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June 13, 2012

It’s getting better

Louisville Youth Group director Donald Taylor Jr. and fellow mentors provide a welcoming space for LGBT teens

It was just another day in math class for Jairen Ritter, a Pleasure Ridge Park High School senior who was anticipating his graduation in the spring. He knew he’d probably face a few algebraic equations, he’d have to answer for his homework, and he’d have to encounter the daily deluge of homophobic remarks and insults from several classmates. Ritter, 17, has been out to his family and peers since sophomore year and has endured the ups and downs that come with discovering who he was at such an early age.

A soft-spoken young man, Ritter started the Gay-Straight Alliance at his school the same year he came out. He says he doesn’t mind being the “token gay” at his school, although several other classmates are out as well. But his shoulder-length hair and stick-thin figure garner a lot of negative attention from bullies. Most comments he tries to ignore, but some he just can’t forget. “My mom loves me but doesn’t love what I might be going through,” he says. “There are some things I don’t tell her — like all the names I’ve been called over the years. Those things really don’t bother me, but if it’s a threat to my personal safety, that really bugs me.”

It was in math class when Ritter overheard the banter of three jocks. One said if he were his dad, he’d disown him. Another put up $10 and challenged his friends to ask Ritter if he was a girl. And one, plain as day, said, “Hey, let’s tie him to the back of our truck and have ourselves a fag drag.”

“It’s these kind of things that can wear someone down,” Ritter says. “I consider myself pretty strong, because I don’t get bugged by words or actions — unless it comes to my personal safety, then I’ll do something about it.” Ritter went to the principal and reported the encounter. One of the boys was suspended.

High school is a delicate time for most teens, and being teased or bullied comes with the territory if you’re not part of the “popular” clique. But adding “gay” or “lesbian” or “bi” to your personality equation puts a target on your back. According to the American Association of Suicidology, LGBT high school students are more than twice as likely as their straight peers to attempt suicide.

Ritter, fortunately, has a strong resolve for a 17-year-old, and although not everyone in his family accepts him, he chooses to live his life as he wishes and not apologize for it. He’s got a tight-knit group of friends, some of whom he met through attending regular meetings at the Louisville Youth Group, a nonprofit organization that, according to its mission statement, helps boost the self-esteem of LGBT youth by providing a safe space that encourages positive life choices, teaches healthy interactions with peers and adults, and develops activities in which youth are challenged to reach their full potential.

Ritter says that being a part of Louisville Youth Group has helped him develop the leadership skills necessary to run his Gay-Straight Alliance. “LYG is a place where anyone can truly be themselves without worrying about judgment,” he says.

It’s at LYG that Ritter first met Donald Taylor Jr., the group’s executive director. Almost immediately, Taylor was struck by Ritter’s confidence in dealing with adversity. “Whatever challenges he faces, he knows he’s going to triumph,” Taylor says. “What also strikes me is that he’s able to transfer that resolve to his peers.”

It’s a resolve that’s no doubt been strengthened by the Louisville Youth Group.

LYG Gives Hope

The Louisville Youth Group began in the fall of 1990 and currently has more than 30 volunteers who serve either on the board of directors or as mentors. Under Taylor’s leadership, LYG hosts Friday night meetings for youth ages 14-20 and offers several events throughout the year, including lock-ins, summer camps and a prom. On average, the group reaches more than 200 LGBT youth a year.

Taylor, 33, joined Louisville Youth Group in 2010 and knew he had found his calling. While he considers this his “main” job, Taylor also works part-time with the Episcopal Diocese of Kentucky, is a business consultant, and mans the Thursday night shift at Sweet Surrender. While he’s obligated to dedicate 10-12 days per month to LYG, Taylor says he’s reluctant to tally the number of hours he actually serves. (It’s this dedication that led organizers of the Kentuckiana Pride Festival to select Taylor as grand marshal of this year’s parade.)

“Spiritually, I feel called to commit the number of hours and days necessary to better position the organization to meet the needs of Kentuckiana’s LGBTQ youth. I average at least three to four full days per week,” he says. “There are many nights that I’m on the phone until 2 or 3 a.m. with a youth or mentor in crisis. There are many nights that are quiet with the soundtrack of ‘Golden Girls.’ With this type of career, there is no average week, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Helping young people embrace their confidence is the main reason Taylor was drawn

to Louisville Youth Group and why it’s important for the community. “LGBTQ youth are already told they’re nothing, worthless, an abomination, etc., by so many people and factions throughout society. LYG gives them a place and chance to recharge their batteries, pick up and drop off some hope, keep each other alive, learn valuable survival and leadership skills. Of all the things that LYG provides to our youth, I believe the most important is this: You are worthy … of love, acceptance, a future … whatever it takes … the list goes on.”

Chris Hartman, director of the Fairness Campaign, agrees that LYG is a much-needed resource for Louisville. “As the Fairness Campaign and statewide Fairness Coalition have worked across the state to pass LGBTQ-inclusive anti-discrimination and anti-bullying/harassment laws, we have had to meet too many grieving parents who lost their children to suicide from bullying and prejudicial harassment,” he says. “If only there had been a group like LYG — where those Kentucky teens felt safe, supported and had role models — these parents may never have had to bury their children.”

It’s a sentiment Taylor shares.

