I hear it time and time again from adults over 30: "I would not relive my teen years for anything. What an awkward time! There was so much stuff going on in my life then. My family was crazy. My best friend turned out to be just the opposite..." and so on. I am sure you have heard some variation on this.
Two years ago I was asked to be an adult advisor for Growing American Youth, a youth group here in St. Louis for young people who are dealing with issues of sexual orientation and identity. My initial reaction to the invitation was like most people's looking back indifferently on those teen years and wondering what I had to offer today's youth.
You see, I came out as gay when I was in my early 20s because I was afraid to come out in my teen years. In fact, I barely even knew what being gay was back then. My parents didn't talk about it. No one I knew was gay. My education left gay people out of the picture. I did, however, hear "fag," "queer," "lesbo" and "gay" on a regular basis, but it was never in a positive light. So... I was that awkward teen. I felt off-balance because something about me was different and I didn't figure out what that was until later on.
So there I was in 2001, asking myself, "What do I have to offer a group of glbtq youth?" Then it all clicked and I knew that I was supposed to "step up," as it were. As an adult gay man, who has heard my share of stereotypes that "all gay men are interested in gay youth for inappropriate reasons," I decided to squash a few myths and help out the cause. Thinking back on the struggles I faced growing up, I wanted to be a presence in the lives of young people that validated the existence of queer youth. This group is such a strong force in the lives of these young people that I was drawn to do more.
The youth who attend these meetings represent a huge diversity of people, crossing lines of gender, race, class, geography and more. As the years have progressed the group has grown to 40-50 young people showing up every Thursday. Unbelievable! My role, as one of the advisors, is to provide the safe space where young people can "just be."
Today, my support for the group continues to expand. Out of all my experience working with and being a part of the lgbt community, this group has given me the greatest joy and sense of purpose. Without sounding too cheesy, Growing American Youth has helped my "inner gay teen" and shown him that even though there are plenty of times when staying in the closet seems like the best solution, sometimes it just takes one person to say that being gay is not just ok, but pretty kick ass!
Recently, the young people in attendance at one of the meetings were asked to put into words why they come to Growing American Youth. A small sampling of the results is shown below:
For once in my life I'm not out of place. I don't have to hide anymore. I am not ashamed and I have friends. Anonymous, age 20
I come to Growing American Youth because I'm hoping to get to know other people in the community. Marcia, age 16
Growing American Youth provides me with an opportunity to be around GLBTQ youth. This is important, because as a future civil rights leader, I want to know and have experienced every type of person that is systematically and socially oppressed. This is my only opportunity for this. Anonymous, age 18
Growing American Youth is my home. It's that simple. It's been the one consistent thing that has been there for me. I've been homeless, through shit, and kicked out of my school, but group has stayed. Anonymous, age 18
I come to Growing American Youth because I was raised in an environment and go to a school that does not accept my homosexual lifestyle. Marcel, age 20
I come to G.A.Y. to support my friends. It's very comforting to know there are compassionate, caring people out there. I come here because it's very accepting and I care about an organization that has helped my close friend out a lot. Jenee, age 18
I come to group for a sense of community a sense of "belonging." Patrick, age 19
Why do I come to G.A.Y.? Acceptance. I can be me, uncensored. Adrienne, age 18
I come to G.A.Y. because at a time I needed a place where I could be around people who were like me. I also needed to see who else was out there. Sharon, age 18
I come to see friends. I come to make friends. I come to share my story and to hear the stories of others. Growing American Youth is a space where I can meet a variety of people. Anonymous, age 16
I come to Growing American Youth to escape the torment of my internal solitude. Jim, age 19
This is my first time at Growing American Youth. I came because I love my friends who are gay or lesbian or bi or transsexual or trans-gendered and I want to support them and know about them. Tabitha, age 21
To make friends and to go someplace with a kind of warm and fuzzy feeling and for the really different, unique people who are "OUT" in the world and to themselves. Lavon, age 20
I come here because I think that the people are really cool and I enjoy spending time with them. I come to support, listen, and speak, but I mainly come to laugh and learn, and to think. Julie, age 17
Growing American Youth is a weekly support group for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth (up to age 21). Straight allied friends are always welcome. G.A.Y. meets every Thursday evening from 8pm to 9:30pm at the Trinity Church, 600 N. Euclid in the Central West End. For more information about Growing American Youth and ways to support the group go to www.growingamericanyouth.org. You can also call 314-821-3524. The phone line is shared with PFLAG and is confidential.