No young person can escape the inevitability of being judged and deemed uncool at some point or another, even if it’s just a brief moment, an aberration of fashion judgment, let’s say, or a poor choice in music. Teasing or ridicule, though, can go far beyond the superficial. The phenomenon of “gay bashing” cuts to the soul of a person, challenging his or her very existence, creating the fear of exposure at best and the reality of abuse at worst. In Indianapolis, there’s a place for kids to go where no one will question their existence as a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender person.
Indiana Youth Group (IYG) provides a safe place for so-called alternative lifestyle youth to call home, at least for a few hours each day. The home base of IYG is its drop-in center on the city’s Northeastside, which offers “youth development programs and support services that foster personal strength and wellness” to self-identified lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning (LGBTQ) youth, according to the organization’s mission statement. IYG “advocates on their behalf in schools, on the streets and in the community.”
The organization services the community through its drop-in center as well as support services such as peer groups, counseling, cyber outreach programs dealing with the problems of HIV and other STDs as well as club drugs, mentoring on dating and relationships, creative writing and fine arts programs, and homeless outreach.
For young men like Frank Esparza, IYG has literally become a home away from home. Esparza moved to Indianapolis from Texas last December, he says, “to be with the one I love.” For the 20-year-old man who works two jobs while preparing to attend IUPUI in the fall in hopes of eventually becoming an optometrist, being gay was only part of the challenge. “When I came out,” Esparza recalls, “things went fine with my parents.”
But when Esparza decided to move to Indianapolis to be with his boyfriend, his family changed their tune. “I come from a pretty wealthy family,” Esparza reveals. But after his family’s rejection, he went “from riches to rags.” “I came here with $600. Ever since I’ve been here I’ve been trying to make it on my own. IYG is the reason why I’m still here,” Esparza says. “It’s like my second home.”
Esparza spends a great deal of time each day at IYG, although it isn’t a residence. The drop-in center is open each week from 3 to 9 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday, 3 p.m. to midnight on Friday and 6 p.m. to midnight on Saturday.
Esparza and another IYG participant, Johnathan Werner, spend time at IYG for themselves as well as to help other young people who are struggling with the challenges of acceptance in the outside world. “Here I’ve found that no matter who you are, they’re going to accept you. No matter what,” Esparza stresses.
Werner, who attended Pike High School, dropped out, having struggled with his own coming out crisis. Since that time he has earned his GED and is now attending Ivy Tech, where he’s studying visual communications. The skills he’s learning have come in handy at IYG where he works part-time as a Web designer. He also serves as a greeter and helps out with “general maintenance.”
“I learned about IYG when I was 14,” Werner recalls. “When I first came here it was kind of shocking. You think you’re the only one. I was having problems with my family because of being gay — and through that time IYG was there for me. With their help I even got back into my parents’ house.”
Esparza, on the other hand, has yet to reconcile with his family. “My mother would always tell us, always follow your heart,” he recalls. “Well, I did … and now she’s backed out of it. The only person I keep in touch with is my sister. I’m the youngest of 10. My mom has pretty much turned them all against me. A lot of people ask me, why don’t you go back? Money isn’t everything … it’s just a tool.”
Werner has learned through his time at IYG that his opinion does matter. “It’s an organization that focuses on, I want to say the less fortunate, but a lot of times as gay people in today’s society, you really don’t have much say. What I believe does matter. What I think does matter.”
The IYG house, decorated in lively rainbow colors with multiple rooms in which to hang out, watch a movie, read, talk with friends, take a writing or art class or even attend a board meeting (youth participate on the board and have their own advisory board), provides one place where a LGBTQ youth knows his or her voice matters.
Esparza and Werner are at home inside the walls of IYG. But what happens on the outside?
Executive Director Lydi Davidson, who joined IYG in March, came to the organization from her former position with Community Partnership with Youth in Franklin, Ind. She takes the place of Rob Connoley, who left IYG after four years to become the director of a wellness coalition in New Mexico. Davidson, whose office is down the hall from the sitting room where Esparza and Werner shared their stories, believes that IYG is “one of the best-kept secrets in the state.”
