Monday, June 21, 2004

Gay or questioning youth find safe haven in Howard County group

By Steve Charing

The coming out process has always been a life-altering experience. But for a teenager or young adult, it can be even more traumatic. Besides coping with the potentially devastating backlash from family members and friends, young people must also endure the reactions from classmates, teachers and school administrators. This is a very tricky and sometimes risky period for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered or questioning youth.

Despite noble efforts to improve the situation, the world is still not completely safe for GLBTQ youth. Family members occasionally reject these young people out of hand. Harassment and bullying, notwithstanding emerging policies to halt that behavior, still occur in the corridors of schools. Friends may abandon them.

Many of these young people—confused, frightened and alone—are under great stress. Some let their schoolwork slide. Some drop out. Some turn to drugs. Some, tragically, try to take their lives.

Most, however, prevail during this struggle. They gain the love and respect from their families, friends and classmates. They endure and go on with their lives with a major burden lifted from their shoulders. They’re the lucky ones; not all are that triumphant.

Fortunately, there are support and educational groups to help youth trying to come to terms with their sexual orientation. Locally some excellent resources exist. Baltimore has SAIM—Sufficient as I Am, a program run by the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Baltimore. Montgomery County has PRYSM—Protecting the Rights of Young Sexual Minorities, which was founded as the student chapter of the Safe Schools Coalition of Montgomery County. In Washington, DC there is SMYAL—the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League.
Howard County has its own successful group: the Rainbow Youth Alliance. Founded in 1998 by Colette Roberts who also founded and still heads the Howard County Chapter of PFLAG—Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays—the RYA is the only youth oriented gay group in Howard County for GLBTQ youth ages 14-22.

The well-organized and well-run group, which is affiliated with PFLAG-Howard County, usually has between 10 and 20 young people involved at any one time. They meet on the 2nd and 4th Tuesdays each month at the Owen Brown Interfaith Center, 7426 Cradlerock Way, in Columbia and have two facilitators, Erin Foley and Barbara Trimmer.

The meetings are held in an atmosphere of confidentiality and are designed to discuss school issues, coming out to parents and friends, teacher attitudes, healthy relationships, dealing with opposition and all the concerns faced by gay youth. According to PFLAG Chair Colette Roberts, "Our Rainbow Youth Alliance is the only safe place in Howard County for GLBTQ youth and their friends. We are determined to provide these young people with support, encouragement and social interaction."

Through the use of speakers, films, authors and invited guests, the meetings present a forum for interactive discussions on a variety of topics of interest and importance to the young participants. Says Ms. Roberts, "With RYA they can meet other young people with the same or similar concerns, and learn how to cope with parents, school, and even how to deal with any hostility they might encounter."

Given that there is an age range from 14 to 22, it may be challenging to find topics that can be of interest to such a broad spectrum of young adults. Facilitator Erin Foley feels that the RYA programs can bridge the gap. "We try to keep the discussion topics and activities universal to GLBTQ youth, that is, gay marriage, safe sex and health topics, GLBTQ culture and popular media, school/work issues, coming out etc."

On June 8, several members of the group made their own presentation during the monthly PFLAG-Howard County chapter meeting. A diverse panel from ages 16 to 22 offered their own coming out experiences. They also explained the contrast of being closeted vs. coming out at school or work and spoke of transgender issues (by one of the members). In addition, a guidance counselor from a Howard County high school discussed school administration issues and added his perspective.

While few on the panel experienced negative consequences during the coming out process, most related very positive and uplifting stories. Nonetheless, there are GLBTQ youth who have had a difficult time in coming to terms with their sexuality.

Ms. Foley points out, "We do have members of the group that are not out to their families or who do not support them as a GLBT person, although not many." To address the needs of those in that situation, she explains, "We try to reach out by providing them a safe place to talk and socialize with their peers, which helps them know that they are not alone. If they are in need of professional attention, we have a referral list of therapists that specialize (or gay affirmative) working with the GLBT community."

The kids drew rave reviews from those who attended the PFLAG meeting. Colette Roberts was among those who were impressed by the strength of the youth. "I was thrilled to see so many kids and to hear the eloquence of the panel—they were wonderful."

Sexual orientation has long been a factor in many suicides among young males. With more positive visibility, society’s growing acceptance of homosexuality and support groups like the Rainbow Youth Alliance, it is no surprise that the Center of Disease Control reports a 25 percent reduction in these suicides over the past decade.

Ms. Roberts beams at the success of the Rainbow Youth Alliance. "We work hard at educating them on issues like HIV/AIDS and other care, but we also give them a place to relax and have fun. Most of all, we want them to be proud of who they are—we are definitely proud of them!"
Meetings are confidential, safe, free and open to all. For more information about the Rainbow Youth Alliance and PFLAG-Howard County, you may visit their website at

{NOTE: Since the publication of this article, Ray Sheets has joined Erin Foley as co-facilitator.}