ve known for years. I love my kid. I want my kid to be happy. I just don’t know what to say or where the resources are!”  This, we can help them with!

It is an act of revolution to create space that allows youth to take hold of their futures in a positive way. It is an act of revolution to listen to them actively and work with them to affect change. I stand in awe of our revolutionaries and admire the people who affect change in non-violent ways—by holding hands, giving congratulatory thumps on the back, offering a shoulder to lean on. Such an approach allows people who struggle to regroup and then continue on with their cause, a natural and nurturing recharge process.

If you’ve read any draft of Urban Tidepool, you know that one of the questions I raise is how we, as adults, come to find room in our hearts and lives to give, to support, when little or none was provided to us. When I think about that question in terms of my professional roles and the relationships formed therein, I know such space was created for me in multiple settings, through multiple professional mentors and supervisors. I look at what Youth Outlook does today…at the young man speaking with dignity, wit, and great insight of the efforts made to wear him down, wear him out, make him less than, and his refusal to be made less than…and every day, I thank the people who created safe space for me, so that I, in turn, may help create safe space for him. For his friends. For the people he hasn’t met experiencing similar situations.

Seventeen years ago, a gentle revolution started in a park in Naperville and I brought to it all of the tools and all of the arms of my mentors and supervisors who taught me about interconnectedness and respect. They would never have dreamed of allowing me (or Harry Potter) to experience those jobs, those roles, and those worlds as if in vacuum. Tonight, the revolution continues, and gentle warriors in the form of soft-spoken 13 year old boys change the course of schools and communities. There’s no fife player. There’s no drummer. We are blessed that there has been little blood shed. What there is, is a lot of hand holding. A lot of back thumping. And a hell of a lot of shoulder leaning. This is how our revolution progresses.

“What a privilege to go from helping people die with dignity to helping people live celebrating who they are.”

Until you’ve led your own revolution, you have no idea.

And just for chuckles, since it IS LGBT History month, the Harry Potter look-alike photo from the summer I was hired as Executive Director:

Harry Potter

  1. Myrna (Mickey) Cowles says:

    Nancy, even though I did not face the problems most of our Kid’s faced, your training & working with you and with the other adults you hired & trained, and most of all with or kids was what made my Gay life easy for me.

  2. Awww, Mickey, that’s very sweet of you! Thank you!

You must be logged in to post a comment.