It’s tough to be a teenager and feel good about yourself, much less find acceptance among your peers.
Now imagine facing those pressures as a gay teen in a homophobic society, especially in a conservative place like Alabama.
It’s not easy.
Things are even tougher for gay and lesbian young people who lack safe, supportive environments at home or school where they can explore their identities without being harshly criticized or even punished.
Young gays and lesbians, as well as teenagers who are merely questioning their sexual identities, need access to safe places in order to build their self-esteem, gain a better understanding of themselves and properly begin their lifelong journeys of self-discovery.
These young people also need access to communities where they can make friends and overcome what can be a crippling sense of isolation.
They need positive adult GLBT role models who can help disprove society’s misconceptions regarding homosexuality.
They need information about health and other life issues.
And perhaps most important, gay and lesbian youth need to learn to accept who they are and be proud of it.
Support groups are one technique used to help meet these needs.
Gay and lesbian kids in the Birmingham area have been served for over a decade by the Birmingham Alliance of Gay, Straight and Lesbian Youth (BAGSLY).
The group meets twice a month at the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church of Birmingham.
According to the organization’s volunteer manual, BAGSLY was formed in the late 1990s and begin meeting at the church in about 2000. BAGSLY is described as a social support network of adult volunteers and young people ages 14 to 20.
“BAGSLY is primarily a place where GLBT youth, questioning youth and their allies can come together and get support from each other,” said Glenda Elliott, BAGSLY adviser, one of the support group’s founders and director of the Alabama Safe Schools Coalition.
Kim Shoemaker, a lesbian activist, a UU church administrator and another BAGSLY adviser, describes the organization as a place where GLBT youth “can learn to be comfortable with who they are.”
It is also a place where those gay and lesbian kids can relax and be accepted. “It’s a way for them to make friends and have some social contact,” Elliott said.
Weld Local met with Elliott and Shoemaker at the Unitarian church on a recent Tuesday prior to a BAGSLY meeting. Also taking part was Sarah Noone, a regular participant in the group and a student at Indian Springs School, and Jessica Orcutt, a BAGSLY member and a student at Alabama School for the Fine Arts.
Noone said that many kids who come to the group are looking for the support and understanding that they have been unable to find elsewhere.“A lot of people find a lot of comfort in groups like this because they don’t have an environment like this at home or school,” she said. “That what makes BAGSLY so attractive.”
Each BAGSLY meeting is attended by two adult advisers, from a current pool of about 8 to 10 advisers, and those adult mentors play a critical role, according to Elliott.
“The advisers make sure it is a safe place, and that’s very important,” Elliott said. “The group is student-run group, but advisers are there to offer support, to give information when asked, to identify resources in the community. The advisers who are themselves LGBT serve as role models. And the adults who are non-LGBT are role models for wonderful allies. They are adults who care. They show that they really care about these young people and we want them to feel good about themselves.
It is important to the success of BAGSLY and similar groups that straight and questioning kids be involved, according to the interview participants. “I think it’s a very important component, because then it’s not just banding together because we’re gay,” Noone said. “It’s everybody getting together to work and get stronger.”
The gay and lesbian young people in BAGSLY receive a distinct psychological benefit from having the straight kids in the group. “The bottom line is that straight allies provide acceptance to the LGBT young people,” Elliott said.
Orcutt is one of the young people who self-identify as straight who are participating in BAGSLY. There are still a lot of problems facing gay and lesbian youth in schools, she said.
“There’s still a lot of bullying that happens with gay kids,” Orcutt said. “People are afraid they’re not going to be accepted for who they are.”
This is “horrible,” she says, because a person’s sexual identity is not something they can change, even if they want to.
One factor that is gradually making some area high schools more tolerable for gay, lesbian and questioning kids is the recent growth in the number of gay-student alliances, according to Elliott and Noone.
Among the high schools that now have GSAs are Pelham, Homewood, Hoover, Oak Mountain, Alabama School of Fine Arts and Indian Springs School, where Noone is GSA president.
The interview participants hope that this growth in the number of GSAs in the area will help boost the attendance at BAGSLY meetings, which – according to Noone – presently averages about 10 to 15 people.
According to Elliott, “I think with the growth of GSAs in this area, that will feed the membership, too.”
Noone adds, “I’m trying to get everyone in my GSA to come to these meetings.”
BAGSLY has received encouragement not only from the UU congregation but from another group that meets at the church – the Birmingham chapter of Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). “They are a great group and sometimes have so many people they have to meet in the sanctuary,” Shoemaker said. “Some people drive from an hour away.”
It is appropriate that BAGSLY and PFLAG meet at the Unitarian church, since that denomination has a long commitment to human rights, according to Shoemaker “This church has a rich history of being a social justice church,” she said, noting that the church was active during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. “And gay and lesbian rights are a big part of civil rights.”
Adults who wish to become BAGSLY advisers must go through an application process, according to Elliott. A prospective adviser must agree to a security check, be interviewed and give references, she said. As the BAGSLY volunteer manual states, “BAGSLY promises that it is a safe place for its members, and we take that promise very seriously.”
Those interested in becoming advisers should contact Shoemaker at (205) 945-8109 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bagsly will host “An Arabian Night,” an LGBT-inclusive prom for area students ages 14 to 20, on Saturday, May 19, 7-10 p.m., at the Unitarian Universalist Church. For information, contact email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
PFLAG meetings are held at the Unitarian church on second Tuesdays at 7 p.m. For information, visit http://pflagbham.org.
Jesse Chambers is the editor of Weld Local and a contributing editor at Weld for Birmingham. Send your feedback to email@example.com.