Jun 09, 2011 Ami Olson Uncategorized
When Damien Dine, 21, started visiting the Q Center when it opened in 2006, he was looking for a place where he could be himself and be around others like him.
An East Syracuse Minoa High School student, Dine had come out to his family as a gay male two years earlier, at age 14.
Although he had friends at school, Dine said he felt they didn’t really know what he was going through.
“You feel like you’re the only one,” Dine said. “It’s very much, you feel like the only one when in actuality you aren’t-but no one’s around you saying that.”
The Q Center, a program of AIDS Community Resources’ Youth Services, is now in its fifth year of providing a safe, nonjudgmental place for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth and their allies, between 13 and 22 years old, for free. The non-profit center is the only one of its kind in the greater Syracuse area.
Q Center Program Coordinator Heather Crate said finding a sense of belonging is probably the most important thing for any LGBTQ youth who walks in the door for the first time.
“A lot of times, regardless if they’re 13 or 18 or 19, they feel like they might be the only person who is LGBTQ,” Crate said.
With approximately 50 youths using the Q Center each month, and staff and volunteers who are often LGBTQ themselves, Crate said youths quickly realize they’re not alone in their experiences.
Once they’ve found a place they feel they fit in, the Q Center becomes a resource for LGBTQ to get information.
Crate said the center runs several group sessions each week for youth, including a new group for parents of LGBTQ kids, an after school program and social events (the Pride Prom is coming up later this month). The groups address any relevant topic, from how to come out to their families to how to talk to their doctors, LGBTQ students’ rights in schools, how to deal with bullies, and current events.
“The great thing about the Q Center is you don’t have to peg yourself into any identity or label, there’s a lot of fluidity,” Crate said.
Bruce Carter, a developmental psychologist on faculty at SU, co-founded the now-defunct Onondaga County Gay and Lesbian Youth Center in 1987, a hotline for youth to ask questions and get information about LGBT issues.
He remembers the same need for youth then, nearly 25 years ago, to have a safe place to access and ask questions.
But he points out that people can be wary of the idea of encouraging adolescents to talk about sexuality.
“Quite literally the problem is that folks often confuse the idea of talking about sexuality with the idea of having sex,” Carter said. “Especially when you’re talking about kids and gay and lesbian issues.”
Carter, who also serves as president of CNY Pride, said in some ways society has become more accepting of LBGTQ individuals, but that tolerance is more abstract-for some parents, non-heterosexual orientations are perfectly acceptable, as long as they don’t apply to their own children.
“The process of coming out is different for kids today than it was 40 years ago, but some elements remain the same,” he said. “For some kids, the experience is going to be very similar to what it was 40 or 50 years ago. Even among liberal parents, the idea their child would be gay or lesbian is either stated as a disappointment, or perceived that way.”
Whether it’s the perception that they won’t be accepted, or experiences that have led them to feel that way, several studies show LGBTQ teens are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, are at a higher risk of contracting STDs, and are significantly more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers.
Conservative estimates report 1 in 5 homeless youths self-identify as LGBTQ, of the 2 million youths experiencing homelessness each year as of April 2009, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
And once on the street, LGBTQ youth are still more likely to be robbed, physically or sexually assaulted than their heterosexual peers.
Crate said part of providing a safe environment for LGBTQ youth means providing access to accurate and comprehensive sex education, which in schools typically ignores LGBTQ issues.
“If it’s not addressed or it’s never discussed, they often turn to the Internet,” she said.
The center’s affiliation with AIDS Community Resources provides access to ACR’s Teen AIDS Task Force for educational programming, while the Cultural Competency Training program, which Crate also runs, works with youth service providers in the community on how not to avoid stigmatizing and alienating LGBTQ youth.
“We do a lot of the other training out in the community and we go out into schools and work with the staff there so we’re not just taking these youth out of mainstream society and into our center,” Crate said. “We’re going back out into the community and saying, ‘look, these youth are here, here’s how they’re feeling, here’s what they’re experiencing and here’s what you can do to make sure that all places are safe spaces.'”
Keeping youth safe can at times mean sacrificing visibility of the center, though. The nondescript downtown building that houses Q Center is not marked as such, and the physical address is not posted on the center’s website.
“That is something we sort of struggle with, as far as, do we give out the address, is this a safe community if we were to put the address out there, say on the Internet?” Crate said.
For Carter, that sort of hesitancy is diagnostic of the state of acceptance of LGBTQ people in the larger community.
“The reality is, you wouldn’t have to say ‘you are accepted here,’ if it was happening everywhere else,” Carter said.
“Ten years down the road, we’d love to not even need the Q center,” Crate said. “Unfortunately, given the current social climate, that’s not exactly the case.”
Until then, so long as funding holds out, the Q Center will continue providing an atmosphere of acceptance to LGBTQ youth and their supporters.
For more information about the Q Center, call 701-2431 or click here. .
Students in the greater Syracuse area can also get information about the Q Center from their school guidance counselors.