Posts Tagged ‘LGBT youth’

Hello, Lavender Classes of 2018!

Greetings, faculty, parents, family and friends!

I wanted to start off saying thank you for inviting me, but “inviting me” seems so formal. As the first person in DuPage County who was hired specifically to be gay, I am not known for standing on formality. This feels less like an invitation to witness and more like being included in one of the most important milestones you’ll experience.  So forget that part about inviting me. Thank you for including me.

I am now in my 20th year of running Youth Outlook, the only organization in the western burbs that works solely with LGBT youth.  That’s a long time, especially when I stop to consider that when I started working here, most of the drop-in center youth …and ummm…most of you…hadn’t quite arrived just yet.

As I got started in my new job here, we were looking forward to a new show called Will and Grace that actually had openly gay characters. Kids were wearing bellbottom jeans and some cell phones still flipped. Can you believe it? Have you ever seen one of the early cell phones? They’re about as big as your head. You were supposed to be able to plug them into your car but I’ve always driven very small cars. After I burned out my engine a couple of times trying to charge my phone, I just strapped big wheels to the phone itself and used it like a skateboard to get around Syracuse.  I was driving a hatchback at the time—I really couldn’t tell the difference in the ride.

I guessed when I sat down to write that you’re the first graduating class born mostly, if not entirely, in this century.  That’s kind of a fun fact to own. I did a little digging around based on that. The number one song in the country in the year 2000 was Breathe by Faith Hill. Looking back over what has happened since you arrived, that may not be simply a song title. It may be a good suggestion for how we conduct ourselves through the rollercoaster ride that has been LGBT issues for these last two decades.

There are some interesting tidbits to LGBT history and what topics folks of different generations will recall or feel affected by. Sometimes at work, I share about how there were no role models for me as a kid growing up in the 70s and 80s. My view of life was limited at that time to my neighborhood in South Philadelphia and more specifically to the Irish Catholic parish that I belonged to.  We did not speak of LGBT people except in whispers and then in very derogatory terms. My only example of a lesbian was the woman who lived down the street from me, who wore men’s work boots and her wallet on a chain that led to her pocket and just looked constantly angry. I was a little afraid of her. I crossed the street if I saw her coming my way.

Back then, I had no idea I was going to grow up to become a professional lesbian. Really, it only worked out like this because I got bored being an amateur lesbian.  But that’s a story for another time.

I digress.

So I had my little view of the world, but what I didn’t know and couldn’t see yet where the steps being taken in other places that would advance our lives. I didn’t know when I was 11 years old that in New York, Renee Richards (having undergone gender affirmation surgery) challenged the decision to ban her from the women’s US tennis open because of a “woman-born-woman” rule, and the Supreme Court ruled in her favor.

Kids of the 60s may remember the events at the Stonewall Inn when our journey to claim our rights as equals got its feet under it. We haven’t always done such a great job of explaining our history to young LGBT folk so I thought I’d bring you some a little bit.

Kids of the 70s may remember Renee Richards, and openly gay city Supervisor of San Francisco Harvey Milk, and the first openly gay TV character, when Billy Crystal played Jodie Dallas on the sitcom Soap. In 1973, 9 months before the mental health world voted to remove homosexuality from the diagnostic manual as a mental illness, Jeanne Manford co-founded the first PFLAG meeting to let the world know she was proud of her gay son after walking with him the year before in a parade that would ultimately become what we know as the Pride Parade, a memorial to the events of the Stonewall riots. In 1979, more than 75,000 people marched in the first LGBT march on Washington in our history.

Kids of the 80s will recall the horror of HIV and the panic that struck the gay men’s community, and the support that poured into from the lesbian community to take care of our brothers. They will remember the emergence of the bisexual and transgender identities in a new and more assertive manner—people who had been key members of the LGBT movement from the beginning who were rightly insistent that their existence stop being written out of our culture. Our reflection on the night of June 28, 1969 had become a movement, a demand for our recognition as a community and a culture, one in which we refused to be defined by the limitations of a public health crisis.

We haven’t always done such a great job of explaining the early days of the HIV epidemic to young folks, either. Survivors of that time period…particularly gay men…talk about the terror of who might be diagnosed next, misinformation and myths about how the disease was spread, and the catastrophic loss of the deaths of their entire social circles. We have options available medically today that could not have been imagined back then.

Kids of the 90s grew up in the era of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, a decision that was meant to keep military folks safe and closeted, and it was suggested to us that safe and closeted was an improvement over a dishonorable discharge. While working in a Vietnam Veteran’s mental health clinic, I came to understand that what was said to military personnel while they were serving was a bit different from what I was reading in the news.  During that time, I met gay vets who described being called into private meetings where their commanding officer would say to them, “Now I can’t ask you if you’re gay, but if I DID ask, how would you answer?”

And then…then it happened. Then we had Ellen.

