As the youth and staff at Indiana Youth Group (IYG) will tell you, "Everyone is welcome at IYG." Located in a small grayish house on the northeast side of Indianapolis, IYG provides a safe haven where self-identified lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth are empowered through programs, support services, social and leadership opportunities, and community service.
Executive Director Mary Byrne says, "The first time the youth walk through the door, IYG tells them they are OK. That makes all the difference in the world for them."
Seventeen-year-old Yriel, a gay Hispanic youth attending a small, college preparatory Catholic high school agrees. "This place saves lives," he says.
Indiana Youth Group began in 1987 when Gay and Lesbian Switchboard operators werenÕt allowed to assist callers who were under 18. At the time, the Gay and Lesbian Switchboard was a help line where people could call in for information, resources and support on LGBTQ topics. In response to the dismal suicide, homeless and dropout rates of self-identified LGBT youth in Indianapolis, Chris Gonzalez and his partner Jeff Werner opened their living room on Thursday evenings to give LGBTQ youth a place to go and talk.
One of the oldest continually running LGBT youth service organizations in the country, IYG has grown and accomplished much over its 25-year history. With an on-going commitment to helping Indiana's LGBTQ youth, IYG has opened an activity center, implemented youth, school and community programming, supported or formed gay-straight alliances (GSA) and educated business leaders, churches, social workers, health care professionals, school counselors, juvenile criminal-justice workers and many other organizations through LGBT Cultural Competency training.
Byrne notes that most youth struggle with the normal craziness of adolescence. "But when you add on top of that this aspect of themselves that they don't quite understand," she says, "and then when they start understanding it, they can't talk about it with anyone. It results in total isolation. Many of the youth are between a rock and a hard place. They need to talk to someone, but they have no idea who is safe."
IYG offers them not only safety but also self-acceptance, confidence, mentoring, leadership opportunities, resilience and community.
Transforming lives at-risk
The youth who arrive at IYG come from diverse ethnic, racial, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. They are also highly at-risk, says IYG Program Director, Christie Clayton. "LGBT youth are at higher risk for suicide, homelessness, alcohol and drug abuse, and other at-risk behaviors."
To counter these risks, IYG offers a variety of programming. Clayton notes that IYG has discussion groups where the youth can talk about coming out, or problems with their families, school or relationships. IYG also offers interesting programs like Ask a Doc, where medical students come in and field questions on health topics.
Clayton emphasizes that at IYG, it's not strictly LGBTQ programs. "We have all different kinds of programs, including art and writing programs, so that they can have self-expression."
The youth also create informal knitting clubs, movie and book discussions, scrapbooking, and other interest groups. In addition to the staff and volunteers who remain on site with the youth at all times, the facility also maintains a strict no smoking and no drinking policy.
"We even have dinner. It's always a good thing for adolescents to have food," Byrne says. "She is quick to add that there is nothing as important as the youth feeling accepted and loved at home. "If these kids don't have that love, that's when you get eight times the amount of depression and suicide, five times the amount of at-risk behavior, three times the amount of tobacco use, and so on."
She emphasizes that the bottom line is helping the youth accept themselves. "I hope that when they leave here they can say, 'I'm OK.' And when you have that base good feeling about yourself, you're not going out and doing risky things. You are not as depressed, and you do not feel like you need to end it all. We want them to feel good about themselves and become healthy, happy adults -- Isn't that what everyone wants?"
Meet the youth
NUVO spoke with five youth at IYG:
Joe, age 19, from a private Catholic high school and self-identifies as a gay male. "I started coming here the summer before my senior year, 2011," he says. "The main reason I came here was because there was no GSA [gay/straight alliance] or anything like that at my school. Everything was hush-hush, you really didn't talk about it and there was no need to talk about it. I didn't know anybody who was also LGBT ... I came here to connect with other people."
Kacey, age 17, attends an Indianapolis charter school. She self-identifies as lesbian. "Before we moved," she says, "I went to school in the middle of the cornfield and almost everyone was a farmer, and it was very conservative and very traditional. [A] hometown, backwoods kind of school. It wasn't really OK or safe for me to be out. So when I was 16, I came here. We had moved away from the school ... and I kind of found a home away from home at IYG."
Shawn, age 19, graduated last year from South Port High School. He is a black male who self-identifies as gay. "When I started coming to IYG, I started getting more acceptance from my friends and more accepting of myself, he says. So I guess you could say that helped with my self-esteem and also helped me feel like I belong somewhere with a community of my own."
Yriel, a 17-year-old senior at a Catholic high school, is Hispanic and self-identifies as gay. "I was really shy at first and my grades at school were just OK. Most of them were Cs and Ds. I was really, really shy when I came here. I just sat in the corner and didn't talk to anyone and avoided everyone. Then, little by little, I started talking to the staff and then I joined IYG youth council. It gave me an opportunity to put my voice out there and make my ideas come to life. I grew from there, and I'm a new person thanks to IYG." Yriel's grades, he happily reports, are now mostly "A"s.
