Contributing Author: Dan Woog
Published: August 17, 2016
Nearly 23 years ago -- in December 1993 -- Triangle Community Center opened its doors for the first time to teenagers. LGBT community centers were then a novelty, and “gay youth” were particularly underserved.
A Norwalk couple -- Dan Kelly and Doug Nissing -- and I remembered our own teenage years. We wanted to do what we could. To help we found a female facilitator, Barb Schade. We put out the word. OutSpoken was born.
Two people showed up at that first meeting. (It was on North Avenue in Norwalk. Then moves to Van Zant Street, then Mechanic Street, and finally West Avenue came later.)
Those two never returned. But over the years others -- many others -- did. They came from every town in Fairfield County, and beyond. They were as young as 12, and as old as 22. They identified as gay, lesbian, bi, trans, queer, questioning, pansexual, polyamorous, asexual and more. Some did not identify any way at all. Whatever they called themselves was fine.
Some talked a lot. Some talked a little. A few said nothing. Whatever their comfort level, that was fine.
Some looked for support. Some looked for friendship. Nearly all found community.
We were fortunate that, just a few weeks after we started, a 15-year-old named Andy found OutSpoken. He had recently realized he was gay, and it freaked him out. He was literally hyperventilating -- we had to give him a paper bag to breathe into. After half an hour or so, he looked around. “You guys are, like, normal!” he said.
That was a defining moment in Andy’s life -- and OutSpoken’s. With his outgoing nature and larger-than-life personality, Andy soon connected with many area LGBT youth. He brought them to our meetings. We were off and running.
Every Sunday was different. Some days we’d have one or two young people. Once, we had 27. One week we’d talk about heavy issues: suicide attempts, abuse, homophobic parents or friends. The next Sunday we’d tell jokes, dish on celebrities, discuss movies or TV shows.
The facilitators followed the kids’ lead. OutSpoken was their group.
We met every Sunday -- and nearly every Sunday there was at least one person there. Blizzards, Christmas, Easter -- it didn’t matter. OutSpoken was a constant. A safe haven. A home.
It was the best kind of home: one where everyone supports each other. And learns from each other. I learned plenty. I learned that teenagers -- particularly LGBT teens -- are incredibly intelligent, insightful, creative, resilient and wonderful. I learned that despite enormous stresses in their own lives, they are eager to help others. I learned that our future -- our country’s, and our LGBT community’s -- is in good hands.
I learned that as much as we talk of the destructive power of stereotypes, I was guilty of stereotyping too. A 14-year-old told us about his parents. They were Portuguese immigrants, deeply religious. They told him they could not understand “this gay thing.” I braced for the worst. But, the boy continued, they told him “you’re our son. We love you.” And so they drove him to OutSpoken, and trusted us with him.
It’s interesting, the parent thing. For the first 15 or so years, we never saw any. We heard stories, but they were like the moms and dads in “Peanuts”: invisible.
Fairly recently, that changed. For the past few years parents have been finding OutSpoken for their kids. They call, asking about it. They walk in, and introduce themselves. Sometimes they even want to stay. (Sorry, we say. You can sit in the next room. But this is the kids’ space.)
That’s a very healthy development. So is the fact that our group has gotten younger. The questioning and discovery process that once occurred during the late teens and early 20s now happens much earlier. All those years of fear and worry are gone. Any adult reading this knows how important that is.
Another interesting change: We see many more trans youth. A decade or so ago, they were rare. Now they’re at least half of the group. They are truly amazing young people. Knowing them has enriched my life immeasurably.
One final change: The mission of Outspoken itself. While young people see more and more LGBT folks, in entertainment, politics, sports, religion and their own schools and families, as kids come out younger and younger, and as the coming out rates increase, the need for community and positive LGBT friendships and role models remains.
Put simply: Though "out youth" are gaining more visibility in our society, there remains a need for Outspoken to be a safe space to build lasting, positive communities among our LGBT youth, many of whom continue to come through our days saying “I don’t know many LGBT people.”
So – for the first time since our current members were born – we’re changing. Outspoken will still meet weekly, but we will be re-building the space to accommodate for the contemporary needs of LGBT youth for community and safe and sober spaces including a roster of young adults to lead by example.
I am stepping away from the group, and I’ll miss those Sundays. But I’m grateful for the space that -- for 23 years and going strong -- Triangle Community Center has provided for our LGBT youth.
Some of those young people are now leaders of our community. TCC should feel very, very proud.