Around this time, 20 years ago, I was experiencing suicidal ideation and debilitating depression, after being hospitalized for mania and psychosis. The #1 stressor in my life was my sexual orientation (I hadn’t yet gotten to the gender identity part). Two things saved me: therapy, and regularly attending the youth group at the Out Alliance (called the GAGV – Gay Alliance of Genesee Valley, at the time).
Learning, yesterday, that the Out Alliance was folding and laying off all its employees hit me hard, both in a community-forward kind of way, and on a personal level. We need the Out Alliance and the services it provides. The board stated, “We hope that this cessation in our services will be temporary and that, after reassessing and restructuring the organization, we will resume our vital mission, stronger than ever.” Let’s hope this happens sooner than later.
I went to the youth group for the first time on March 15, 2000. I was a painfully shy, sheltered, awkward, naive 18 year-old. I wrote about it immediately afterward, in my diary:
“I was really nervous about going, but felt like it was something I had to do. I got mom to drive me. While I was there, I badly wanted to leave, but in retrospect, it doesn’t seem so bad. We talked about dangers on the internet and stalkers. I had nothing to contribute. Dr. [Therapist] says that’s OK. It was my first time. Next Sunday might be better anyway. There’s going to be pizza and a guest speaker on relationships. Also, I noticed many bookshelves filled with books. Maybe next time all the kids are outside smoking, I’ll go check them out.”
And it did get better. I remained painfully shy and awkward. I never did connect with the other kids or make any friends, but I went every single week from then until I left for college at the end of August. At the time, the age limit was 19, but I asked if it could be extended to 22 because I still wanted to keep going. The age got changed in the “rules of the group,” and I was so thrilled I had been heard. I went sporadically when I could throughout my college years.
To back up, I started writing in a diary a year before attending the group, and my first entry starts out with a fantasy scenario in which I come out to a support group, 12-step style.
” ‘Hello. My name is Katie. And… I am a lesbian.’ ‘Hi Katie.’* I’ve gone through this scenario hundreds of times. I wish it were that easy. I’d just walk into a gay / lesbian support group and come out. I just can’t do it though; I haven’t told anyone.”
So actually attending and being around other LGBTQ+ people was HUGE for me, even if it was hard. Probably largely because it was so hard. Schools did not yet have Gay Straight Alliances. The internet was, well, you know, it was the internet of 2000. Which is to say I didn’t / couldn’t use it to find like-minded friends or look up information about sensitive subjects. I was too ashamed to take out any books about LGBTQ+ topics from the library for fear of the library clerk looking at them and deducing that I was gay. The information I would have found in those outdated books might have been more detrimental to my sense of self anyway. I was most certainly internally homophobic.
To know that there was an organization that was out and loud and proud was a revelation. I attended the Gay Pride Picnic that July, and was blown away by the number of people. Who knew?!
It took a while, but the sense of belonging and the normalization of the gay experience grew on me. I learned so much about safe sex and sex-positivity, LGBTQ+ portrayals in media, history, just a ton of feel-good stuff. We watched movies, we went on outings as a group, and yes we even got to eat pizza.
Huge shout-out to the facilitator at that time, Patty Hayes. She changed my life. I was so psyched to find that this 44 minute interview with her is out there on the internet! (Interview conducted for the documentary, Shoulders to Stand On. She has about 3 minutes of screen-time in the final product; here is the full interview):
The Out Alliance was there when I needed it, and I can honestly say it saved me from my own self-hatred, homophobia, and loneliness. Now that there are so many more options and ways to learn and connect, so what? It’s still very much needed. Every city needs something like this. It was a place to connect face-to-face and find role models and local resources. A place of hope for kids in surrounding rural areas who could drive in and find out they’re not alone. City and suburban kids too, of course. Older people just coming out. People who have been out for forever. SOFFAs and allies. It does, however, need to change with the times. There were times where I railed against it, for being too normative, too playing-it-safe, not diverse enough.
Hopefully their return will be swift, and well-thought out. The former staff have laid out some demands:
- Diversification of the board’s executive committee. They point out that the board is diverse but the executive committee members are all white and cisgender.
- Selecting a person of color to serve as the next executive director, “to reflect the necessary changes the agency still needs to take.”
- Making all board meetings open to the public and the minutes from those meetings accessible to the public.
- Including dollar figures, not just percentages, in all future annual reports. The annual report for 2018 showed a dollar figure for contributions, but nothing else.
- Changing agency bylaws to give the board greater oversight over the executive director and “veto power” over major spending and investment decisions.
- Creating a mechanism for agency members and community members to weigh in on who sits on the board.
Sources: CITY News article by Jeremy Moule
Shoulders to Stand On, documentary film
*At the time, I thought my name was Katie and that I was a lesbian. Now I know it’s actually Kameron, and that I’m a queer person.