“My mom met my boyfriend today,” Gabriel Haggray said, seated at a patio table at Savage Pizza in Little Five Points with friends Chris Kontopidis and Casey Geyer. “She gave him a hug.”
A huge grin allowed a flash of his blue-tinted braces to shine. This was a huge step for Haggray, 24, a psychology major at Georgia Perimeter College who once had dreams of a ballet career and now hopes to become a criminal profiler for the FBI.
When Haggray came out in the 11th grade, his parents were a bit reluctant to understand and accept. It’s a different story today. Haggray said the support he receives from his family, especially his older sisters, is monumental.
But that support hasn’t always been there. Haggray attended Salem High School in Conyers, Ga., where he was often bullied for being different. He ran for class president and had the word “fag” scrawled on his posters. Classmates would steal his street clothes while he was in gym class and throw them in the trash.
He found support at YouthPride in Atlanta, where Kontopidis and Geyer also attended as they looked for resources and peer discussion groups covering such topics as gender.
Two years ago, Haggray served on YouthPride’s board of directors, after also serving on the youth board. In 2010, he was the YouthPride essay winner for the Atlanta Human Rights Campaign Gala Dinner.
Today, Haggray, Kontopidis, Geyer and dozens of other youth ranging in ages from 15 to their early 20s are organizing to build a new youth organization named JustUsATL.
The three do not want to talk about YouthPride and its current state of affairs, instead wanting to focus on the future of their organization. But Kontopidis and Haggray acknowledge that it was after a contentious town hall forum on March 6 at Saint Mark United Methodist Church about YouthPride’s viability that many young people became concerned for their future.
At that meeting, adult members of an independent task force tried to explain they believed the non-profit was some $80,000 in debt. YouthPride Executive Director Terence McPhaul came into the forum late and was accused of “hijacking” the meeting after he accused the volunteers of having ulterior motives in pointing out YouthPride’s weaknesses. Shouting matches ensued and more questions were raised than answered.
YouthPride is now being forced to relocate after its landlord, Inman Park United Methodist Church, sued to evict the non-profit for owing more than $50,000 in rent and fees. YouthPride has until May 31 to get out of the space at 1017 Edgewood Ave.
“A lot of young people after that town hall [on March 6] were really concerned about the future of services for LGBTQQA youth,” said Kontopidis, 24, who identifies as a gender queer trans man.
“We found we wanted to do something unique in Atlanta with youth-led services — people deciding for themselves what we need as a community,” he said.
‘That’s a lot of letters’
JustUsATL held its own town hall forum on March 31, outlining a one-year plan to become a non-profit. The fledgling group has been incorporated by the Secretary of State and found temporary meeting space for its three weekly discussion groups.
“A community center would provide a different kind of need — it is really important to do organizing with LGBTQQA communities in the South,” Kontopidis said.
He attended Wesleyan University in Connecticut, but would spend summer breaks in Georgia where he met many people in the transgender community.
“I didn’t have a label for myself until I was 18,” he said.
But the “gender policing” that led to his bullying played a role in his gender construction — in how he identifies, he said.
After graduating from Wesleyan, Kontopidis got a job as a union organizer with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and traveled the country working with people in their communities to determine what they needed.
When union organizing jobs dried up, Kontopidis moved back to Georgia, as he said, “to grow roots.”
Kontopidis also stressed JustUsATL strives to be all-inclusive and that is why the organizations uses the letters “LGBTQQA” — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning and asexual.
“That’s a lot of letters, we know, but these are the identities represented in the organization and we want to be as inclusive as we can,” he said.
Geyer, 20, identifies as a gender queer trans woman. She was born in Raleigh, N.C., but her family moved to Gwinnett County 17 years ago. Raised in an evangelical home and also home-schooled, Geyer said she was not even sure what “queer” meant until she enrolled at Georgia Gwinnett College, a four-year college founded in 2006 in Lawrenceville.
Geyer’s identity is an “ongoing process,” she said. But it was in college that Geyer began finding herself attracted to trans-oriented groups and people. One year ago she began identifying as a trans woman.
“This was a build up of years and years of, ‘Should I be in this group or not,’” Geyer said.
Home-schooling from preschool through high school meant Geyer was at home most of the time and, unlike Kontopidis and Haggray, did not struggle with bullies.