What we see today is not how things got started. Ellen’s decision to come out publicly in 1997 was unprecedented. Her show was canceled. The actor who played opposite her couldn’t get work for a year after playing her role. Oprah, who played her therapist in that episode, got hundreds of messages telling her to go back to Africa.

When I moved to IL in 1998, I had been out for several years, sported a crew cut and had little round glasses that made me look more like Harry Potter than Daniel Radcliffe on his best day. I had a rainbow in the back window of my car, which a friend quickly recommended I remove. I was settling into my gender neutrality, and I was accustomed to a different atmosphere after living for twelve years in Seneca Falls, the birthplace of the Women’s Rights Movement, and around Syracuse, hovering in or near academic circles of radical feminism.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from IL. I wanted to have fun with this job, creating safe space for young LGBT people in the western suburbs. I hoped for Chicago overflow, similar to NY overflow, to which I attributed much of the free thinking I encountered in Syracuse. That’s not what I found.

This area was soooo different from what I was used to. The western burbs were devoid of rainbow anything. I had never lived anywhere that LGBT people were so invisible. School representatives often refused to speak to me, or hung up on me, or argued with me about the very existence of LGBT youth. Over and over, I was told that high school students were too young to know if they were LGBT. Or if there WERE LGBT students in a school, the counselors got them help, making it immediately clear that having an LGBT identity equated needing help. Sometimes I countered that comment with my own question—Get them help? How about if they just want to make friends?

There was exactly one GSA operating in DuPage County. There were none in any of the other counties Youth Outlook serves.  Students were regularly told that they couldn’t take a same gender date to prom. When a faculty member at another DuPage County high school organized the first ever gay prom, the subsequent public outcry called for her termination.  The demand that LGBT students stay safe and closeted, very much like Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, was so loud, it often drowned out the rumblings of support from faculty allies.

And then you arrived to join us. You arrived to join us at a time when our movement was gaining traction and we were pushing back against those recommendations that we stay safe and closeted and obedient.  You arrived to the rebellion.

You may not be aware of this yet, or maybe you are, I can’t say for sure…but I wonder….has anyone told you that you are warriors yet?  You are warriors in this social rebellion.

Since you joined us, we have seen the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. We have seen the end of the Defense of Marriage Act. In 2000, Vermont become the first state to legalize civil unions between same gender couples and in 2015, probably just as many of you were starting to learn to drive, we saw the outcome of the Obergefell lawsuit, allowing same sex marriage.

As you head out on your next adventures, remember that. Take it with you tonight that you have a long, beautiful cultural history as part of the LGBT and allied community. You belong to a movement where you…where we…have always been recognized as an important part of the effort, where we are warriors working for social change, sharing our knowledge and our sense of belonging with the next generation down, and the next, and the next.

To summarize:

Remember your history.

Remember that you are a key part of the movement that helps shape our shared future.

Remember that you are a warrior.

Even though you are a warrior, remember to be kind. We all need each other to be kind.

Remember you have a tribe.

Remember to be someone else’s tribe. We need that too.

Remember Faith Hill’s suggestion and BREATHE when things feel like a rollercoaster.

And whatever you do, never, ever leave home without your cell phone charger.

Congratulations, Lavender Classes of 2018, and welcome to the rebellion!

caps in the air

A chapter from Urban Tidepool

2008

I wasn’t looking for a new site to set up another drop-in center. I already had enough to do without adding one more program. But when I was asked to apply for a foundation grant that would allow us to do just that and hire a program manager, I couldn’t get the paperwork submitted fast enough.

It was when the new Geneva site opened that we all met Michael Fairbanks, a sophomore from St. Charles. One meeting with Michael was all it took to know that he would advance through our youth leadership program without breaking a sweat. Already involved with his school’s Gay Straight Alliance, active in community theater and taking a list of AP classes, he shared his plan to go to law school to become a corporate lawyer to work on inclusion policies for Fortune 500 companies. Michael invited all of his friends to attend the new Geneva drop-in center, bringing new kids with him almost every week. The energy he put into the drop-in center reminded me of working with Blake a few years earlier. He would make this place his own, as Blake had done.

“Michael, there’s a house party that some of our donors are holding for us, and I’d like you to join me to talk about the drop-in center and what’s going on at your school. Interested?”

He nodded. “Can I tell them about the anti-bullying training I’ve been working on and the panel presentation?”

“That’s perfect. Plan on it.”

When Michael took the floor at the party, the lights glinting off his glasses, and started to describe being bullied in his locker room, silence descended on the group. It is so striking that so many adults who grew up being bullied think that our kids are not experiencing similar situations, as if being bullied somehow stopped after the Stonewall movement. Then they hear stories like Michael’s and realize the world hasn’t changed all that much.

“I had to go to my principal and he took me out of gym,” Michael explained. “It wasn’t safe for me to be there. Because of that, we started planning some training with the faculty at their meetings. I did a presentation on gay students’ right to have a safe environment. No one is talking to the teachers about this.”

