Gay Teens Find Place Of Their Own Publicly Funded Drop-In Center Helps Ease Turmoil Of Coming Out
At a glance, it’s a typical teen hangout: mismatched furniture bought cheap at estate sales, a bumper pool table, posters plastering the walls.
Look a little closer. Books on a shelf have titles such as “Boys Like Us” and “The Original Coming Out Stories.” A row of baskets contains brightly colored condoms.
In the meeting room, a quiet teenage girl tells a story: “I got kicked out of the house last year when I told my parents I was gay. So I told them I’m not, and they let me back in.”
This is Odyssey, a publicly funded drop-in center in north Spokane. It’s home to a growing support group for gay, lesbian and bisexual teenagers.
Dawn Spellman, the county health worker who started Odyssey nearly three years ago, is thrilled at the group’s progress. Kids stop by after school to talk and play games. On this day, a dozen stuck around for the two-hour group meeting.
Just four years ago, plenty of people told Spellman, an AIDS outreach worker, the support group would never happen.
Top brass at the Spokane County Health District will never go for it, said Spellman’s colleagues. Taxpayer money for a gay youth group? Was she kidding?
But here she is, spending many of her work hours - not to mention $550 a month in rent - at the center.
“Gay kids aren’t getting good sense of self,” says Spellman, 30, who remembers the turmoil of growing up gay in Wyoming.
“They can’t talk to family. That’s where they’ve heard those fag jokes. They can’t turn to places of worship. That’s where they’re told they’ll go to hell.
“I really want to give these kids a sense of something I didn’t have when I was growing up - a safe place to hang out.”
Spellman’s bosses agreed the group would be a chance to teach gay kids about abstinence, the danger of AIDS, and the importance of condoms for sexually active teens.
“The main effort is to reach kids that are at particularly the highest risk for AIDS,” says Dr. John Beare, the head of the county health district.
Spellman’s $31,000 annual salary comes from federal money for tackling AIDS, and the health district subleases office space in the center to People of Color AIDS Network.
Odyssey has gone from once-aweek meetings in a stuffy room at the YWCA to two weekly sessions one just for young adults, from 18 to 24, the other for kids as young as 13. The 6-month-old drop-in center is open four days a week.
A far cry, organizers say, from a decade ago, when gay kids hung out near the bus station along a street dubbed “The Fruit Loop.”
At one Odyssey meeting, the teens listened to a librarian talk about gay literature. In January, they had a Super Bowl party. Another time, they watched a television interview with U.S. Olympic diver Greg Louganis, who is gay and HIV-positive.
At this meeting for the younger set in late April, the regulars introduce themselves to three girls new to Odyssey. One by one, the kids tell how their week went. Most can’t wait until it’s their turn.
Ginny Nord, 17, talks about her new job bagging groceries, how she wonders if she should let co-workers know she’s a lesbian. Her real ambition, she adds, is to be a firefighter.
A boy wearing eyeliner and a green baseball cap talks about an awkward encounter. “Today this girl looked at me, and said, ‘It looks like someone fell face-first in the makeup box.’ I said, ‘How dare you?”’
Everyone laughs when a 15-yearold girl with pigtails confesses she stole her brother’s girlfriend.
Some kids come to the meetings sporadically, often when they’re depressed. A few find the meetings boring. One quit, saying she wasn’t a lesbian after all. Spellman says she’s seen about 200 new faces.
“You may discover you’re heterosexual,” Spellman tells them. “You may discover you’re gay, lesbian or bisexual.”
Discovering Odyssey itself can be equally challenging, kids say. Some find out about the group from advertisements in Stonewall News, a gay and lesbian publication. Many others don’t know it exists until a friend mentions it.
Even when they know about Odyssey, getting there can be tough. Some kids admit to telling their parents they’re going to the library or out with friends.
A boy who’s too young to drive, however, gets a ride every week from his mother.
Another mom accompanied her 15-year-old daughter to an Odyssey barbecue last year. “It’s just kind of neat because they can just be themselves,” the woman says, then whispers, “and we don’t tell Grandma.”
While Spellman is doing a job she loves, it isn’t always fun. Often, she gives what she calls “AIDS 101” lectures. Occasionally, she does HIV testing in her office and once had to tell a young man he was HIVpositive.
Spellman also works hard at keeping confidential the center’s location. “We would be a prime target for gay bashing,” she says.
Becca, 19, reminds Spellman it’s worth it. The college student was suicidal about two years ago after finally admitting she had crushes on close friends who weren’t lesbians.
After learning about the support group through Stonewall News, she called Spellman’s office.
“It was the most wonderful day of my life,” she says. “There were others like me in Spokane. All the bricks got lifted off my shoulder.”