Satelliting is the word Dave, a sixteen year old gay teen in St. Louis, uses to describe the apprehensive way gay and lesbian teens often approach their first youth group.
After taking the bus, driving, or walking to what is often not the greatest part of town, you finally find the building you've been looking for. It might be a community center, a lesbian/feminist bookstore or some nondescript storefront. But you know that inside is a roomful of teens -- queer teens -- waiting for you.
So you walk on by, work up some more courage and then turn around and walk by again. Or maybe you circle the block, the gravitational pull of other queer teens pulling you in, closer and closer.
You take a tentative step in. And suddenly you know you've opened up more than a door.
Finding Friends, Finding Yourself
For a lot of gay and lesbian teens, going to your first queer youth group meeting can be a scary thing. But that feeling usually stops about halfway into the meeting, when you realize that, however different everyone else in the room might be, you've found some community at last. And maybe some friends.
This month we're going to hear from five queer teens from across the country, online friends of mine who wrote to me about their experiences over the last year and a half. It took most of them a while to come to terms with being gay, and then, once they did, to summon up the courage to go to their first youth group meeting.
They are: Billy, 18, of Cincinnati, Ohio; Clint, 14, of St. Louis, Missouri; Danny, 16, of Fresno, California; Dave, 16, of St. Louis, Missouri and Jarred, 18, of Hutchinson, Kansas. Here, on their own words, they'll tell you what it was like for them...
Dave Psyches Up
Growing American Youth (G.A.Y.), a queer youth group in St. Louis, Missouri, is located in a rougher part of town. But Dave was scared of more than that. It was partly the fear of something new, of being thrown in with a group of people he'd never met before and, frankly, all he had in common with was a shared sexual orientation.
More than that, though, it was tacitly acknowledging, for the first time in a really public way, that he was gay. Dave agonized over the issue. It was easy to find lots of reasons not to go, to put it off. But then he came to some critical juncture in his thinking.
Dave: "OK, I've come to terms with it. I lack that part of the brain that allows one to overcome the intense combined fears. Going somewhere far downtown I've never been...showing up there and looking like a complete idiot...doing it alone...doing it period. So no youth group for a while. C'est la vie. Ah, I have been on this emotional roller coaster lately, it must be chemical."
Unfortunately, not everything goes exactly as you plan it.
Dave: "Arrggh. Just when I get my courage up to go to the meeting, they cancel it because of some big school concert thing. Damn the luck."
But Dave kept at it, called again, and this time, convinced himself that going wasn't going to be quite the problem he originally imagined it to be.
Dave: "This week I'm going to Growing American Youth, because the guy at Washington University told me to call this bookstore and ask for ‘Bill', the guy that runs the meeting. This last bit was the important part, having a name."
Going the Distance
Even with hundreds of queer youth groups across the country, if you live in the middle of Kansas, or even Ohio, it doesn't mean there's one nearby. When you decide it's important to go, though, it seems that an hour's drive, or having to spend what you earn in a day on cab fare doesn't get in the way.
Jarred: "I think I am going to the next PFLAG meeting in Wichita (about an hour away)!
Billy: "I called !!!! Just now there's a meeting this Friday at 5:30 at a bookstore. I have no idea where it is but I am going to take a cab there so it doesn't matter. You know, what luck. Friday is the only day I get off this week. What Luck!!!!! I cant wait to go.
"Tomorrow I will call and maybe get some more information on where it's at so I will know how much it will cost me to get there. I just got paid today so I should have the funds. I cant wait."
Billy found me online the night before the meeting. This was all new to him, so he was a little nervous, and had some lingering questions.
Chris: "What's on your mind, Billy?"
Billy: "Well, I am scared about tomorrow. I have no idea what it will be like."
Chris: "Yeah, I can imagine. You know, it's not uncommon for some people to like circle around the building a few times (actually weeks!) before going in. But they always say they're happy they finally went in. What you'll probably find, Bill, is a room full of guys and girls very much like you. Most will probably have been there for a few meetings already. For a few, this may be their first time, like you. They're probably scared, too."
Chris: "Lesbians, Bill."
Billy: "Yeah, but they're still girls. They make me feel uncomfortable."
Chris: "Some groups break into guys and girls separately for some meetings, but usually most groups combine both guys and girls for most meetings. If the talk is going to be on something like safe sex, they might split into two groups, though.
"Bill, remember that the guys AND girls are all gay/lesbian. The key thing, Bill, is that there are no expectations of you when you go in. Usually, you don't even have to talk if you don't want to. But you'll feel better if you do."
Billy: "I see that's really nothing. What do they talk about? Do you think if there's anybody there I know you think they'll rat on me?"
Chris: "No, they won't rat on you. Remember, they're either lesbian or gay, too. And usually most of these groups have some rules of confidentiality that you agree to when you go in. Some have even gone so far as to make rules that you don't acknowledge each other outside of the building, although that's happening less and less now."
Billy: "Oh, I want to talk at least a little. I would like to start making friends."
Chris: "Yeah, the groups can be a good place to make friends. Not the pressure of something like a bar where there's some expectation of having sex. Here, it's just other queer teens getting to know each other, helping each other, and socializing, too."