 

2009

Michael kicked off his junior year with a bang. He served as president of his GSA and president of his French club, balancing his commitments against his youth leadership role with Youth Outlook. We honored Michael at the October gala, presenting him with the first youth leadership award. As an agency, we decided to begin offering that award based on our experience since last year and Michael’s performance as a youth leader. At one end of the room stood several pieces of artwork he submitted for the silent auction. At the other end of the room, a PowerPoint presentation ran, highlighting Michael’s contributions to the agency and noting his semi-finalist’s award for the national GLSEN award for student advocacy on behalf of LGBT high school students.

 

2010

“I wrote a letter to Oprah!” Michael announced.

I looked up, startled. “What for?” I asked.

“For Youth Outlook!” he said proudly. He pulled a folded sheet of paper from his backpack and handed it to me.

I thought he might be joking until I opened it and it started, “Dear Oprah Winfrey.” I scanned the letter. It explained what Youth Outlook was, who Michael was, and why he thought it was important for Oprah to be supportive of Youth Outlook. It was polite, it was genuine, and it brought tears to my eyes. “Did you send this to her?”

“I sent it to the newspaper. It’s an open letter.”

“An open letter!”

Basically, he dared one of the most revered celebrities in the history of television to get to know us. I looked at the letter again. His reasoning was solid. He pointed out that while things were changing, things were still difficult and dangerous and places like Youth Outlook were saving the lives of gay teenagers. He was right. It seemed like something she would talk about on her show.

Michael grinned. “I thought she’d pay attention more.”

 

09 June 2010

Oprah Winfrey

Harpo Studios, Inc.
1058 West Washington Blvd.
Chicago, IL 60607

Dear Ms.Winfrey;

My name is Michael Fairbanks. I am 16 years old and I will be a junior at St. Charles East High School in the Fall of 2010; in St. Charles, Illinois. I am the President of my school’s Gay-Straight Alliance and French club; I am the Executive Director of the Gay-Straight Alliance of St. Charles, IL; I am a member of the French National Honors Society, and I am involved in my school’s music department. I am in the Chorale, Vocal Jazz Ensemble and the Chamber orchestra; the most advanced choirs and orchestra in my school. I am an openly gay young man, and as you may know, anything pertaining to GLBTIQ (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Queer/Questioning) issues does not go over well in today’s society.

Ever since I have been in middle school, I have always been bullied and harassed due to my sexual orientation. Up until this current school year, the harassment was over the roof; mainly taking place during my physical education class. I have been called a “faggot,” “fag,” “homo,” the “gay boy,” “queer,” and many more. Not only have I been called these very mean and offensive names, but I have also received threats, just because I am gay. This was causing me a lot of stress. It would cause me so much stress that at points I didn’t even want to go to school. Over the summer of 2009, my mother and I met with my school’s administration to talk about making my school a safer place for myself, and students alike. We decided that the best and most safe way for me to get away from the bullying and harassment would to get a doctors note, and have a medical excuse. Currently, I continue making my school a safer place for all students regardless of one’s sexual orientation, or gender identity/expression. I worked with my school’s administration to edit our districts policy on bullying and harassment, by adding “sexual orientation, and gender.” Those terms will be added to the handbook for the 2010-2011 school year. I have also been working on a sign that I have created called the “St. Charles East GLBTIQ Safe Zone,” and I have already spoken at a lead teachers meeting discussing how important it is that teachers are always showing support for the students, and that the students know they can trust their teachers to have a safe classroom and someone to talk to. At the Lead teachers meeting I also talked about dealing with diversity, specifically towards the GLBTIQ community. In the fall, I plan to speak to the entire administration to address the importance of the sign. I am also on the Suicide Prevention/Awareness panel that was presented March 25. I spoke about the risk factors of the GLBTIQ community and how they are four times more likely to attempt/commit suicide than the straight community. The panel was presented in front of a live audience and was also broadcasted through every TV in the school. On July 9, 2010, the Gay-Straight Alliance of St. Charles will be hosting a GLBTIQ”Unity Day,” a day that I created for the community to celebrate diversity in the GLBTIQ community.