“Nearly half of our youth report that they don’t have a supportive counselor or teacher in their school. More than a third report the same at home. Where do they go? They come to us, because they’ve made it their safe haven,” he says. “This is their second home, and for many it is their first family. Those ‘It Gets Better’ testimonials are a Band-Aid fix — it may stop the hemorrhaging, but it doesn’t heal the wound.”

Taylor and the LYG volunteers are working hard to grow the organization with a limited budget. “We’ve ebbed and flowed and are excited to have a semi-permanent space we call the LYG Youth Center,” says Taylor, explaining that a downtown church is letting them use space for meetings. “This has probably been our biggest change in recent years. As a result, it has allowed our youth to increase their involvement and ownership in LYG while also allowing us to expand services, hours and opportunities.”

Meet the Mentors

Anna Giangrande, 35, has been an LYG mentor for three years and recently accepted the programming assistant position, which entails 15-20 hours per week. A full-time employee at a local manufacturing company in sales, Giangrande hardly considers working with LYG a job. “It is very rewarding putting in my time and energy knowing we are providing a necessary service to the young LGBTQ community,” she says. “What we do matters not only to the youth of LYG but their families and their support systems of family and friends.”

LYG allows parents or guardians to sit in during some of the meetings, enabling them to see how their children interact with others. “They are elated to see their child smile, be happy and act ‘normal,’” she says. “Before finding LYG, I hear a lot of parents express how depressed their children are because of school situations, feeling isolated and alone, feelings of not belonging. Once they are put in a room of other youth who are just like them and their sexuality or gender identity is no longer put under a microscope … well, that’s a game-changer for everyone.”

Zanne Koehne, 34, has been with LYG for seven years and has seen the results firsthand as the kids age out and become confident adults. As a mentor, she volunteers her time one Friday night a month and also helps out at special events — while juggling her full-time job in the insurance industry and as president of Fleur de Lez, a lesbian social group. Koehne says she gets just as much out of LYG as the kids. “The youth keep me coming back. I am so happy that I found LYG. It has transformed my life in many ways. I am glad that I am able to be a part of an organization that can help motivate and give confidence to youth.”

She looks forward to the Friday meetings and being able to see the kids open up and be themselves — free of the judgment they face in their everyday lives. “It is very important for youth to be able to express themselves in a way that makes them feel comfortable and in a way that they are sure they are being heard,” she says. “Our group is centered around that.”

In Their Own Words

Some of the youth at LYG were willing to talk openly about their personal stories and what LYG means to them. Jairen Ritter (mentioned above), Ernesto Cordova, 18, and Russell Underwood, 18, were candid when it came to discussing the challenges of coming out as a teenager.

What is school like for a gay teen?

JR: It depends on if you’re out or not. If the teen isn’t out, it’s 10 times worse because everybody else knows they’re gay, and they tease them for it. But they’re not ready to accept it themselves. If they’re out, they at least know what to expect, so they can brace for it.

EC: The worst thing about being in the closet is the reason of why you’re still in the closet — whether it’s your parents, your religion, etc.

Was coming out difficult for you?

JR: Coming out happens in stages. I didn’t fully come out until my sophomore year, but I started easing out in about seventh grade. I started with bi-curious, then bisexual, then I increasingly got gayer and gayer. It was just like slowly putting your toe in the water.

EC: I came out also in my sophomore year. I lived in Florida, but I was lucky because I went to a performing arts school, and a lot of the kids weren’t straight — so the school was really accepting. The only problem I had was with my family. Since we’re Hispanic, that usually has religious ties and such. I knew my father wasn’t going to be OK with it, but when I came out to them, they were actually really supportive.

By saying that I came out sophomore year means that I came out to myself. You’re never really done coming out, because whenever you meet someone new, you have to come out again. You can only hope that there will come a day in the future when you won’t have to come out.

RU: I didn’t come out to myself till sophomore year, and I didn’t come out fully to everybody until the summer before my senior year. I didn’t tell my mom till this past August, and we told my dad a week later. I sat my mom down and was crying; we sat there and talked for a few hours. A week later my mom told my dad. His first reaction was that I haven’t met the right girl. Then we sat down and talked about it.

How did your parents react?

JR: My dad never blamed himself, he blamed it on me — and said it was a fad. My mom is OK with it but is worried about me and the struggles I might have to face. She loves me but doesn’t love what I might be going through.

EC: My parents sometimes go through phases where they’re not OK with it. And they ask where did they go wrong. It’s not because they don’t want me to be gay. It’s because I’ll have a harsher life. They’ve had a difficult life moving around every two years — they didn’t want that for me. They’ll say, “We want you to be happy and not have to live like we did. We don’t want people making fun of you.” I’m really happy to have the parents I have, and I want to show them I can still be the best I can be and be gay and successful — to make them proud.

How has Louisville Youth Group helped you?

JR: LYG is a place where anyone can truly be themselves without worrying about judgment.

EC: It helped me find a healthy community to interact with when I moved back to Louisville. LYG to me is a home and safe haven where you can be anyone you need to be. It’s a place where everyone is accepted, and you can grow at your own pace, knowing that there are people who accept you for you and care for you.

RU: LYG has helped me out, because even though I had just come out to my parents, I still felt very secluded and like I was all alone. Going to LYG helped me come out of my shell and finally show off the person who was waiting inside of me.

For more info about the Louisville Youth Group, go to louisvilleyouthgroup.com.