Marriage equality seems to be the main— some would say only—LGBT issue that gets talked about lately throughout the community. But there’s a broader struggle going on, and it’s affecting our most vulnerable population—our young.
We spoke to several LGBT groups as well as the youth they serve, or hope to serve in the near future, to find out what needs to be done, who is doing it and what our younger contingent really cares about.
JustUs Atlanta is an entirely youth-led LGBTQQA organization that formed in April 2012. While initially the group offered support groups, it is unclear how active the group is now.
The GA Voice did not hear back from representatives from JustUs Atlanta after sending interview requests; the last post on the group’s Facebook page was on June 17.
According to an April Facebook post, the group had raised $6,600 of a $20,000 goal set to open up its own space, a benchmark the organization had initially hoped to accomplish within six months of forming. Also, two JustUs Atlanta leaders are no longer affiliated with the group, Gabriel Haggray and Brit Prince. They have gone on to help start up the new LGBT youth group Real Youth Atlanta.
Lost-N-Found Youth, founded in 2011, continues to move forward with several projects in its mission to help Atlanta’s homeless LGBT youth.
After opening a 13,000-square-foot consignment and thrift store last November and then a drop-in center in February, the group set its sights on a third major goal: opening up a new facility in Midtown next to Saint Mark United Methodist Church that will include emergency shelter with 15 to 20 beds, transitional housing with up to 20 beds, a new drop-in center and office space for the organization.
Lost-N-Found co-founder Rick Westbrook says the organization has done everything it can to clean out the house. The porch and roof have been repaired and new windows have been ordered. Next up is electrical, HVAC and plumbing, but Lost-N-Found can’t start that until it gets permits from the city, which Westbrook says has been frustrating. It’s not a process they are unfamiliar with, though.
“The thrift store should have been open in a month and it took four,” Westbrook says.
Westbrook says he hopes the group gets the permit situation resolved and the interior work started within the next month.
He says the original goal of a November opening will have to be pushed back to next spring.
In the meantime, the number of phone calls from homeless LGBT youth continues to rise as Lost-N-Found gets closer to providing them with another resource to have at their disposal.
Georgia Equality, the state’s LGBT advocacy organization, has a number of ongoing youth-centered initiatives.
The group’s Safe Schools Campaign is a partnership with the Georgia Safe Schools Coalition to enact anti-bullying policies through-out the state and is the responsibility of Georgia Equality field organizer Em Elliott.
“Due primarily to Em’s work, we have been successful in getting 50 school districts around the state—including all of the metro Atlanta school districts—to include enumeration in their policies that address sexual orientation and gender identity,” says Georgia Equality Executive Director Jeff Graham.
Elliott also coordinates GSA Connect, the state’s network for gay-straight alliances. The network currently has 38 colleges, 44 high schools and two middle school GSAs since launching in 2011.
The group has also partnered with GLSEN and the Advancement Project to address the disproportionate numbers of youth of color, LGBTQ students and students with disabilities who are punished by teachers more often and more harshly than their peers.
Elliott says that the youths she speaks to on an almost daily basis are concerned about high levels of violence and harassment in school as well as the fear of being outed. Georgia Equality depends on student feedback to shape its game plan, but it doesn’t get any easier to hear story after story from the youths.
“I feel like I get less surprised or shocked, but it still hurts and you still have to carry those stories with you,” Elliott says. “But that’s why we do this work.”
The Evolution Project is a program of AID Atlanta that provides a drop-in community center in Midtown for young African-American gay and bisexual men and trans individuals between 18 and 28 years of age.
Formed in 2006, the organization has become a safe space for many young black gay men in Atlanta, and visitors also get a growing list of health care guidance, including technical assistance, linkage to care, medication support and assistance dealing with life after a diagnosis of HIV. The resource has also developed an empowerment component to the services.
Rig Rush, 30, is the Evolution Project’s study project coordinator for the Minority AIDS Research Initiative (M.A.R.I.), which is a study to help reduce HIV incidence, increase access to care and reduce HIV-related health disparities among gay/bisexual men of color. He says the need for the Evolution Project lies in the expanded services it offers.
“Lots of places in Atlanta offer HIV testing and STI testing, but not that many offer educational services to inform people about living with HIV,” he says.
Increasing the lines of communication is another component the Evolution Project tackles.
“We believe in face-to-face communication,” Rush says. “We teach people how to navigate themselves and also hold their social networks responsible. There’s nothing else like this in the city of Atlanta.”
ACFLY is a different animal from the other groups profiled in this story because it is a coalition instead of an organization. Its goal is to bring several organizations together to help improve competency in serving LGBTQ youth in Atlanta.
“We’re probably not ever going to incorporate, we’re just a coalition trying to fill a gap,” says Emily Halden Brown, ACFLY’s facilitator. But the coalition is tackling more than HIV.
She lists housing, other health care issues, homelessness, jobs, safe schools and more as the areas ACFLY is tackling.
Brown works at Emory University as part of PRISM Health, which focuses on research on sexual minority health. She calls this “emergency response triage time” in terms of having a place to send LGBTQ youth who are living with HIV.
Brown didn’t know what to expect when she invited all of the providers to the table for an initial discussion last October, but it turns out she didn’t need to worry.
“We had a massive turnout. People are fired up,” she says. “They want to do better. It’s been an amazing response. I never would have anticipated building a coalition coming out of the first meeting.”
ACFLY’s ultimate goal is to hand the reins over to an LGBTQ youth organization that offers wraparound services, much like YouthPride used to.
Real Youth Atlanta is a brand new organization whose goal is to provide a safe space for LGBTQ youth and allies ages 13 to 25. Members plan to offer tutoring, mental health and general counseling services, college and career prep and more.
The group started having meetings in January of this year, formed their board in April and just submitted 501(c)3 paperwork. There are currently nine board members and an LGBT youth listserv of 25 people.
So far the list of services provided includes only social gatherings.
“But we’re looking to start career readiness, homework support, after-school hang-out space, mental health, HIV and STD testing and more,” says Gabriel Haggray, 26, president of Real Youth Atlanta’s board of directors, who also helped found JustUs Atlanta.
Real Youth is all-volunteer and is in the process of securing a building, which hopes to achieve in the next few months.
Pride School Atlanta’s goal is to create a K-12 nonprofit school for “LGBTQQIA” educators, students and families.
The school is the brainchild of Christian Zsilavetz, 44, who is transgender and has over 20 years of teaching experience, and is certified by GLSEN to do LGBT training.
He came up with the idea in March while working at a small private school, and he realized that even though he had transitioned eight years ago, he was not out to families and most of the staff.
“I realized that it was inhibiting my ability to be the best educator I could be because I could not be authentic on the job and be the best educator,” he explains.
The academic component is taking shape but it’s definitely still a building year for Pride School. In the meantime, organizers plan to offer weekend academic seminars and weekday parent-child play groups. But Pride School still needs money to make all this work, so right now a big chunk of time will be spent on fundraising.
So far, Pride School has raised $625 and Zsilavetz says its goal is $45,000 in the next year, with the school’s first full year tentatively scheduled for the 2015-2016 academic year.