Outside of School, I am a youth leader, and the president of the youth advisory board for the non-profit organization, Youth Outlook. Youth Outlook is the reason I am writing you this letter. Youth Outlook is committed to providing a safe, supportive, and respectful environment for adolescents, whether they identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, or queer/questioning (GLBTIQ). It is also the only agency in the DuPage, Kane, and DeKalb counties of Illinois dedicated to solely serving GLBTIQ youth. All drop-in centers are open between 6:30-9:00 p.m.. There is group on Monday (DeKalb), Tuesday (Naperville), and Thursday (Geneva and Aurora) of every week. The DeKalb and Geneva groups serve youth who are 14 through 18 years old, or until they graduate high school. The Naperville and Aurora groups serve young adults ages 16 through 20. Youth Outlook provides leadership development, a social space, and wellness education on a variety of different subjects. Some of the subjects include, but not limited to; GLBTIQ issues (Harassment/Assault, Bisexualty/Biphobia, Coming out, Homophobia/Heterosexism, GLBTIQ Culture and History, and Transgender Issues), Health (Anxiety or depression, Drugs/Alcohol, STI Prevention/Treatment, sexual assault, self-esteem, and sex and sexuality), Relationships (Abusive relationships, boundaries, conflict resolution, dating issues, family issues, and negotiation skills), and other miscellaneous social activities. Youth Outlook is what I look forward to every week. When I go to the drop-in centers, the volunteers and staff members are always fun to be around, and I always know I can trust them. I have attended all the drop-in centers (Geneva, DeKalb, Naperville, and Aurora) and I enjoy them all! Recently, in the end of January 2010, Youth Outlook had to let go of their program manager, who was very loved by all the youth and myself, because Youth Outlook lost the funding for his position. Youth Outlook is facing many financial problems right now, and we really need your help. All the money donated goes to the organization, which goes to the youth. Without any money Youth Outlook would not be able to afford certain programs and activities, and Youth Outlook, if it doesn’t have enough money, might not be able to run anymore. I don’t know what I would be able to do without my weekly Youth Outlook. And that is why we need your help. Any amount of donation would be great, and any check should be made out to “Youth Outlook.” Youth Outlook is Youth Transforming the Future.

Thank you for your time, and if you have any questions and/or concerns, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Michael D. Fairbanks

 

2013

I booted up my computer and sat back to wait. The dinosaur would take at least twenty minutes before it was ready to work. I opened my calendar and punched the message button on my desk phone to retrieve the waiting messages, scribbling phone numbers down to return calls.

“Hi, Nancy, this is Ashley Rhodebeck from the Kane County Chronicle. I’m calling to get your input on a story I’m doing on the death of Michael Fairbanks.”

What?

 I snapped upright, hands flat on the desktop. Michael? No, that couldn’t be right. Michael?! No! I reached for the phone, then dropped it. As soon as my computer cooperated, I logged on and immediately did a search for Michael’s name. Nothing.

I opened a new tab and launched Facebook. I’d been Facebook friends with Michael’s mother since 2009, when we’d honored him at Dare to Dream. On her page, I read the chilling words that confirmed the reporter’s statement. Michael had died the night before.

My cell phone rang. I snatched it up with shaking hands, thinking I needed to call the Youth Leadership Coordinator before she heard this news in the heartless way I had. I didn’t even say hello.

“Tony, I just got some awful news—can I call you back in a few minutes?”

Tony’s voice cracked. “About Michael.”

I stilled. “You know?”

“One of the kids that used to come to group with him all the time sent me a message.”

He wouldn’t kill himself…He wouldn’t. Not Michael.

 

He didn’t. Michael’s death was accidental.

When I think about what we, as a staff, as an agency, as a community, have lost, I don’t know if it helps at all that it was an accident. It didn’t stop my tears when one of his friends approached his casket and sang “Amazing Grace” to him a capella at his funeral service. He gave everyone around him permission to be exactly who they are, and he wanted nothing more than to be loved for exactly who he was. Michael changed lives, and we are all cheated by this loss. In my heart, Michael will always be sixteen, challenging his school administrators to keep LGBT kids safe and writing to Oprah to ask her to help, this superhero boy whose talents we will never fully know.

I wish Oprah had responded. I think she would have loved Michael.

Michael, Nando, Denise

 

 

 

 

I just watched a very poignant clip of Ellen interviewing Oprah about the 1997 coming out episode (The Puppy) on the Ellen Show. That episode aired in April 1997 and I started work at Youth Outlook in October 1998. I found it difficult not to tear up while Ellen and Oprah talked about both the episode and the backlash following. Ellen’s show was canceled. Laura Dern couldn’t get work for a year after playing her role. Oprah got hundreds of messages telling her to go back to Africa.

As a community, our fight is far from over and some of these messages have made an ugly reappearance recently. While listening to Ellen and Oprah, though, I was reminded of one thing—one primary feeling—of “the old days” that I rarely speak about to anyone, and at THAT time, I never spoke of.

I was afraid. I had reason to be.

When I moved to IL in 1998, I had been out for several years, sported a crew cut and Harry Potter glasses, and had a rainbow in the back window of my car. I was settling into my gender neutrality, having fun with my “boi” playfulness, and I was accustomed to a different atmosphere after living for twelve years in Seneca Falls, the birthplace of the Women’s Rights Movement, and around Syracuse, hovering in or near academic circles of radical feminism. It was a great place to live and a great place to come out.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from IL. I hoped for Chicago overflow, similar to NY overflow, to which I attributed much of the free thinking I encountered in Syracuse. That’s not what I found.

In past blogs, I have mentioned the resistance I met in my efforts to form connections to some of the high schools.  That was rough. I was both irritated and embarrassed to meet other social workers who denied the existence of LGBT kids.  Countering the belief that kids were too young to know who they were (although most of the folks who maintained that could handily tell me at what age they’d had their first heterosexual crush or when they knew for sure that they were cisgender) was an uphill challenge, but it did not compare to the covert and cowardly threats I endured as the first employee of the first not for profit that specialized in working with queerlings in the western suburbs.

