Guiding Proud: LGBT Youth Program Deals with Stigma Unsolved by Rights

Natasha Dillon began investigating the social resources for LGBT youth in New York and found nothing. So, Dillon set to work, beginning the process of forming the first LGBTQ youth mentoring program in New York City.
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It's been nearly 15 years, but I still remember the freedom, then simultaneous shame that colored my very first kiss with a woman. I was nearly 22, a senior at Northwestern University and just beginning to come to terms with years of repression -- sexual, social, emotional and psychological. After a summer of safe investigation in D.C., where no one could find me and out me, I decided to take the plunge into a life both frightening as hell, liberating beyond belief, and carnally as well as intimately exhilarating. My transformation took place on a cold sidewalk with a random stranger, whom I never saw again. The moment was not broadcast.

Last year, around this time, other LGBT people likely relived their personal coming-out experiences -- and the despair those experiences sometimes brought to their lives -- as the newspapers, blogs and social media informed us that six young men took their lives while struggling with being gay. Every death was beyond heartbreaking for the families and beyond vexatious for us, for each one reminded us -- even in the New York bubble -- that the culture had still not granted us, or our young successors, true acceptance. The most upsetting suicide, for me, however, was that of 18-year-old Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University student who jumped off the George Washington Bridge after discovering that his first forays into gay life had been cruelly recorded for the world to see on the Internet. This one reminded me of the truly inhumane depths that homophobia can take. The Internet seems to offer new avenues every day -- ones not even all the LGBT organizations and online support networks can counter.

I came out riding the first undulations of the gay rights movement and investigating gay life on a black-and-white Mac. Gay/straight alliances hardly existed; gay marriage was barely a theory; everyone still consumed media on VHS tapes; and social networking meant walking down to Tommy Nevin's on a Friday night to mingle with my straight friends. It was an incredibly lonely and isolating time in my life, as I wondered how I would not only break the news to my parents, but also deal with the stigma attached to homosexuality. But one day, Sharon Greene, a pioneering young lesbian from Ann Arbor, Mich. took me aside at my retail job and told me we needed to "talk shop." Sharon helped me take the first steps of self-actualization, introduced me to the Human Rights Campaign and listened to my kvetching about all of it.

Clementi had all the modern tools of communication at his hands, and then he had them used against him. Many gay adolescents today are incredibly technology savvy, but technology is still not solving the problem of internalized homophobia or bullying, despite Dan Savage's online "It Gets Better" campaign. Six months ago, Jamey Rodemeyer, a 14-year-old in Buffalo, N.Y., made his own "It Gets Better" video, but, for him, it didn't. He was found dead by his parents in September, an apparent suicide. The 2009 Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey, found that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth are still up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. And in 2010, the American Association of Pediatrics issued a report stating that teen suicide attempts occurred among 28 percent of gay and bisexual teenage boys and 20 percent of gay and bisexual teenage girls.

Sadly, I wondered if Tyler or Jamey (or any of the other dozen young men who have died in the past two years) had known a friend like Sharon, would they have not committed the devastating and irreversible act of suicide. Fortunately, so did LGBT activist Natasha Dillon. In addition to helping to organize several marches and rallies, she began investigating the social resources for LGBT youth in New York and found nothing of the sort. So, Dillon set to work, having conversations and having meetings, learning about mentoring and beginning the process of forming the first LGBTQ youth mentoring program in New York City.

"A student reporter at NYU contacted me about my opinions about the then-recent suicides and hate crimes that were taking place," Dillon said. "She asked me if I thought they would discourage young people from coming out of the closet, and I couldn't help but think 'yes.' So I looked for a program, and when I found out there was none, either because of money constraints, time constraints and/or basic fear of accusations, I was aghast. It isn't fair to our youth to not provide them support."

That program Dillon envisaged and built on her own volition, Guiding Proud, launches today. A youth partnership that will match 11 LGBTQ youth with 11 LGBT adults, Guiding Proud works with Urban Assembly, a nonprofit organization that had created a community of small New York City public schools dedicated to preparing traditionally overlooked students for college. Over the next two years, the mentors will meet with their students in environments amenable to them both and, hopefully, build a lasting, fruitful relationship.

"I was fortunate enough to have a gay uncle who I could talk to," Dillon said. "And my experience was hard enough for me... I can't fathom what it would have been like to figure it out on my own. Society is so hetero-focused; there is no option but for a kid to be confused. And mentoring has such a strong, proven effect and provides support that will give these kids a fair shake."

Guiding Proud remains very much a pilot project, but all involved believe it is filling a deep void -- one that should have been addressed years ago. And it remains a void technology cannot satisfy. "Finally, LGBT youth have the opportunity to form relationships with adults who implicitly understand the struggles they are going through and serve as role models of success, health and happiness," Dillon said. It's a new social networking model on which she is banking.

The Guiding Proud launch party take place Thursday, Oct. 6 from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. at the historic Stonewall Inn (upstairs), with a door charge of $10. There is a special performance by Marti Gould Cummings. See details on the organization through Facebook.

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