The phone rang in the middle of the night, and the voice on the line shook with desperation.
Ryan Oelrich – who recently started a support group for gay and bisexual male youths – didn’t know the caller, but he was familiar with his story.
The caller’s parents had found out he was gay and had thrown him out of the house, he told Oelrich. His church pastor had told him he was possessed by a demon. His friends didn’t want to have anything to do with him.
“Give me one reason to live,” the caller said after threatening to kill himself.
Oelrich has received at least a dozen of these calls since last September, when he established the Quest Youth Group, a nonprofit program for gay and bisexual males 14 to 25 years old.
Studies show that gay youths are at least three times more likely than heterosexual youths to attempt suicide, according to the Youth Suicide Prevention Education Program. Those who have called Oelrich at 2 a.m. have told him they had nowhere else to turn.
It’s this lack of support that led the 23-year-old Oelrich to start Quest. It also was made possible by a $50,000 grant from a local businessman. The benefactor, who asked not to be identified, has committed at least that much money every year as long as Quest exists.
The youth group has nearly 60 members, some coming from North Idaho and Pullman and as far as Montana to participate in its recreational and community service activities.
Although Spokane has several groups for gays and lesbians in the area, including the Odyssey Youth Group, Quest is the first to target the specific needs of young gay males, members say. The group hopes to make Quest a national program and provide a similar organization for lesbians.
“I didn’t know what it meant to be gay,” said Quest member Jacob Hoffman, recalling what it was like for him to come out of the closet. “It was a confusing time. It’s like harboring a secret that you can’t hold on to, but you have no one to tell.”
He came out to his family and friends when he was 14 and a freshman at Ferris High School. At that time, he didn’t know anyone who was gay. The realization that he was attracted to men was something both foreign and scary to him, yet he knew it was a part of him that he couldn’t deny or change.
Now 19 and a student at Spokane Community College, Hoffman wishes a group like Quest had existed when he came out. Although his family was supportive when he publicly acknowledged his sexuality, he didn’t know how to proceed, he said; it was almost like starting all over in the world.
While many Quest members are open about being gay, about half of the group has yet to tell their parents and friends, according to Oelrich. Some even use a different name whenever they participate in Quest activities.
Oelrich is very protective of their privacy. Although he’s been open about his homosexuality for the last three years, he hasn’t forgotten the struggle of leading separate lives.
When he gets those middle-of-the-night phone calls from boys on the brink of killing themselves, he talks them away from the edge by assuring them that people care, that being gay isn’t bad despite the rejection they’ve experienced. Fortunately, to his knowledge, none of the callers has committed suicide.
“That’s the way God made me, and I’m happy to be that way,” said Oelrich, who grappled with his own sexuality several years ago while training to be a pastor at Berean Bible College in Illinois. While Oelrich tells Quest members that being gay is nothing to be ashamed of, he realizes that there are segments of society that would vehemently disagree. It’s a hostile world out there, members acknowledge, and that’s why Quest came into being.
In the past few months since Quest was established, Oelrich said he has seen quiet, lonely and introverted young men transform into self-assured people.
The group gets together at least once a week for movies, a pool party or some kind of recreational activity. Sometimes they meet gays and lesbians from the community who serve as guest speakers and offer them advice, educational programs and encouragement. Thanks to the grant money, all the activities are free. The money is also used for a newsletter and other communication costs, as well as crisis situations involving those who lose their home and are left with nothing as a result of coming out of the closet.
Quest isn’t a dating service for gay and bisexual men, Oelrich emphasized. To join the group, members have to agree to remain drug-free and to refrain from dating other members for the first two months. They get kicked out if they break the rules. Members also have to commit to doing community service projects, such as food drives and fund-raisers for organizations like the Spokane AIDS Network and the Morning Star Boys Ranch.
Their activities are no different from those sponsored by other youth groups, said Michael Stevens, who joined Quest in February. However, for most of these gay youths, the gatherings are their first opportunity to be open about themselves in a supportive environment, he said.
Stevens, 23, came out a year ago. A teetotaler, he didn’t want to go bars to socialize. At the same time, he also didn’t want “being gay to be a political agenda.” Through Quest, he can participate in “normal” activities, he said, without having to hide being gay.
“You really let your guard down, and you remove that mask,” said Hoffman, describing the experience of being among his friends from Quest. “You can just be you and not be afraid.”
Besides serving as a support and community service group, Quest also wants to break down the stereotypes people often have about gays and lesbians, said Hoffman, founder of SCC’s Gay Straight Alliance.
Because of TV shows such as “Will and Grace” and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” there are people who expect all gay men to be flamboyant fashionistas or flashy characters dressed up for a pride parade.
“That’s not a bad thing, but people assume all gay men are like that,” said Hoffman. “Gay people come in a multitude of colors and ethnicities and represent an array of opinions, religions and world beliefs.”
Spokane and the surrounding areas have become more tolerant of gays and lesbians, members say, but still have a long way to go.
Oelrich, a recent Gonzaga University graduate and the owner of Balloon Bonanza Entertainment and Mr. Magic, said his business suffered a little after people realized he was gay. He and his boyfriend sometimes get dirty looks when they walk around downtown holding hands.
He also knows young gay men in town who have been harassed, called names and even physically harmed. Such actions not only drive gay people away from Spokane, they also leave scars, he said.
“You see so many gay youth who are depressed and pessimistic because they believe being gay is a horrible thing,” said Oelrich, who is also on the city of Spokane’s Human Rights Commission. “They need to know they’re not alone, that being gay isn’t wrong.”