The timing of this was important. By 1998, services had existed within the Chicago city limits for years. There were potlucks, a sports association, bars, youth groups, churches, and medical clinics specific to LGBT people in Chicago. In the western suburbs, there were only the daring PFLAG groups.

Then I arrived. It was my job to make connections within our communities, to be a visible face of this new agency. To be publicly queer.

That part I had no problem with. I’d been publicly queer for a while.

Just pause for moment and think about the things Ellen describes and picture how that would have gone in towns and cities in DuPage County, IL.  Name calling? I certainly got the name calling. I got the slurs hurled from passing cars, most often “Faggot” which I have always found odd. I usually want to refer people to Urban Dictionary for the correct slur to hurl, if one is going to hurl slurs at all. Female bodied queer people are not generally called faggots, but I may have to re-evaluate that based on the frequency with which it was used at that time.

As the agency’s single employee and being who I was, I was particularly aware of the hostile environment. It’s a safe assessment that the early board members were also aware and to some extent, felt compelled to keep the kids hidden for their protection (except the kids weren’t interested in being hidden).  Many of them had lived here for years. They knew what to expect.

It was a bit of a surprise on the day a board member asked me to attend a county meeting and afterward, she called me to ask one question. “Do you have to look so….butch?”

At first, I was confused. I had sat next to her in the meeting. I had worn a blue silk shirt and black pants. She had also been wearing a shirt and black pants. I cast around for an answer, feeling vaguely insulted, when I realized she was referring less to WHAT I was wearing and more to HOW I was wearing it. My clothing was not that much different from hers. But I have a stance, a presence, that leaves little to imagination about what my orientation might be.  She had already told me that she could not come out.

We ironed out that she didn’t actually have a problem with the clothing I’d been wearing. She had a bigger issue with the fact that it was 1998 in suburban Illinois and I was identifiable as queer. When I pointed out that being identifiable as queer wasn’t really a bad thing for someone who was running an LGBT focused agency, the conversation came to an awkward stop and never arose again.

I could manage the questions about being out. On the other hand, the death threats put me on edge. It was the anonymous voicemails left about how the building we were using would be set fire to because we were all going to hell anyway. It was the creepy demands to “make sure you tell all those kids the truth—that they’re all going to hell for being disgusting little perverts” and the parents who cried and shouted at me that I could not tell their kids that they were good human beings that  left my sleep ragged.

Those were the days of Westboro Baptist Church and Fred Phelps picketing churches that were becoming open and affirming and the funeral of Matthew Shepard, carrying signs that declared “Matt Shepard Burns in Hell” in front of his already traumatized and horrified family. As an agency, we had to be ready for anything that might be leveled at us, any day of any week. We learned to live with the fear. We wrote guidelines for how we’d handle if we ever needed to evacuate our borrowed spaces on short notice and we coached the kids on what to do if they ever found themselves confronted with a line of protestors carrying vile signs.

Verbal harassment. Death threats. Protestors. I was afraid. I had reason to be.

I did my job anyway, sometimes watching over my shoulder in dark parking lots and often enduring strangers’ comments that if I would just be open (to people of the opposite sex, to someone’s god, to psychiatric help, etc.), that perhaps someday I, too, could be as normal as they were. Oh, and by the way, which church did I belong to? I learned to fend off married women’s passes in public restrooms and to allow the slurs from passing cars and people in crowds to roll off me like water off a duck’s back.

I couldn’t exactly reach out to Ellen in those early days but I do owe many thanks to the Chicago women who supported me, those who understood that you live with the fear and you do it anyway. I just entered year 20 of my job and some of those early memories don’t get trotted out into sunlight very often. The Ellen interview sparked quite a few of them. (http://www.upworthy.com/in-1997-being-gay-on-tv-was-not-ok-ellen-and-oprah-look-back-in-this-emotional-clip?c=ufb3) These days, I’m more likely to be focused on what’s coming next week or next month, and less on what it was like to be a public queer in 1998.  Wow. We really have made history.

And yes, thank you for asking–I did have to look this…butch…while I was doing it. (And can you believe it–she hadn’t even seen me wearing a tux!)

Dedicated to my colleague and friend, Jessica Halem, who will probably never know how much of a sanity saver she was.

Nance

This past Saturday was the day of our big agency fundraiser, Dare to Dream. I joke about it being the 9th time we were running an event that we meant to offer just once. I am asked each year to provide a “state of the agency” commentary to bring our donors up to speed on new and/or fun things that have happened in the past year since we last met. Our landscape for LGBT service provision has changed. Our expectations have changed. I’ve changed. Here’s why.

From Youth Outlook state of the agency, October 21, 2017:

I promised the board members I wouldn’t get sad and sappy while I was up here so let’s pick up where we left off last year. Last year at this event, four days after the election, we talked about community, hope, persistence and determination.

