Guest post by by Andrew J. Peters
Pride for Youth is a not-for-profit organization that is a service and an advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) teenagers. Located in Bellmore, NY, fifteen miles east of New York City, Pride for Youth serves Long Island, an area that is geographically diffuse and densely populated. The mission of the agency is to enhance the health, wellness and cultural competency of LGBT youth through education, supportive services and youth development.
It’s a cause that has been a central part of my personal and professional development. I started working there as a social work intern in 1994. As a fledgling initiative, we offered a safe place where kids could gather on a Sunday afternoon, and school-based LGBT-sensitivity workshops to outreach to isolated teens and combat prejudice and bullying.
There was an expression at the time: if New York City was in the 20th century, Long Island was in the 19th or maybe even the 18th century. Virtually no kids came out in those days. Our greatest challenge was getting a handful of teens to show up for our weekly group. Sometimes we’d get just one kid on a Sunday afternoon. He would be shaky, palms sweating, and sometimes tearful, like he had run through a battlefield to get there.
It wasn’t such an exaggerated metaphor. Some of these kids had stories of being told by their parents it would be better for them to be a murderer than to be gay. Every moment at school they worried about being discovered, and getting beat up, shunned and mocked relentlessly.
Their fears were real. Around that time, there was an outrageous incident where a gay student got run over by a car and killed by a group of kids on a local college campus. A high school student who was bullied for being effeminate took his life, and in the aftermath, the principal called me, whispering into the phone to ask what he could do to make the school safer. When I suggested coming in to speak to teachers and students about homophobia, he told me his school, and the parents in the district, couldn’t handle that kind of conversation. He asked: could you come in and talk about tolerance without saying the word “gay?”
Seventeen years later, our community has broken into the 20th century, I think; but keep in mind, it’s the 21st. About one hundred kids come through the doors of Pride for Youth each week for programs from counseling and support groups to peer leadership and a vibrant drop-in center we call the “Coffeehouse,” where they can take part in performing arts, guest speakers and movie nights.
I’m often asked: haven’t things gotten easier for kids today? My answer is yes and no. Many LGBT teens have more support than they used to—friends, parents and GSAs in schools—but there are still great challenges. As kids come out at younger ages, they are often ill-equipped to handle negative reactions from peers and family members, as we have seen tragically in middle school bullying/suicides across the country. There’s a new generation of transgender teens for whom acceptance and understanding lags even farther behind than for their LGB peers. Young gay men, particularly those of color, are continuing to get infected by HIV at unacceptable rates.
There’s a huge, continuing need for the community to support the efforts of organizations like Pride for Youth. We carry out lifesaving work, on the front lines, in the nation’s suburbs, quietly—without glitz and glamour—with the pure conviction that we are making a difference. Thanks so much to Brandon for giving me this space to let readers know about this important program. For more about Pride for Youth, including how to make a donation, visit: http://prideforyouth.org.
Andrew J. Peters writes fantasy, young adult and contemporary fiction. His work has appeared in Ganymede, Wilde Oats and La Bloga, and he’s a 2011 Lambda Literary Foundation Fellow in Genre Fiction. He writes from New York City where he works as a social worker for suburban LGBT youth. For a description of his projects and a blog about queer media and fantasy, visit: http://andrewjpeterswrites.com.