Helping keep gay youth safer

At Chestnut Hill Academy, J. Mason (right) of the Attic Youth Center in Philadelphia and Alannah Caldwell talk to students.
At Chestnut Hill Academy, J. Mason (right) of the Attic Youth Center in Philadelphia and Alannah Caldwell talk to students.
Posted: January 05, 2011

Kindergartners can't know I exist cause they might grow up to be just like me.

That stunning line is from a rap J. Mason delivered to a recent gathering of ninth to 12th graders at one of the city's top-ranked private schools.

Initially, Mason, director of the Bryson Institute, the educational arm of Philadelphia's the Attic Youth Center, suspected he might be preaching to the proverbial choir.

But only a handful in the group of several hundred Springside School girls and Chestnut Hill Academy boys had heard of the Bryson Institute or the Attic, a community center at 16th and Spruce for LGBT (and Q for questioning) young people.

That's why Mason criss-crosses the city and suburbs year-round, training adults who work with young people at every level, so vulnerable teens can be kept safe; so the frequency of suicide in the young LGBT community is diminished; so coming out doesn't mean having to leave home; and so parents and other allies find the support they need.

Mason also coordinates with other local agencies that provide HIV/AIDS testing and medical care, housing, mentoring, and counseling to young gay people. A consortium of those agencies, called Connect 2 Protect, plans to release a report this month on homelessness among gay youth in the city.

And the effort is not just local.

National No Name-Calling Week will be marked this month; Transgender Day of Remembrance is commemorated every November; and a yearly National Climate Survey gauges the level of hostility toward gay youth.

When efforts to help young gay people seem to be at an all-time high, tragedies such as the September suicide of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi show that battling bias of any kind has to be an ongoing and unflinching effort.

"For LGBT kids, it's the best of times and the worst of times," said Dan Savage, a syndicated columnist, who, after Clementi's suicide, launched "It Gets Better," a Web-based effort to encourage gay teens to hang in there despite the harassment.

"It depends on where the kid is geographically," Savage said. "Even within a school district, some schools may not have protections in place. And the religious right has created an anti-gay climate that gives license to hate."

Thousands of people, among them celebrities Neil Patrick Harris, Ellen DeGeneres, Jewel, and President Obama, posted video messages on Savage's site. A book of "It Gets Better" essays is slated for publication in the spring.

"If you chose to end your life now, you deprive yourself of experiencing how awesome your life can be," Savage's husband, Terry Miller, said in his video.

As a gay man, Savage said, "I knew I would not be welcomed into homes and schools and churches with this message. So I'm subverting that process. This project says to parents, we're going to go over your heads and talk to your children whether you want us to or not."

At Springside, which has a Gay-Straight Alliance, a Cultural Awareness for Everyone program, and a staff diversity coordinator, students reacted to "It Gets Better" by launching "Why Wait?", an effort to make their own school community better. Mason's Dec. 8 talk at Springside grew out of that effort.

In New Jersey, Clementi's death motivated legislators to act quickly on stronger anti-bullying legislation.

Throughout the region, teachers and school administrators moved by Clementi's death scurried to revive longstanding anti-bullying policies and sign up for advanced training to prevent cyber-bullying.

And then four more gay teens - among them a Philadelphia student - took their lives.

Savage said he was not surprised.

"We have to recognize the limits to what we can do. There will always be schools run by homophobic bigots. And there will always be kids who are bullied at home by their parents trying to harass their kids out of being gay."

Some young people are fortunate to have understanding, supportive parents.

In the clear light of day, a dozen mothers and fathers gathered at the LGBT Center on the University of Pennsylvania campus. They were members of PFLAG, parents and friends of lesbians and gays, an educational and support group that meets there monthly.

And on this November day, the parents were marking International Transgender Remembrance Day.

"We pay tribute to those who lost their lives because of who they are," said Pat Tedora, whose child is transgender. "Their deaths are a sad reality for our country and our world."

As PFLAG members stepped forward one at a time to light a candle, Tedora called out the name of the deceased. Some committed suicide, others were murdered, she said.

"Those are crimes that often don't get solved. People often view these as disposable people."

Back in the gym at Springside, Mason introduced three speakers:

Alannah Caldwell, a 20-year-old actress who lives in University City and identifies as queer, said her first inkling was in preschool, when she had a crush on her teacher. "Then, when I was 8, I made out with another girl in a bathroom stall. I didn't understand my feelings, but I felt something was wrong with me."

At 13, she came out to her mother. Here's how it went down: "My mom brought up the subject. She said she saw some kids on Oprah talking about being gay. I was so relieved."

" 'I'm like them!' I told her.

"And she said, 'No. No you are not. It's just a phase you're going through.' "

Next, Dalon Evanson took the microphone.

"I was 8 years old when I noticed I was different, because I was physically attracted to men," he tells the students. "And this was pre-Will and Grace. I knew no one else like me."

Evanson said he was beaten up in school and routinely suspended - until he fought back and was expelled.

"I was always thinking about what other people thought of me. But at the end of the night, those people are not around. Only you take care of you."

Kemar Jewel said he became homeless after coming out.

"I'm 19 now," he told the students, "but I will never forget the hell that broke loose five years ago."

That's when a coworker of his mother's spotted him one night holding hands with a date - and took a picture with her cell phone.

"My mother threw my clothes out the window and closed the door. When I went to my grandmother's house, they threw me out, too - and told people I had died.

"From then on, I was house-hopping, staying with people I barely knew. Some only let me stay there if I had sex with them."

All three said they benefited from counseling at the Attic and were focused now on making it better for others. Sometimes, Mason said, that means addressing more hostile groups.

"Some people walk out," he said. "Some get physically aggressive. But I don't take it personally. I think they're probably reacting that way because of whatever they were taught earlier in their lives.

"But we fail," he said, "if we only let one conversation happen - if we only speak with people who are likely to agree with us."


Contact staff writer Dianna Marder

at 215-854-4211 or dmarder@phillynews.com.

Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/diannamarder.

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