Indiana Youth Group’s Eastside center is an unsigned, non-descript gray building. Although it looks unremarkable from the outside, it’s home to a national landmark: IYG is one of the oldest agencies in the nation devoted to the needs of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth. Founded in 1987 by Chris Gonzales and Pat Jordan, IYG has grown from bi-weekly living room meetings with just a handful of youth, to a nationally-recognized program that served over 2,100 youth in 2001 – a year in which not a single IYG client tested positive for HIV or attempted suicide.
These heartening figures reflect IYG’s shift over the past 16 years from crisis intervention to an emphasis on building youths’ self-esteem, personal skills and leadership potential, while still providing an array of health, counseling, education, substance abuse and advocacy services. “In 1987, they were really focused mostly on the problems the kids had in their lives. They dealt with homelessness, abuse, school harassment, drug issues and HIV,” Executive Director Rob Connoley says. “We still deal with all of that, but the focus has changed so much – we’re looking at the youth as young people with incredible potential. What we’re really about now is empowering youth to change Indianapolis.”
IYG’s innovative approach to youth development encourages youth to take an active role in running the agency, from hiring staff to planning and implementing programs. Current projects include an art auction, advocacy for students fighting for the right to take a same-gender date to the prom, a cutting-edge online club drug awareness campaign, a media literacy campaign on tobacco advertising and small groups ranging from relationships to community service to Queer Grrrls, a feminist activism and discussion group.
Indianapolis’ estimated 1,200 homeless GLBT youth are one of the most vulnerable populations IYG serves; many have had to leave home because parents disapproved of their sexual orientation. A federal grant funds outreach worker Jill Thomas to hit the streets several nights a week, looking for youth in need of food, shelter and other services. Queer youth are often not welcome in faith-based shelters, and some engage in risky sex work to survive.
Whether they come to IYG for emergency assistance, or just to spend time with like-minded peers, 91 percent of youth report increased self-esteem after six months of involvement with IYG, and 68 percent say they feel accepted by their families.
On a recent afternoon, John, 15, and Ali, 16, are hanging out, listening to the new White Stripes album. John, who likes art and does his own zine, is working on a painting. He says IYG helped him deal with harassment at school. “It”s hard to accept yourself until you find other people who are like you.”
Ali only recently started coming to IYG, mainly for social reasons. “There’s always different stuff going on, someone to talk to,” she says.
While John and Ali think GLBT people are probably more accepted in this Will & Grace-era than ever before, Connoley says there will always be a need for IYG. “We don’t do ‘gay’ programs,” he says. “We do youth empowerment.”
For more information about IYG, call 317-541-8726, or visit www.indianayouthgroup.org.