Eleven and a half months later, I can tell you that determination has only grown. I’d love to be able to say we’ve been unaffected by the changes but that wouldn’t be true. A few weeks ago, I even wrote an open letter to the Youth Outlook kids which you will hear in a few minutes. (https://urbantidepool.com/2017/10/05/an-open-letter-to-the-youth-outlook-youth/) While most of the responses to it were positive, one parent did tell me I was fear mongering and then told me I was living in a fantasy because the world has never been and will never be safe.

My first thought to that was –is it fear mongering when I tell you outright what I am afraid of or I repeat what kids have said they are afraid of? I’m not sure I understand your use of that word.

My next thought to that was Wow. We will always believe in safe space. I know what we’ve done in just this past year to create safe, brave space for kids who were struggling with assault, homelessness, rape, and thoughts of suicide.

It’s not like we’re wearing blinders. We know what we are up against. Any one of the staff team can quote Southern Poverty Law Center information that anti-LGBT hate crimes have increased across the country, moving us from the number 4 spot to the number 3 spot since November, outranked only by anti-Black and anti-immigration hate crimes. Anyone of them can tell you that according to GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Educators’ Network, we had seen national declines in verbal and physical harassment and sexual violence for several consecutive years, until 2015, when we saw an uptick in every one of those categories and we’re hearing stories that suggest we will probably see another increase in those stats when the 2017 report is released.

We know those things are out there. We’ve seen the Confederate flags flying in our neighborhoods and we’ve led conversations with our kids about white supremacy, privilege and violence.

You know what else is out there? One–A new, rural Youth Outlook drop in center. We put our heads together with a wonderful group of people from the Open Table United Church of Christ in Ottawa last spring and before I could blink twice, we had a drop in center running there that became the second biggest program that we offer.

So that’s out there.  Two– We’ve successfully launched about one new drop in center per year. In a big year, we’ve done two, but those are the exception. This year, we’re averaging about one new request per month to come into a different community and open a another site. The need is there and people are responding to it in ways we have not seen before.

Three–About a month ago, we called together the first meeting of the leadership of the countywide networks of professionals that work with LGBT kids. The network groups are responsible for planning professional development in each of their locations. We started with one in DuPage County, then added DeKalb, then Kane, then Suburban Cook created their own modeled after ours, and now three other counties are considering joining this effort to keep putting accurate, positive information about LGBT kids out into the conversation.

Four–Last June, Youth Outlook had the busiest Pride month we’ve had in the history of the agency, as more corporations than ever asked us to speak for their events. We said yes—to everything. It was Pride month. We weren’t going to do sad and sappy.

In the background of those requests, I took a Friday afternoon off to plant some flowers in my back yard. Some of you have heard me reference my neighbors. They are a rough crowd. So here I am spending my Friday afternoon playing in the dirt, one of my favorite things, and I can hear the neighbors on the other side of my fence. It’s Dyke this, Dyke that, and hey how much fun is it to park that dyke next door into her driveway so she can’t get out past the fire hydrant and the end of my truck?  Yuk, yuk, yuk.

This is, unfortunately, not anything new. I’ve been listening to these people for several years. What was new this year was that it didn’t stop there. I did what I always do—I channeled my inner Michelle Obama and when they went low, I went high. I tuned them out. I tuned them out until one of them approached the fence near where I was working, unzipped his fly and urinated on the fence so that it splashed through on me.

It took two days for it to fully register with me what had happened. I am 52 years old. I have a master’s degree and I run an agency that helps kids. And that man called me a dyke and peed on me. I have to wonder—if it took me at 52, with my social network and my professional status, two days to be able to start processing that event, what about the 12 year olds whose families do not know who they are and they can’t dare say it? How are they managing these situations without support?

Later that week, Carrie, Carolyn and I all had Pride presentations to do. We had an agency to talk about and kids in six counties to support. We can skip the sad and the sappy. But by all means, let’s talk about determination. Let’s talk about defiance and standing up for ourselves and for our kids.

Let’s talk about looking around at what’s going on and saying not just no, but HELL no? This might have gone over in 1998 when I started working here. But now? This is not going to fly. We will not stop talking about what helps LGBT young people feel safe. Part of that is acknowledging what makes them feel unsafe. We will not stop talking about it, no matter how many times I am told that we’re living in a fantasy because we’ve already been told too many times that Youth Outlook IS the only safe space that some kids experience.

I believe we are in for some giant challenges in the coming year. That’s an opportunity for us to step up or step off.

Ask any one of us about this topic, determination. Stepping up is the only option.

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This week I started my 20th year in my job running Youth Outlook where I (do my best to) support the drop-in centers and other services that we offer.  That’s a long stretch of time, especially when I stop to consider that when I started working here, most of you drop-in center kids weren’t even born yet. Matthew Shepard was murdered that week. We were looking forward to a new show called Will and Grace that actually had openly gay characters. Kids were wearing bell-bottom jeans and some cell phones still flipped. Can you believe it?