Billy: "What do they talk about? Is it open discussion or regulated to a set subject?"
Chris: "What they talk about can vary from one group to another. Sometimes it's free-form discussion, about whatever's on anyone's minds. Other times they'll have scheduled topics. Or some combination of both. Almost always, though, there's a period when you can just talk about whatever you want. Topics may include what it's like to be gay and in the closet as a teen and how to deal with it. Or what it's like to be openly gay in school. Sometimes they'll schedule special speakers on topics like safer sex. Most groups will also schedule social events, usually at least once a month, if not more. Maybe a trip to the movies. Maybe a video night at the center. Or maybe even a dance. They'll probably be a range of ages. Maybe one or two people as young as 13-14. Maybe a couple as old as 21-22. Most will probably be around 16-20 years old."
Billy: "COOL!!! I just hope I don't get there and its like three girls and me or just two or three people...
"Dances!!! I never even thought I would be able to dance ever! I always wanted to when I had a boyfriend."
Chris: "Oh yeah, it's great! They know that people like to dance and it can be hard to dance with another guy (if you're a guy) at school or in most clubs, so they usually make sure to have dances.
"The number of people can vary from group to group, or even week to week. Like around finals time, there's probably fewer people there (beginning of June, probably). Then more afterwards. Maybe as few as five, maybe as many as twenty-five people. The Cincinnati group seems pretty well-organized, so probably there will be more people, rather than fewer."
Billy: "Great!!!! Now I know there's more than 20 or 30 gay teens in the city. Is the problem getting word to them or them just not wanting to come?"
Chris: "Lots of reasons there's not more in the group, Bill. Main one is it's usually hard to get word to them. Since most of the teens are in the closet, like you, it's hard to let them know what's there. You have a computer so you're ahead of many. Others who do know about the group may just be scared. Others are too young to drive and it may just be too difficult to get there. But there's stories of others who would spend two to three hours on a bus just to go to the group meeting each week because it meant so much to them."
Billy: "Yeah, I know about those busses and stuff. It will cost me about $35 round-trip in a cab tomorrow but I am sure it will be worth it. I wish to God I would have known about this when I was thirteen so I could have not went around thinking I was weird and a freak."
Dave Psyches Up, Part Two
Dave: "Oh boy, I think I'll go to GAY tonight, but I'm just a tad nauseous. My only concern is this -- what do I do when I walk in there? I mean, do I just walk in, sit down and look at the floor? Argghhh!"
For some people the decision is less difficult. Danny, for example, was bubbling over with anticipation. And who knows, you might just find that cute guy or girl in your class that you've been interested in at the meeting.
Danny: "I'm going to a YOUTH meeting on FRIDAY!!!!!!!! YAY!!!!!!!!!!!! I'm happy again! I talked to the guy who facilitates the youth group in Fresno today. I'm going FRIDAY NIGHT!!!! That's so exciting -- my first youth group meeting ever!!! And get THIS. This guy told me THERE'S A FEW FROM MY SCHOOL WHO GO TO THAT YOUTH GROUP!!! I am D Y I N G to find out WHO!!! What if it's someone I like, like that ONE guy I can't stop starting at! Ohhh God!"
In the Door
His weeks of unnecessary mental anguish behind him, Dave actually made it in the door at Growing American Youth.
Dave: "Dave doesn't satellite, and survives semi-dangerous neighborhood. I just drove, parked, and walked in. It was very cool. I was ultra-quiet, and didn't make any friends, but I went and I stayed and that's what's important. Some of the kids there were ultra-queeny, but some were cute.
"Very strange crowd, and my new people skills are horrendous. But nonetheless, I am VERY VERY VERY VERY VERY proud o' myself. I never dreamed I could overcome that kind of fear, but I did, so hey. BUT, I dunno how I'll keep going, my parents are out o' town now so it was easy, but I'll have to come up with something way groovy to explain my absence on Thursday nights. Any good excuses? Kind of scary neighborhood, I was quite worried about my baby. (My car, it's my life.) -The Proud One"
A year later, and two years younger, 14-year-old Clint went through the same doors.
Clint: "Well, I made it. I went to my first ever gay youth group meeting. Actually it's called (G. A. Y. - Growing American Youth) and I must tell you that when I was going and on my way it was really, I mean all day it was in my mind as thinking that it was still time to relax and everything, and even that way on the way there.
"But then about fifteen minutes before I got there in the car it hit me like a ton of bricks, I mean I was just sitting and talking about it and all of a sudden. Then when we got there we had to stand outside and talk for a short bit and to me it was all new and just in a sense scary even though I knew that there was no reason to be.
"There were all sorts of people there, there was this one guy that had a tattoo on his head, and one that went like around his neck and everything. But he was really cool, and funny might I add. We talked about me getting a tattoo, I want one, not big or anything but just something, I saw one off of Madonna's dancers.