Michael, a 16-year-old, is a junior in an Indianapolis public high school who came out in his sophomore year. Soft-spoken, Michael self-identifies as Female-to-Male transgender. "This place just really helped me get through things, especially in school. It's really, really hard to go through a transition when you're in high school. If I'm having troubles, I can talk to Christie [Clayton] and she'll help me get hold of someone ... if I ever need any references, she's always there. She always has everything you need, and even if you don't ask for help, they come to you and ask you if you need it. That's what's great about this place. It changed my life. I know I wouldn't be where I am today without IYG."
The "coming out" process is not about sex
Yriel: "When I came out, I first posted it on Facebook, because that was the easiest way." He laughs. "I started getting text messages and calls from people. Most of them were positive though." Pausing, he says, "Then, the hardest part was coming out to my mom. I remember, it was one morning and we were driving to school. I told her, 'Mom, I like guys.' She stopped the car. Turned the lights on. And then she asked me if I knew how to use a condom. And she started having this sex conversation. It was uncomfortable."
Shawn: "[Having an older sister who had already come out] made it a little easier for my parents because they realized 'OK, we have one more child who identifies as LGBT.' That made it a little easier on me. My friends, most of them are really supportive. I did lose a couple of friends, but I realized maybe it's for the best."
Joe: "I really began to think about the idea when I was about 14, in eighth grade. I didn't know what to think of it. For the longest time, up until about my junior year, I went back and forth -- Maybe I should tell someone. Maybe I shouldn't. It wasn't until the end of my junior year that I actually told a single soul face to face -- Then I told a group of friends I was really close with. For some reason, I thought it would be the worst, but they were actually OK with it. I can remember one of my friends said, 'Joe, you must have balls of steel to be telling me this. I have nothing but respect for you.' So, when it comes to my friends, they know and for the most part they are perfectly OK with it. I've never gotten a bad comment about it.
"But when it comes to my family, on the other hand, that's where the issues arise. I feel like I've given signs. I have hinted that I might be gay. I mean there are certain things I'm interested in that your average [heterosexual] guy is into, but there is other stuff that you typically don't see. I guess one reason I haven't told them is because my sister would be OK and same with my mom; they have a variety of friends who are gay or LGBT, but when it comes to my dad, he is sort of the lone one out when it comes to my family and his family. He is the lone conservative Republican out of all of them. We were talking about marriage awhile back and he said, 'I think it's only between a man and woman.'
"But I think that's hypocritical because he's divorced. Why should he be able to say what he thinks constitutes marriage . . .. His opinions scare me. Sometimes, I feel like he doesn't actually love me. I'm always afraid that something like this might make that very obvious."
He is silent for a moment, then adds: "He supports me in a number of ways. He is the one paying for my apartment and allowing me to live there. I don't want to be ostracized. I don't want to be rejected."
Michael:"I've been thinking about [coming out as a female-to-male transgender] for as long as I can remember, since I was a small child ... All my friends were lesbians and I had that group of friends. I was afraid if I came out I would lose that and it wouldn't be the same as it used to be because I wouldn't be one of them. Coming out at school was hard because I was on a girl's sports team and I'm in choir. I do a lot of things that are gender specific. At the time I came out, I was becoming more involved in things so my name was known.
"It's just hard to come out and change everything, change your name and... I started to tell people at school and I started to tell my friends - I've lost a lot of friends, friends I didn't think I would lose at all. I tell people and they're fine if it is just a small group of people, but they tell other people and a lot of people know and a lot of people come to me and ask me about it in very rude ways and they ask me if I'm the 'he/she' that goes to (name of school withheld). If I ever have to go to the bathroom, people watch me to see what bathroom I'm going to go into. I used to be in a weights program, and I've quit that because I got tired of people asking what locker room I was going to use. I wouldn't even use the locker room; I would use the handicap bathroom. It's just been really hard.
"My mom is supportive for the most part. She is getting a lot better than she was in the beginning. She is learning to accept me for who I am. Learning to tell her friends and making it easier on me so if someone asks her she is not embarrassed. It's not just me coming out. It affected my best friends at the time, which is why I've lost them. It affected my entire family in ways I can't control and ways that kept me from coming out for a really long time because I didn't want to hurt anyone else."
Parents must also "come out"
IYG Executive Director Mary Byrne would like funding to support IYG programming to help parents come to terms with their child being gay, lesbian, or transgender. "Because the acceptance and rejection by parents is so important to the self-esteem of these young people, we want to have a program to help parents," she says. "It is a unique situation because it ends up that a parent has to come out too."
Byrne acknowledges that it may take an LGBT person a long time to come to terms with who they are. Yet, they may expect others to be OK with it overnight. "There's a lot of information that people need to receive and issues they have to work through," she says.
"If you are a parent, are you going to put a picture of your son with his boyfriend on your desk at work? Are you going to talk to your pastor? Is it going to come up at church? Are people going to be OK with you having a lesbian daughter? There are ramifications to parents and families when a child comes out."
Byrne adds that IYG programs to help parents will ultimately benefit the youth. "The youth come here, but they all have to go home."
IYG advocates on behalf of LGBT youth in schools, in the community, and through family support service. Byrne explains that the mission of IYG includes creating many safe places in the community for the young people going out into it.