We’ve done a lot of work since that time. There has been an entire generation of young queerlings who came before you and paved the way, people whose courage and persistence was—and remains– nothing short of heroic. I feel like I need to speak up this week, though, because we’ve just been hit with several positively vile things, despite all of that hard work we’ve put in.

You are coming out at a time when we thought we had made the world a little bit better, a little bit safer for you. Now I wonder if it feels like we offered you a world with an illusion of safety and now that you’re coming out, these positively vile things are dropped on your heads. I wonder if it feels like the world offered you a place to sit and the last nine months have wrenched that chair out from under you.

It is unthinkable to me that we offered you a world where we said it’s okay if you want to serve your country and a few weeks ago, our elected officials announced a ban on transgender individuals serving. That is and will be argued, and I’m confident that in the end it will be dismissed, but it does not change the fact that we are going to argue your right to serve your country. Right in front of you. Again. It does not change the fact that trans people who are serving right now have been put on notice that they are not worth being allowed to wear that uniform.

It is unthinkable to me that we offered you a world where we said you’re safe at your job and no one can discriminate against you simply for being LGBT. I’ve said that very statement to a number of Youth Outlook kids over the years. “You’re safe. You have a right to ask for a job there. Go git ’em!” Then a couple of weeks ago, our elected officials announced that they think it’s okay to fire someone simply for being LGBT.  That is and will be argued, and I’m confident that in the end it will be dismissed, but it doesn’t change the fact that we’re going to argue your right to hold a job and not be discriminated against in hiring and termination practices and in benefits administration. Right in front of you. Again. It does not change the fact that people will be fired in the interim and they have been put on notice that their skills and talents are not welcome in certain settings.

It is unthinkable to me that we offered you a world where we said you have inherent value and you are important link in our interconnectedness. Then just a few days ago, our elected officials announced that the US voted against a United Nations resolution calling for a ban on executing LGBT individuals. Truly, truly unthinkable. We stood with countries who want to kill you. We did that. That is and will be argued, and even now the White House is attempting to “clarify” what it meant by voting NO, and I’m confident that in the end it will be dismissed. But it doesn’t change the fact that we just made a huge public statement about our representatives’ profound contempt for queer lives. We did that. Right in front of you. Again.

In a year or four or six, you will leave your teenaged selves in the dust and go on with your lives in whatever is left of the world. You will be the next round of heroes because we will need you to clean this mess up. Since I’ve met you, I have no doubt you’ll do exactly that, as scarred as you will be from this viciousness.

It hardly seems fair, does it? It is a colossal universal joke. We told you the world was safe, then in almost the next breath, politicians advocated to take away your right to serve your country, to be free from discrimination, even to be a living, breathing being on the planet, while you listen to them debate your value—while you listen to them debate your right to exist. When this hateful bubble implodes, as we know it will, you’ll be here to take us to the next steps of our humanity, bearing your scars like badges.

It is unthinkable to me that we ask such a monumental task of you. If we could clap our hands over your ears or cover your spirits with our spirits, to keep you from having to absorb this vitriol, please know we would do that.

You will be the heroes. It is unthinkable to me that you wouldn’t be.

Until then, you have my hands and you have my heart~

Nancy

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Last night, my agency held its annual gala, four days after much of the LGBT world was shot through with a bolt of fear that brought some of us to the verge of physical illness. On Wednesday, I was in meetings marked by stunned silence, abject fear, and immutable grief. The questions everywhere I turned were, “How do we do this?” and “How do we keep our kids safe?” which were valid questions while sitting in meetings where we were exploring trauma informed care for LGBT youth. Now we were also concerned about the trauma that we, as adults, might experience or be exposed to.

On that wave of wild emotion, I needed to prep comments to welcome our guests to our fundraiser, Dare to Dream. Just a week prior, we might well have exploded into the room still celebrating the World Series win. Suddenly, our annual affair was daunting like never before. One hundred and fifty people were going to gather for their first LGBT event, just four days after our country elected a new administration that includes a rabidly anti-LGBT vice president, who has referred to same sex couples as a sign of societal collapse. It’s a formal event. It opens with a welcome. I sat with that challenge for three of the first four days, wondering how I’d even sound coherent, let alone encouraging, to a group of people worried down to their socks about our newly acquired rights.

It was humbling. As I pulled some new facts together, it was also frightening. I wrote the welcome four times before the spirit of my former mentor welled up in me and my thoughts shifted from, “Oh, how the hell?” to “Oh, hell no.”

Tonight, I offer you this—my only welcome address to our annual gala fueled by the attitude, “Oh, hell no.” I wish you were there with us!

Good evening. Welcome to Dare to Dream 2016. Thank you for being here with us, especially this week.

I thought we’d be having a different conversation tonight, one that might touch on our expansion and our new opportunities.  While all of those things are still true, still important and still worthy of discussion, another topic has become even more worthy of our focus. In light of this week’s outcome, with the knowledge that in just 24 hours, hotline calls from suicidal LGBT kids across the country spiked to the point that the Trevor Project could field only about a third of them, we can and we MUST talk about community tonight. 

