Together For Youth By Bill Burleson
The very weekend this issue of Lavender Magazine comes out is the same weekend as my high school reunion. If you must know, 30 years. I’m looking forward to it because I am friends with several people from ol’ West High. Not that I had a good time in high school. While there were moments, overall, it wasn’t good to be different. Not fitting in was the surest way to be a target for all the ne’er-do-wells and boys with something to prove. All of which makes me wonder: what’s it like now to be GLBT in high school, in this post Will and Grace, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy world? And if things have improved for queer kids in Minneapolis and St Paul, what about greater Minnesota? What’s it like outside of the comfort of the diversity of the cities? Ask the kids and you’ll get a range of answers. Anna, a Two Harbors High School senior, has had to struggle. “Ninth and tenth grade were bad for me,” she says. When hate speech happens, “a lot of times teachers won’t say anything,” Derick, a 19 year old Hermantown graduate, had a better time of it. “It was all right,” he says. “We didn’t have any resources or references, but my friends were cool with it.” “I didn’t get that much harassment,” says Will, a senior in Duluth who came out in 10th grade. However, “One day a kid threw a Mountain Dew can at me, and [the principal] had the kid suspended.” Will adds, “It makes me feel safe knowing they’ll do that.”
Anna, Derick, and Will are all part of Together For Youth. Together For Youth opened its doors in Duluth in 1991 and has been serving teens from the Arrowhead region ever since. “You’d be amazed how far kids will come. Virginia, Bemidji, all over,” says Shirley Duke, the program coordinator. There’s a weekly group featuring activities such as speakers, picnics, and films. Plus, according to Shirley, “We do just a little bit of everything,” and will help with pretty much any need the kid may have: housing, employment, tutoring, access to counselors, and advocacy. Will says, “It’s very supportive. Shirley helped me get my first job.” But, perhaps most importantly, the kids just get to be themselves. “I was a groupie [of Together For Youth] eight years ago,” says Emily, a University of Wisconsin, Superior, student. Her high school experience was difficult. “A lot of violence and threats of violence. Kids can be cruel.” Now she’s been a counselor for Together For Youth the past two-and-a-half years. In addition to helping with the group, she likes doing outreach in public schools. “Many of them haven’t met an out gay person. It takes the wind out of the monster.” Her experience as a counselor has changed her. She’s currently a biology major, and while her work at Together For Youth “started as a side project, now I think it’s my future.” The program has helped many youth in so many ways. Most of all, it’s helped them grow. In the face of discrimination, it’s easy to turn inward, and to “hide our internal world all their lives” as Emily puts it. But instead, many of these youth flourish. Take Anna. She now helps with the Safer Schools Task Force, talking with teachers about the climate for GLBT teens. “I went in and talked about what high school is like.
Teachers just need to be more aware.” And it’s made a difference. “I noticed teachers started saying things, and they put up the safe school stickers.” Will’s grown with the group. “I’m more comfortable being who I am.” When he goes to college he’s considering going into law, but in addition, “I’d like to volunteer for GLBT youth.” Derick’s changed too. “It’s definitely inspired me to become more comfortable with myself.” He’s had opportunities to do things few youth get to do, like speaking in schools. “I just spoke at UMD today. I recently spoke to a group training to be social workers.” He adds, “It’s a great experience.” I think the climate for GLBT youth has improved in schools, but it has been at best uneven. There are big differences between schools, between towns, and between parts of the country. One of the main factors that make a school safe is whether or not there are resources available to address the issue. Principals can’t ignore cans of pop being thrown if they know their GLBT students. Teachers can’t overlook harassment if they’ve hear from students how much hate speech hurts. Students can to stick up for themselves, and each other, if they have the support of other GLBT students and allies. If things have improved, it’s no accident. It’s because of the work of organizations like Together For Youth. When I go to my reunion, I’ll be thinking about Emily, Will, Derick, and Anna. As Anna says, “It’s good to know there are kids like me out there.”
Together For Youth is having a fundraiser September 19 at Jet Set, 115 North 1st Street, Minneapolis, starting at 5:00pm. Call Shirley at 218-393-4338 for more
information. Questions? Comments? Want to read past columns? Visit www.forwhomthebilltolls.org.