Indeed; the organization, which was founded in 1987, has maintained a low profile — in part out of necessity. The youth wanted to be protected from the outside world, and with good reason. “Gay bashing in schools I would say is at an all-time high,” Davidson asserts. “It’s a popular form of bashing right now. It just seems to me that the schools don’t really know what to do about that. It’s something we’d like to do something about.” Further, she adds, “If we ignore the issue of gay bashing in schools, it has serious consequences.”
An IYG study reports that, with few exceptions, LGBT youth feel oppression from all parts of society. IYG and national research confirm that these youth believe “there will be consequences” if they report harassment in school. In the 2001 study, including unsolicited reports from 250 IYG members and Web site participants, 36 percent reported being harassed daily.
In one student’s testimony, “My science teacher grabbed my arm and started pushing me down the hallway saying, ‘We don’t want your type here’” (Will, age 15). Another student reports, “A kid was walking behind me on my way to class and kept saying, ‘All fags should die,’ then outside of my class he tripped me” (Tony, 16). Jessica, age 16, reveals, “Kids in the cafeteria throw stuff like popcorn and chips at my head and yell, ‘Dyke’ … popcorn doesn’t hurt physically, but emotionally, it’s a slam.”
Incidents like these occur with alarming frequency, as the IYG report reveals. Often they result in serious injury. But IYG wants to work with schools to change that. It’s a tough thing to balance: the concern for a young person’s safety and the need to speak out.
Sean Lemieux, IYG board president for the past three years and board member for five, remembers when the youth, who have always played a leadership role in the workings of IYG, “really didn’t want to be secretive anymore.” Lemieux explains, “It had been kept a secret for years … There’s a difference between being concerned and being overly concerned … it’s taken awhile to strike a balance.”
Executive Director Davidson believes that reaching out to the schools is a great place to start. “I think there are a lot of teachers in the schools who are unhappy about the situation and we’d like to give them the tools to deal with that,” she says. “The best thing we can do in my opinion is to reach out and help. That’s one of the most pivotal roles we play here, to educate the community as well as to provide a safe house for youth.”
IYG also reaches out to the community through its homeless and outreach programs. “We are the only street outreach program in the state that services the LGBTQ community,” Davidson says. “My staff has reported to me that as many as 45 percent of homeless runaways and youth fit into the LGBT category. We serve over 750 youth in our homeless program.” In addition, the agency reports that IYG, its outreach staff and its Web programs make over 1,000 contacts each month with LGBTQ youth.
When a young person is rejected by his or her own family, in addition to his or her peers and even teachers, it’s a short walk from home and school to truancy and homelessness. But the homeless youth, for the most part, don’t visit IYG: IYG has to go to them. Institutions, after all, are where they’ve been rejected. Homeless youth often engage in “sofa surfing,” Davidson describes, which is going from apartment to apartment. So IYG goes to them. IYG youth such as Esparza and Lerner are among the lucky ones. Each has a place to live and is working hard to make their way in the world. It’s not so easy for other LGBT youth who haven’t found the support system they need to keep them off the streets.
Lydi Davidson stresses that the role of IYG is “to be positive role models and mentors. They don’t get a lot of positive reinforcement in our society right now.” Both Davidson and board President Sean Lemieux believe that funding is IYG’s biggest obstacle in continuing to make a difference in the lives of LGBTQ youth. “We can’t do the work we do without the support of the community,” Davidson says. “It’s a challenge to reach the people we need to reach,” Lemieux concurs. Add to that, “We’re challenged by an extremely conservative political environment.”
Lemieux’ focus as board president, he says, has been first of all to diversify funding. “We’ve historically relied on grant funding, and a lot of grant funding is inconsistent and nonrenewable,” he explains. “When you have a really conservative administration at the federal level it becomes difficult.”
For these reasons, IYG has reached out to individuals and others in the community for financial support. “We’re getting significant support from parents of youth and other relatives of youth and church groups,” Lemieux says, and he wants to build on that support base, while getting the word out. Now that IYG is striking a bolder public profile, “coming out” as it were, the support is indeed growing. When we began reaching out more, Lemieux says, “We heard the same two things over and over. IYG still exists? I wish there was a place like that when I was a teen-ager. It’s important for us to be that place.”
To learn more about Indiana Youth Group, visit www.indianayouthgroup.org. The site includes information on how to become involved with IYG including links to resources for LGBTQ youth.