Monday, November 17, 2014

Queer Youth Spaces Need Our Support

When you were a young person how would you have felt if you knew there was a place that spoke directly to your identity and the issues surrounding them? A place where adults mentored youth just like you and there was no cost for you would have been a god send wouldn’t it?

There is such a place in Spokane, Washington for LGBT youth and their allies. It is the Odyssey Youth Center which from here on will be referred to as OYC.

I used to volunteer at the center for a short time. When I was there and got to see the daily operations of OYC I saw a place of refuge. I saw a place of safety. I saw a place where youth are sure to have access to a good meal. I saw a place where youth had access to free clothing. I saw a place that was teaching leadership skills to young adults. I saw a place teaching life skills to young adults. At OYC I saw a place where young adult LGBT individuals were becoming better people. I saw that OYC is a refuge in a world that is all too often cruel to those who are different than the hetronormative society.

Let me tell you the story of one young adult who I met while I was there in the capacity of youth mentor. I will call her Mambles for this story. As Mambles is not a real name for anyone, I am pretty sure you know now that I am not outing her. Also I will alter a portion or two of this story for expediency and confidentiality.
When Mambles came into the center she was there because she had heard that kids like her were safe at OYC and there was free food. She actually looked like a fabulous young gay man when I first met her as she is a transgender girl who was pretransition. Well she noticed me right off the bat. I am a late in life transsexual woman and it is pretty obvious that I am TS with an educated glance.
Well shortly into her being there she revealed that she was not really a fabulous gay boy. Rather she was a transsexual woman and she needed to transition but due to living situation, she could not let that information out yet.

Well my first thought was this girl needs a shave, make up and some new clothes. She needs a support group and online resources, and a gender therapist…. Yes, my mind was already whirling with what I could do to help her.

But I also know not to overwhelm a person in the early stages of a transition.
The first thing I said to her was “Well you know we have a clothing closet full of cute girls clothes. I am sure we have something that will fit you.”

Mambles eyes lit up and I could tell that she wanted to dress up and she confirmed it immediately. “I can wear girl clothes here?”

“Yes you can. At OYC we respect all people of all gender identities. If you want to change clothes here we will all be cool with that.”

So we went to the closet and on the way I introduced her to one of the other youth. The two of them started talking and after I pointed out the closet I walked away to let the youth chat while Mambles found new wardrobe choices.

Well soon enough Mambles came and found me and she was beaming and a hot mess. Of course she was, you should have seen some of my early wardrobe choices…


Mambles was happy. We started chit chatting a bit and I eventually worked around to the topic of her beard…(Now I have no issues with a beard on a man or a genderqueer, but on a TS woman it just does not look right.)

“If you want I can go get some of the razors for you.” OYC really didn’t have any razors at the time, but I keep a box of brand new quality disposable razors in the car, because well you know…I am TS and self conscious like that.

Immediately without hesitation “YES I would like to shave.”

I told her to wait there and I would be right back. As I came back and handed her some razors one of the youth was telling her about the makeup available. Nothing expensive as OYC has limited funds and the eye makeup she used became hers as we do not share eye makeup. Soon enough Mambles was shaved, made up and cute, with a stash of some make up items set aside.

Well during this time period food was being prepared by someone, I cannot remember who. The point being that a meal was and is served every evening that OYC is open.

After a meal there was a program of some sort. Maybe it was on safer sex, or maybe it was a leadership exercise, or perhaps it was LGBT movie night. I really cannot remember, but the point being is that every night OYC has some form of programming for the youth.

After program time, Mambles had to change back to male clothes and wash the makeup off. I felt for her, I have been in that place myself and it sucks. But it is part of the crucible TS women go through and Mambles was not going to be able to avoid it.

I saw Mambles a few times over a period of a month. She seemed to become a bit less war worn and a little more like a normal teen. The safe environment seemed to take some of the harder edges off of her. By the end of the month it was decided that it was not proper for me to work at OYC as my spouse is the person at OYC who is in charge of the volunteers and youth mentors.

I miss doing volunteer work as a youth mentor at OYC; but I do understand the reasons my spouses supervisor put forward as to why I cannot volunteer at OYC.

I did get to see Mambles after my OYC stint one day though. I was in the city park just walking through and Mambles had spotted me in the crowd. She came running up to me to chat for a minute. She was dressed as a boy as she does not have the safe home environment to go full time yet. She had a smile on her face but not the best of stories to tell. Life is not easy on LGBT youth. But she was upbeat and looked healthier than last time I saw her.

I cannot say what has become of Mambles as I have not seen her in long time and it is not appropriate for me to ask Sevan as Sevan must maintain confidentiality with the youth’s information. I like to think that the opportunities provided at OYC have in some way enriched her life.
Imagine if you could have had that type of experience as a young TS woman. A place to safely and openly express yourself as a woman, even if for a short afternoon would have been wonderful wouldn’t it? I know that it would have been a god send for me in my youth had I had the chance. There was a bit of a vicarious moment or two as I watched this young woman basically start her transition in OYC.

All year long LGBT youth have empowering experiences at OYC.
Young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth of Spokane have a place of refuge and kinship. That place of refuge has been running in some capacity for over 20 years. I have heard in the early days there was no sign out front. You could only get in if you knew the password and you went in the back door, and that was after you had called the phone number only vetted people could have.
Those days being an LGBT youth in Spokane was much more dangerous and such measures were a result of the times.

Now OYC sits on Perry Street with a proud and loud sign out front. Youth enter through the front door and are not as stigmatized for being queer. They have a safe place to socialize with other LGBT youth. It is a place where our youth can learn leadership skills, cultural competency, safer sex and a place to get a hot meal.  
I think that the safety these youth experience today is because there was an OYC for the generation before them. Imagine what the OYC is going to be like in the future?

So now to the pitch:
Please take the chance to invest in the future of the youth of Spokane and donate to OYC. You will notice that the side of the page has a ‘donate now’ button. The money goes directly to the bank account of OYC. Not a penny of that money goes through my hands. I am just being nice and putting their donation button on my blog page. OYC is funded through grants and generous donations by people like you.
OYC is a 501c3 organization.

Now if you are not flush with cash, please do not feel the need to donate. It can be difficult on the wallet being an LGBT citizen; I am asking the well off of us who do give money to these types of causes to consider giving some of your philanthropy money to OYC.

And if you didn’t catch it in the above wall of text:
Full Disclosure: My Spouse is an Employee of OYC.

A sappy emotional plea for the reader to donate money to the Odyssey Youth Center.