Youth Outreach: Queer Like Me

Gay CoupleSAN LUIS OBISPOWhen school doors open next week, one group of students will face far more than the usual angst.
Students who identify themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender risk a potential barrage of anti-gay slurs, teasing and bullying, studies show.
Seventy-five percent of the students surveyed in 2005 by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network reported hearing remarks such as “faggot” and “dyke” frequently at school.
Most said they felt unsafe because of their sexual orientation, and nearly one in five had been physically assaulted.
No wonder, then, that gay students may experience depression or drug and alcohol abuse. They’re twice as likely to be suicidal as their straight counterparts, according to a 2001 study.
Offering a safe harbor on the Central Coast is Q Youth Group, a social support network for ages 13 to 23. The Q stands for “queer,” but it also stands for “questioning,” incorporating the full range of sexual orientations.
“It’s really great to have a group of friends that I can go and talk to about a common experience,” said member Daniel Pfau, 19.
When Pfau struggled to find the courage to tell his conservative Christian parents he was gay, the San Luis Obispo student turned to his friends in Q Youth Group.
When he struggled with his faith, the group was there. And last week, after a troubling encounter with a peer, he asked them for advice.
“You get to know them, and you want to see them every week because they’re just nice,” Pfau said of his fellow group members.
Established about a decade ago, Q Youth Group is sponsored by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance of the Central Coast (GALA), through a grant from the city of San Luis Obispo.
Group members meet weekly with adult mentor Josh Parker to eat pizza and chat at the Ludwick Community Center in San Luis Obispo. The gatherings are informal, the setting comforting.
“Being a teenager is probably the hardest time of most people’s lives,” said Cal Poly graduate student Conrad Mendoza, who coordinates the group. “You’re looking to fit in and find acceptance with your own age group … much less try to find acceptance with your own sexuality.”
Q Youth Group members say having a safe, supportive environment helps students hash out issues like hate crimes and gender identity.
Laura Meriwether, a Cal Poly senior majoring in animal science, said Q Youth Group meetings are usually a “free-for-all” in terms of subject matter.Q Youth Group
Younger kids ask others for advice on how to “come out” to their parents, their classmates, their churches. Students talk about discrimination and debate current events like Israel’s bombing of Lebanon and efforts to legalize gay marriage.
“It’s nice to have a situation where most people are on the same level,” said the 21-year-old Meriwether, who dates other women and describes herself as gay.
Michael Landrum, president of Paso Robles High School’s Gay Straight Alliance club, agreed that it’s important to have a network of friends who relate to the gay experience.
“As supportive as my (straight) friends are, there are some things they just don’t understand,” said the 16-year-old, whose friends have attended Q Youth Group.
He added that many in San Luis Obispo County still harbor stereotypes about the gay population.
When the outdoors-loving Landrum became open about his homosexuality a year ago, he fielded questions about whether he would start wearing women’s clothing or quit going to auto shop class.
“When I first came out, a lot of my friends didn’t believe me. They thought I was playing a practical joke,” said Landrum. “There’s a lot of misunderstanding.”
Although the Q Youth Group isn’t considered a political entity, members have been pushing for more education, Mendoza said.
Three years ago, the group helped create the Youth and Student Empowerment Conference now held every May during Cal Poly’s CommUnity Pride week. The conference, which usually draws 45 youths and 25 to 40 educators, highlights social and health issues facing the LGBT community.
This year’s keynote speaker was Chris Beckman, an openly gay cast member on MTV’s “The
Real World: Chicago” who talked about his struggle with alcoholism.
Pfau also spoke at the conference, talking about how the media influences young gay people. He also emphasized this point: Being gay is not who you are. It’s just part of who you are.
“I never really expected to meet people similar to me in the gay community,” admitted Pfau, a Cal Poly sophomore studying animal sciences. “I’m a big nerd and a band geek.”
Now, Pfau knows, he shares more with his fellow group members than he realized.
Like Pfau, Meriwether plans to go to veterinary school. She wants to become a bird specialist, while he hopes to treat exotic large cats like tigers and lions.
It’s those connections that make Q Youth Group such a valuable resource for young people struggling to fit in, said Parker, who was an early member of the GALA-sponsored group back in 1999. He joined at age 19.
Growing up in Cayucos, Parker said, “I felt like I was the only gay person in the entire world.”
“It’s just really great to connect to people and realize you’re not the only one,” he added.
from The San Louis Obispo Tribune / Sarah Linn

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