Youth Outlook, out here in the shadows of a large urban area with thriving LGBT culture, is known for its ability to create community where none previously existed. In meetings that I attended and conference calls in which I participated this week, nothing spoke more urgently than fear and the primal drive LGBT people and other marginalized people are experiencing to find a sense of safety.  I cannot stand here and promise that all will be well over the next few years. No one could. What I can promise you is that Youth Outlook will NOT stop. We will NOT surrender our rights to safety and connection. We will NOT slink away or look elsewhere when the emotional and physical safety of our kids is threatened, or when our kids are again at risk of being forced through conversion therapy to “fix” them. They are not broken. THAT is not what we came together to do. It brings to mind my favorite line from my favorite movie, Jurassic Park, “Creation is an act of sheer will.” 

We will NOT stand by while walls are built. We have been doing this almost twenty years. Youth Outlook has already raised an entire generation of young people who will dismantle that wall, repurpose into a place where we can go for brunch, and fly a rainbow flag off the top of it!

We.

Create.

Community.

Say that with me.

WE. Create. Community.

After last evening, I am convinced that we can continue to hope. The true leaders aren’t sitting in D.C. They were sitting in that room with me, laughing, crying, cheering, and loving, as I went through mental social work yoga poses from Upward Facing Executive Director pose, to the Do More with Less Bend Over Backwards pose known to most fundraising teams, and finally into the Not For Profit Warrior pose. There was an awful lot of love and compassion showing for people reputed to be the indicator of societal collapse.

Oh, hell no. C’mon. I’ll see you on the mat.

yoga

 

 

Dear School Administrators,

I’m about to share with you an idea that is so radical, it might make your hair catch fire when you read it. Ready?  Here goes.

It is not the responsibility of the teenagers with whom you cross paths  to educate you about their gender identity. I know this is a crazy idea, but there are adults in the world who would be glad to have those conversations with you–other real adults who are also school administrators, lawyers and docs, who have spent a great deal of time learning about sexual orientation and gender identify development. Some of the Youth Outlook kids like speaking up but (and I know you’ll find this hard to believe) there are some 13 and 14 year old kids who feel sorta….you know…put on the spot when called upon to educate grown people whose motivations and goals are not quite clear and the kids don’t feel quite supported.

Okay, now put out the fire on your head and consider this. There are agencies that focus their work on supporting LGBT children and youth. They have attorneys on staff that have tracked the legal issues across the country and can give you the most up to date information available.  First, check in with Illinois Safe Schools Alliance (www.illinoissafeschools.org).  They do amazing work with school policy and gender issues.

I know this hard work. Here. Put a little aloe on that burn. Now consider this. There is a growing number of school administrators who have already undertaken some education on the topic of gender identity, bathroom and locker room issues and have arranged for training for all of their staff. At this point, schools are even arranging education for parents who want to understand more. How do I know this? Because I’ve met them in person. They’ve come to trainings offered by Youth Outlook (www.youth-outlook.org), or they’ve scheduled Youth Outlook to come to their school for a presentation. Talk to them. They are a wealth of information about how they did policy changes, guidelines and training.

Back in the late 90s when Youth Outlook was just getting launched, school representatives told me ALL THE TIME that there were no gay kids in the suburban schools. I half expected it from the admin folks but I’ll admit I found it embarrassing from other social workers. Then, time went by and I kept bringing the topic up and more kids came out and GSAs took root. High school representatives stopped arguing about whether or not they had gay kids. They KNEW they had them. Those wild and rascally gay kids were everywhere!

About 5 years ago, I started pointing out that we weren’t talking about only gay kids any more and we weren’t talking about just high schools. By then, we were talking about middle school kids coming out and many, many more issues related to gender identity. And over the last few years, trans, non-binary and gender fluid kids have been coming out in droves.

Guess what our next challenge is going to be?  Can you connect the dots? Right.  Here. You need a little more aloe on that. The next trend is going to be elementary aged kids coming out as the whole range of L, G, B, P and T/non-binary.  The middle schools are still doing what the high schools did back in the 90s. “Oh, we don’t have kids like that here!” Imagine, if you will, what the response is going to be when the elementary aged kids start coming out in the same droves that the middle schoolers are right now.

So, back to my original point.  It’s not the responsibility of those kids to educate you, no more than it is the responsibility of trans teenagers to educate their doctors about trans health needs. There are trainings all over the country now. There are local organizations specializing in supporting LGBT+ kids. I encourage you to find us. We can help you, because it’s our mission to help them. Inviting a 14 year old to meet with the school attorney to explain gender…strikes me as a power play and the first thought that comes to mind, “Hey, pick on someone your own size.”

Really? Is this the first time someone has said that to you?

I know, I know! But don’t worry, I think your eyebrows will grow back. Take this aloe plant with you.  We’ll talk again soon.

aloe-vera-plant