"But anyway I did talk to a lot of people, mostly after the meeting, I mean first we stood outside and talked but then because of the weather, I don't know whether you know about it or not it is extremely hot out here, like 103 of something, which is hot for St. Louis. Even at night it was hot, so we all went to a cafe or restaurant or whatever that was in a really gay neighborhood, and I had a lot of fun, especially after at the restaurant because that was where everyone talked a little better and you get to know everyone and I made friends, and the next time I plan to meet more people and make more friends.
"But I have to tell you that I am glad that I went. I really liked it, at first in the actual meeting where they were talking about pamphlets or something and even though in the hot sweaty weather and boring as hell I still had a fun time at first, it was just an experience that I had never had and I am sure that I am going back next week.
"But with my mother, now that is something also good. Well, I didn't tell her that I was going, she was working and I had planned to tell her even just so that I wouldn't get hassled or anything, so I left and I thought while I was at the restaurant I was thinking that I was going to be late and she was going to catch me, well she thought I was asleep all that time, and when I showed up at the front door she was amazed.
"Well after I told her and everything she was just mad that I snuck out and that was it, and now I am allowed to go and I won't have to rush and get home or anything. But I went, and it was really fun. I knew it would be, I just was really nervous before I went and everything."
Billy, who didn't have a car, couldn't get to the meeting on public transportation. So he took a cab, the $35 fare almost what he earned in a day. No satelliting for Billy, either, but for somewhat different reasons. Billy: "Thanks for your letter. I don't think I could have done it without you. And the bums on the street helped, too.
"I think I had better explain the part about the bums (Do you think? Ha!) Well, when I got out of the cab I didn't pay any attention to where I was at. I was real scared, you know. Anyway I looked up at the bookstore window and saw it was a lesbian book store and I got real scared. Then I took a look around and noticed I was in the worst part of town there was.
"I hung around outside for a few minutes and became more and more afraid of where I was than whatever could be inside and out of fear of being mugged or beaten or something I wandered inside and asked where the meeting was and it was in a room upstairs and I was glad of that. I didn't want to be seen from the street. But I am glad I went. I had a whole lot of fun.
"It was so cool. A little weird but real cool. It was almost all lesbians but we had a great time we never stopped laughing. There were two other guys there. One was a veteran at the meetings and real outspoken. The other was his first time, too. He was real quiet but we were talking after the meeting when it was just me and him and he was real nice.
"I liked the new boy too and I think he liked me. (Don't get me wrong. I don't mean like I want to go steady or have sex with him but I would like to get to know him, you know what I mean?) I asked him if he would like to go to a movie some time and he said he would love to. He was real nice and real cute, too. I think he was around 18. His parents know he is gay and they brought him and spoke with us just for a second. It's nice to see parents helping their kids like that.
"I guess there were twenty girls there and us three guys. One of the girls asked me what was with us guys why we were so few in numbers when it came to meetings. I said you got more balls than we do and every body started laughing and it went on forever. We never stopped laughing all night it was a real gas. I did get the willies at first. Some of those girls looked way far out, but you know what, those were the friendliest. I can't wait to go back in two weeks. You know what? Meeting days always fall on my off days !!!!!!
"They're going to hold a dance soon at the youth group. I hope I get to know someone well enough to ask them by then. If not there's always next time or I could go stag. I never danced before. I will look like a idiot but the new dances they have out I think don't require much skill anyway so I might try it."
Every meeting is different, of course. How good they are can depend on how many people show up, the time of the year, or, in large part, on who's facilitating the group. You might get more people in the big cities, but some of the best groups are in places you might not necessarily expect, like Charlotte, North Carolina (Time Out Youth) or Indianapolis, Indiana (Indianapolis Youth Group).
If the first meeting isn't what you expected, give it another chance. The second time turned out to be a lot easier for Dave.
Dave: "Hey, I went to another one of those meetings last night. It was a little bit better this time, we talked about at least semi-relevant stuff."
And, if you live in Hutchinson, Kansas, an hour's drive might seem like nothing, if it's the only way you have to meet other gay friends.
Jarred: "I get so depressed living in a small town where there is little or no gay support. One thing that I do every Tuesday is travel 60 miles to a lesbigay support group. I really enjoy it, it's so wonderful to be able to talk to others who have had the same thoughts, feelings, etc. as you have had. It's also cool to be in a town where you could have a gay flag or a pink triangle on your car without being shot at."
Jarred: "Yippeeeeee!! PFLAG is later today! I can't wait. PFLAG gives me something to look forward to each Tuesday! Our PFLAG has a special youth group called Project Acceptance! I love the group!"
For many teens, going to a queer youth group can be an important step on their coming out journey. It's important to have friends that will support you for everything you are, and having their support when the time comes to tell your family, or other friends in your life, can help a lot.
There's something else you can gain, as well. Like, in case you ever doubt it, confirmation that being queer is a good part of you, something that you can be proud of.
Jarred: "I bought a rainbow flag sticker for my truck. I am not sure which way is up. Is red supposed to be on the top or is it purple. Pink is one of my least favorite colors so I tend to stick with pretty rainbows..."
So, the next time you're passing through Hutchinson, Kansas, an hour's drive from just about anywhere in the state, be sure to look for the guy who found friendship, confidence and self-esteem at his youth group.
He'll be the one with the rainbow flag on his truck.