Thursday, March 18, 2010

Day 30: Reaching Out to At-Risk Youths

Today, Amber and I drove down to Indianapolis to interview Mary Byrne, the Executive Director of a local charity that I'd heard about through a friend who had, several years ago, volunteered there. It's the Indiana Youth Group, an organization that focuses on providing Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, and Questioning (LGBT) youth a safe, accepting environment where they can get mentoring and interact with other kids going through some of the same issues they're having.

One reason this is so important is that LGBT youths are about 8 times more likely than heterosexual youth to commit suicide, according to Ms. Byrne. Similar increases are evident for other negative behaviors, such as smoking, alcoholism, drug addiction, and unsafe sex. In a recent episode of PBS's Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, the following disturbing statistic was also cited:

"Nationwide, 20 to 30 percent of homeless kids are LGBT. In New York City it is one in three, according to Zak Rittenhouse, who works in a homeless shelter for gay and straight youths."

While these facts are incredibly alarming, there's reason for hope. According to Byrne, a recent study showed that virtually all of this is related to the rejection these youths receive from their parents, family, schools, churches, and other social circles. When looking at LGBT youth who are rated as having high acceptance, the instances of risky behavior drop to be virtually identical to heterosexual youths. [Update 3/19/2010: The study is entitled "Family Rejection as a Predictor of Negative Health Outcomes in White and Latino Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Young Adults" by Caitlin Ryan, David Huebner, Rafael Diaz, and Jorge Sanchez, published in Pediatrics: Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.]

This reminds me of some other evidence I've discussed before, in We Are Not Killer Apes!, where I pointed out the strong role that environment plays on our altruistic behaviors, as demonstrated by various primates who show major behavioral shifts when there is a corresponding change in their social influences.

I think it's safe to say that anyone who grows up being rejected by the people who are supposed to love, care for, and support them will be more likely to internalize that rejection and manifest it in risky behaviors. After all, they're continually being taught that they're worthless, so why not act like they're worthless.

This is very personal to me, because my father is gay.  I've never really discussed his own formative years in this regard, but for me, this created a lot of confusion while I was growing up. Was my dad a bad guy? Since he and my mom were divorced, I didn't see him that often, but he certainly didn't seem like a bad guy. Was he going to hell? Was he evil? What did that make me?  Was my very birth a mistake? Was I gay? Was that why I had trouble talking to girls? Maybe they were sensing something that I didn't know about myself. Was I going to hell?

So yes, to answer your question, I have always over thought things.

The point is that even though I'm not gay (despite my profound love of showtunes), the fact that society puts such a stigma upon being gay had a lot of bleed-over emotional impact on me during my formative years. In fact, it's really just in the last couple of years that I've had anything positive to say about any aspect of Christianity, because I associated it so strongly with incorrect and unfounded attacks upon my father's worth as an human being, and, by extension, my own.

All of this negativity is due to a social atmosphere where rejection is the dominant motif. But if you change the environment to one of acceptance, while these youth will still have many hassles to deal with, they are less likely to internalize the negativity as part of their identity. They're less likely to take the labels provided by others and hang it around their own neck, because they'll see that there are alternatives.

That is really what drove the creation of the Indiana Youth Group in 1988. A group of volunteers from an Indianapolis crisis hotline for homosexuals got together in one of their living rooms to discuss a problem: when gay teens called in, they didn't have anyplace to send them for appropriate counseling or help. There was nowhere for these children to turn with their problems.

So they created one.

Today, the Indiana Youth Group serves kids from ages 12 to 20. (They also have a transitional program, helping those ages 21 through 24, so they don't just have to kick them to the curb.) Byrne recounted a busy period last year when the IYG was averaging 85 youths hanging out at the facility each evening, many of them playing volleyball (badly) in the court in their back yard. The majority of the IYG participants are from the older end of the spectrum, because the IYG facility doesn't sit on a bus line (they're trying to find a new facility more accessible to non-driving youths), but Byrne says that even for those who don't come, she thinks that just knowing the facility is out there may provide some emotional support. The IYG also now has an outreach coordinator who works with LGBT groups at high schools across the state, so that they're supporting those who can't make it in for their activities.

The majority of Indiana Youth Group's funding comes from grants, and about 15% comes from their fundraisers - just last Saturday they held an art auction, which included both professional artists and pieces created by the youths who frequent the IYG. The remaining 25% - 30% of their funding comes from the donations of individual supporters ... which includes, after today's give, Amber and myself.

Byrne says that, for her, the major benefits from giving her time to help others have been the rich relationships that she has developed. Maybe some are paying forward a mentorship that they once received at a crucial time in their own lives. Still others, she notes, support their work as a way of trying to help the next generation avoid the same problems they had to deal with.

I can relate to this. The negativity related to homosexually left me conflicted for years, just because I might have picked up a few gay chromosomes somewhere in utero! Kids who are actually feeling these emotions must have it way worse than I did, and if any of them can be spared isolation because of it, I say it's a noble effort. We're created to live with others, as communal beings, and being forced to seal some portion of yourself off is not - can not - be a healthy lifestyle. It hinders our ability to truly connect not only with others, but also with ourselves. The teenage years are where we really begin to determine who we are going to become and that process of self-discovery is hard enough in the best situation.

Kudos to the IYG for providing these kids with an environment where they can be who they were meant to be ... themselves.