“I existed pretty independently,” she said. “In some ways that’s kind of strange, but in some ways I dodged a bullet.”
Geyer said being homeschooled served her well and it just seemed “intuitive” that she would seek out queer youth.
“I truly can’t even explain why,” she said. “I just knew I needed that somehow.”
Now, Geyer serves as president of her college Pride Alliance, is a junior psychology major who also is halfway to a biology degree, and is also a research assistant for a psychology professor. But Geyer makes time to attend JustUsATL general assembly meetings on Sundays as well as participate in committee meetings.
“I saw an opportunity to spend my time on something very important — youth are more equipped to know their needs than anyone else,” she said.
Where do youth fit in Atlanta’s gay culture?
LGBT youth can feel removed from the “non-youth” gay culture of Atlanta, the three friends said. Many are not old enough to enter gay bars or parties because the events are often 21 and older.
“Many who under 21 — there are so many LGBTQ businesses closing and there is no place to go,” Kontopidis said. “That’s one set of removal. Also, there is a lot of unemployment and people with no cars, so that leads to isolation.”
But another major issue is that the media — especially when it comes to the stories of suicides of bullied youth — paint pictures of young people as victims.
“There’s been more in the media lately, horrifying stories of what is going on in the school system, and youth are presented as an example of a victim rather than a decision maker and a leader,” Kontopidis said.
And JustUsATL wants to debunk the myth that young people need adults to “swoop down and save them,” Haggray said.
“A lot of adults think we are cute and don’t take us seriously and think we need them to save us. But we need to be empowered,” he said.
Each Sunday, members of JustUsATL meet for General Assembly — some meetings can last up to four hours — to discuss such issues as achieving federal 501(c)3 nonprofit status, social media campaigns and even social outings.
Throughout the week, members also work on various committees. The young people are committed to making JusUsATL a success and eventually want the group to have its own community center. Almost 150 follow the group on Facebook, and about 25 consistently attend the weekly General Assembly meetings.
“Right now we’re still growing our infrastructure,” said Kontopidis, who also works for the Georgia Safe Schools Coalition. “It will be awhile before we can become a 501(c)3 and begin to raise funds for our own home. Most of us are working or in school full-time, but we do a lot of work throughout the week through the committee system. We’re pushing ourselves because we believe in what we are doing.”
Haggray, who also works as the community relations manager for the Barnes & Noble bookstore in Edgewood, said the process of working together with JustUsATL has been “eye-opening” and fulfilling.
“We all have so many different opinions. My opinion may be different than Casey’s then she’ll propose something and she’ll go into more detail and I’ll think, ‘Oh, I didn’t think of that,’” he said.
Kontopidis said the group uses a consensus model rather than majority rules because JustUsATL wants to honor all voices in the group.
“We all try to build to a consensus and incorporate all ideas. We do have difficult conversations with each other. But I think it’s been amazing because it brings more voices to the floor. We are constantly hearing from new voices,” he said.
The nuances of the organization’s power structure are among items currently being discussed, as well as where the group can meet on a permanent basis. For now, discussion groups for those ages 13-17 and 18-28, as well as a group for transgender and gender-nonconforming youth, meet at Positive Impact in Midtown.
Working with counseling professionals, members of JustUsATL recently designed a model for a counseling program that will include one-on-one counseling plus sessions for those struggling with sexual violence, mood disorders and drug addiction. The counseling program would be implemented with volunteer counselors. And while it hasn’t begun yet, the establishment of the program is a crucial step in JustUsATL’s overall mission, Kontopidis said.
The consensus model is also being embraced by members of JusUsATL, Geyer said.
“I think it’s effective in bringing people together. What we’re moving forward is something powerful. I’m in for the long run and I think most of the members, if not all the members, are in for the long run. People really care about this,” Geyer added.
“This is not just some a vague concept we are talking about — it’s the future of the queer community in Atlanta and queer youth care about that.”
Editor’s note: The GA Voice reached out to a member of YouthPride to be interviewed for this story. At first, the young man agreed, but then late last week changed his mind. YouthPride Executive Director Terence McPhaul has continued to ignore requests from the GA Voice for comment, including an in-person request at a fundraiser for YouthPride at Tongue & Groove on April 17.
Top photo: Youth from JustUsATL (by Bo Shell)