"We have a lot of speaking engagements, conferences, and cultural competency trainings. We are willing to come to any business, social service agency, any church, any group that wants to learn and become more welcoming. We are very willing to come out and speak to them, and we can customize our training for that group."
Gay-Straight Alliances: helping in the schools
Graham Brinklow is the IYG education outreach coordinator. "I have two aspects to my job," he says. "My main job is to facilitate the gay-straight alliance network and I go out to schools and help them start or re-start GSA or give them ideas on how to change things in their schools or communities."
A gay-straight alliance is a club for LGBT youth and their straight allies who meet to see what they can do to reduce homophobia and transphobia in their schools. Brinklow says the GSA tries to educate. "Sometimes it's a support group or socializing group or they might do advocacy in their schools, trying to change policies or educate their schoolmates on LGBT stereotypes, such as not calling someone a faggot or dike and things of that sort."
The second part of Brinklow's job is LGBT Cultural Competency training. He explains that IYG talks to organizations about basic terms and phrases in the LGBT community. "We give them a basic knowledge, such as etiquette towards trans or gender-variant members of the community, or what they can do to help students or youth or adults."
Brinklow speaks with college classes, especially for education and social work majors. He has also done training for colleges, churches, department of social services, future foster parents, the Marion County Juvenile Justice Department and front-line caseworkers, the EEOC, sexual assault caseworkers, along with a wide variety of businesses and organizations.
"I tweak the training and specialize it for certain groups," he says. "I also work with homeless shelters and domestic violence shelters and do trainings for them as well ... trying to talk about proper support and housing for gay men or trans women ... depending on how feminine they are, sending them to some of the city shelters is not safe."
How you can help
"The very first thing is don't assume that all teenagers are heterosexual," Byrne says. "Instead of asking, 'Do you have a boyfriend or do you have a girlfriend?' You might ask, "Are you dating anyone?" Words are very important when you want to convey to a young person that you are OK with whoever they are.
"In order for you to be welcoming and for a teenager to know that you might be a safe person to talk to, you have to start talking to all youth in a way that includes LGBT youth."
Ginny Babbitt, IYG volunteer coordinator adds, "We are such a youth friendly city and so many nonprofits are focused on youth work. I would like to collaborate more and bring LGBT into the other youth organizations. We have our differences, but in general we're all working for the same cause of building confidence for youth who will be going to college in a few years and, hopefully, avoiding the brain drain within Indiana.
"We can work at keeping these youth involved in the businesses here in Indy if they've had a positive experience growing up here."
Shawn: "I'm going to college for social work. I hope to be a case manager either at a hospital or IYG. I hope to get my BA and then masters at IUPUI. And I hope to give back to the IYG community."
Joe: "I want the all-American dream: a nice career, a husband beside me, kids, family and friends. I do not know quite what I want to do for a career anymore, but my main intention is that I want to help people. This place is helping, and so I want to give back. I want to be involved with the community and try to make this place as great as it can be and just be there for people. IYG has been there for people. It has made me want to strive to be the best I can be."
Yriel: "I want to go to college and get into nursing school. I also like math so maybe accounting or become a college professor. That's my dream."
Michael: "For a long time I thought I wanted to be a firefighter, and I finally passed my physical tests and I was so excited... I still don't know. I want to go into public speaking but what would I do with that? Since I was a little kid, I wanted to go into politics but with my situation ... it's really unheard of. People are supportive of it, but the entire country is not supportive. I'm not going to give up on my dreams. I'm just trying to figure out what I can do that is realistic."
Kacey: "I don't know what I want to do right now. I'm majoring in psychology. I hope to go to IUPUI. I don't really know what I would do with psychology yet. I'm interested in mental diseases, and I always had this picture in my head of getting into the FBI and doing profiling, as a field agent... but I'm not sure. I don't want to limit myself and that's where I get stuck. But right now, psychology."
LGBTQ in need could contact The Trevor Project, a 24-hour, 365-days-a year hotline at 1-866-4U-TREVOR for LGBTQ youth in crisis (i.e. suicidal, homeless, abused, or just if they have questions and are too embarrassed to ask anyone they know); or online at www.thetrevorhelpline.org.
If experiencing a high level of parental rejection, LGBT Youth are:
8.5 times more likely to attempt suicide
6 times more likely to report high levels of depression
3.5 times more likely to use drugs
3.5 times more likely to engage in unprotected sex
Source: Ryan, C., Huebner, D., Diaz, R. M., & Sanchez, J. (2009). Family rejection as a predictor of negative health outcomes in white and Latina lesbian, gay and bisexual young adults. Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, 123, 346-352.
Ways to assist IYG's mission:
1. Go to www.indianayouthgroup.org and make a donation. "That is something we're always going to need to keep doors open and expand our services," Byrne says.
2. Volunteer. If the money is scarce and concerned citizens have three or four hours a month, they can come in and help work with youth or help with a fundraising event or bring in food. "There's a wide range of ways people can help if they want to be physically involved," Byrne says.
3. Organize LGBT Cultural Competency training in your school, church, or organization. "You're sending a great message if you're willing to have us talk to your agency, business, or congregation about LGBT youth," Byrne says.