Safe Spaces

Louisville Youth Group provides activities and support for area’s LGBTQ+ young adults

By Mandy Wolf Detwiler  |  Photos courtesy of Louisville Youth Group

The 1990s were a trying time for LGBTQ+ youth in America. Not fully supported in schools and many times even at home, gay and transgender young adults often found themselves seeking places of refuge where they would be accepted in a warm, inviting atmosphere. Today, Louisville Youth Group (LYG) offers just that: “a group that would offer youth a space to engage with peers and mentors who could provide affirmation, socialization and a counter-story to the existing message of exclusion,” says Executive Director Jason Peno.

In Louisville, the organization began as a loose group, meeting in homes and donated spaces in the late 1980s. “In 1990, LYG began the process of incorporation and officially became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in October of 1991, which included the creation of a formal board of directors,” Peno says. “For the majority of LYG’s history, the organization has primarily been volunteer and youth-directed and managed. In the past two decades, the work and visibility of LYG have grown, and the organization has begun the process of refining more formal operations while growing staff support.”

The First Lutheran Church on Broadway gave the group a much-needed permanent space. “Historically, the primary safe places for LGBTQ+ folks have been bars or other similar spaces,” Peno says. “LGBTQ+ youth also experience a much higher rate of homelessness and attempted suicide. The hope was that LYG would be a place that would both keep youth safe from the mental and emotional hardships caused by the world’s reaction to their sexuality or gender while also helping to reduce the very real risks of homelessness, suicide, substance abuse and harmful relationships.”

LYG meets weekly and is primarily designed for youth ages 13 to 20. Meetings begin with 30 to 60 minutes of social time. The Youth Leadership Council then leads new and existing members through introductions that include age, length of time in LYG, preferred pronouns (he, she, they, etc.) and icebreaker questions. “This is followed by 45 to 60 minutes of structured programming led by LYG staff or outside community partners,” Peno says. “This programming can focus on a number of youth-development topics and other socializing opportunities. We have announcements about upcoming LYG programming and opportunities in the community. We also host drop-in hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3:30 to 6 p.m. These drop-in hours offer space for the youth to come in and have snacks, socialize, work on school work and get support from staff and volunteers.

“Many youth start (meetings) with a certain level of nervous energy,” he adds. “Group spaces with their peers have been so fraught with obstacles, they’re still not certain about the LYG experience. After a first visit, we see a lot of excitement about returning. That can be displayed with exuberant activity or quiet affirmation depending on the personality.”

Aside from the weekly meetings, LYG hosts several annual events such as the Queer Prom, a leadership retreat, the youth-led annual pasta dinner and talent show fundraiser, a New Year’s Eve lock-in and the Glitter Gala.

The prom is held on the last Friday in June as a bookend to Pride month and is open to all youth ages 13 to 20. “Prom is one of the favorite events of the year, and in 2019 we started using the prom theme as our Pride theme for our t-shirts and parade ideas,” Peno says. “Many LGBTQ+ youth still feel unsafe attending prom with their date, and Queer Prom gives them a chance to eat fun food, dance and celebrate their own joy and love.”

The gala is LYG’s primary fundraising event. “LYG focuses on highlighting the uniqueness and beauty of the region’s queer communities while celebrating the work of LYG and our supporters,” Peno says. “Each year, there is a theme and folks are encouraged to treat the event as a costume ball in the spirit of the Met Gala.”

LYG focuses on youth between the ages of 13 and 20. In January 2019, a junior group launched for kids between the ages of five and 12. “As our visibility grew, phone calls from parents with youth in this younger age range spiked dramatically,” Peno says. “I believe the average age of coming out hovered somewhere around 12-and-a-half in 2006 with a trend downward. The need for the junior group was undeniably clear. Traditionally, youth discovered LYG through word-of-mouth due to the anonymity that some youth required to remain safe in their community.”

Kirk, age 12, and parent Jen, became involved with LYG in January 2019. “Parents attend with their child(ren) in the junior group, so I became involved right away as well,” Jen says. “The other parents I met in the group have become so important to me because we are fiercely supportive of each other like the kids are.

“LYG has had a profound impact on my child,” she continues. “From my perspective, it has given him his ability to enjoy life back. His confidence and self-esteem have slowly been returning.”

Jen eventually joined the group’s board of directors.

Lately, LYG has begun more directed outreach by having tables at events and programs, visiting schools and supporting their GSAs (Gender and Sexuality Alliances), attending Pride events and through social media and a growing array of other media.

For parents of LGBTQ youth, finding a place of acceptance can often be challenging.

“LYG has people just like me,” Kirk says. “We can all talk about our experiences at school and stuff like that. I’ve met friends, and we all help and support each other. I have so much fun when I’m there. Sometimes we are taught things like self-defense or how to deal with bullies. Other times, we just have fun like a pajama party and pizza.”

That secure space is exactly what Peno hopes LYG provides. “I think the primary initial reaction for most parents is relief,” he says. “We talk so much about the risks of living as an LGBTQ+ person, and they see their children struggling to connect or expressing sadness and depression. They’re just relieved to have a place where their youth experiences affirmation and connectedness. I also think it’s important to remember that parents are going through their own adjustment process. This process involves them learning the structures of a new community, and often it can require them to push back against or give up some of their current communities of support and belonging. I had a parent drop off a youth about a year ago who talked to me about being unendingly supportive of their child but also about their life in the Catholic church. They were navigating how or if they could still belong to that community. Finding a place of belonging where they can ask questions – and make mistakes with other parents – is just as big of a relief for parents as it is for their youth.”

Peno and his team have worked hard to create safe spaces for LGBTQ+ youth and their allies in Louisville. “I think the message I want to get out on behalf of LYG is that you belong,” he says. “Who you are is an exciting and beautiful person full of possibility, and we want to support you as you discover who you might want to be as you grow – no matter where you are in your life experience.”

Jen echoes Peno’s sentiment. “After I had been bringing Kirk to the junior group for a couple of months, we were all leaving group one night,” she recalls. “The kids had run ahead of us parents and went out to the parking lot. When we got out there with them, I heard Kirk laughing. He was fully laughing with his friends. I teared up as I realized I hadn’t heard him laugh in months. It was at that moment I realized how important LYG is. It was also in that moment that I knew I needed to give back. I have been on the board since July and was just elected treasurer. Having a bigger part in LYG allows me to have a direct impact. I can use my talents and time to help grow the program so we can reach more LGBT youth in our community. Since 2016, we have moved backward in the strides that the LGBT community had made, especially with regard to transgender rights. I can’t just sit idle and not become involved. As a parent, I have to fight for my child and all of the children in our community – fight to show them that they are loved and respected and an important part of our community.” V

For more information about LYG, visit louisvilleyouthgroup.org or call 502.430.2016.

LYG activities at Louisville Pride.