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LGBT youths in Washington area get their first mentoring program

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It’s been a benchmark year for gay rights. From the repeal of the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy in September to President Obama’s pivotal endorsement of same-sex marriage last month, the movement has gained considerable speed. And as policies and polls reveal an opinion shift by Americans in favor of gay marriage, the rainbow flag has become a ubiquitous symbol of the fight for equal rights.

But mention this progress to a group of gay and transgender teens and young adults in the Washington area and be met with shrugs, sighs, silence. For them, the progress in the government and mainstream media seems surface-level. Their world — where bullying, discrimination, HIV and homelessness live on — can still feel as dangerous, lonely and misunderstood as it did a decade ago.

“It’s like, okay, we can marry, so what’s next?” said K.D. Monroe, 21, who lives and works in the District. “Do we need a gay president to make a point? To get society to let us be who we want to be? Those things don’t make it any easier for me to walk down the street, to be who I am.”

Recognizing these concerns, four gay rights advocates developed a mentoring program in hopes that it would foster a sense of belonging. The program, called Leading Youth Forward Everyday, will pair LGBT adults with young people ages 16 to 24 and include cultural enrichment programs, field trips and educational activities. When it starts its three-month pilot program in August, LYFE Mentors will be the first LGBT-specific mentoring program in the region.

The program’s founders, who work at other LGBT and HIV/AIDS awareness organizations in the Washington area — including Metro TeenAIDS, Connect to Protect and the DC Center — are familiar with the challenges that gay teens face. They say mentors can potentially offset such risks in the community as homelessness and attempted suicide.

Other organizations are also ramping up their support for LGBT youths. Last June, the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency created the Connecting Rainbows Initiative, a program within their LGBT task force that trains social workers on ways to support gay teens in the foster-care system. CASA for Children of D.C., an organization that advocates for children in foster care, has started offering similar training for its mentors. And the DC Center, the region’s umbrella organization for the LGBT community and the official sponsor of LYFE Mentors, has formed a youth support group to make the center responsive to certain needs.

“Gay youths are a very vulnerable group,” said David Mariner, executive director of the DC Center. Last week, the center released data from the 2010 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, a biennial survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reporting that LGBT youth in D.C. public schools are at significantly higher risk for bullying, drug use, sexual assault and suicide than their heterosexual peers.

“For them, it’s not really about passing a bill. It’s about feeling lonely.”

The new focus on young people is timely, said Andrew Barnett, executive director of the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League. He said that partly because of the gay community’s increased presence in the media, young people are coming out earlier in life. But sometimes, this creates false hope for security and acceptance.

“Kids see more gay people on TV and think it’s safer to come out, but it’s not reality,” Barnett said. “A decade ago, the average age for coming out was 23. Today, it’s around 13.”

Although most 23-year-olds lead relatively independent lives, 13-year-olds have a lot to lose. Not only are they less equipped than an older person to cope with the emotional stresses of coming out but they also risk ending up on the streets, often not by choice, if their families don’t accept their sexual identity.

Brooke Taylor was 14 when she came out to her family after knowing she was gay for years. Looking back, she thinks coming out at an early age was the natural thing to do.

“Right around the time everyone else became aware of their feelings, so did I,” she said. “Why should gay kids have to wait until they’re adults to have feelings?”

Taylor, now 23 and a recent graduate of Howard University, helped found LYFE Mentors last summer during an internship with the DC Center because she was “flabbergasted” when she saw how little mental health support there was for gay and transgender youths in the region.

“It felt obvious to me that a mentoring program could help lower some of these risk factors, and the city simply didn’t have one,” she said.

When Sean Robinson heard about LYFE Mentors through the DC Center, he knew he wanted to get involved as a mentor. As a professor at Argosy University, Robinson has spent the past several years researching sexual orientation in young adults and evaluating George Washington University’s LGBT mentoring program. The difference between an adviser, a counselor and a mentor is critical, he said.

“Advising is prescriptive. It’s saying, ‘Here’s what you need.’ Counseling is instructive. It’s saying, ‘Here’s how you do this.’ But mentoring is relational, it’s not one-size-fits-all. It’s meeting the youth where they’re at, asking the hard questions and saying, ‘Let’s walk together.’ It’s not easy, that’s for sure,” Robinson said.

During focus groups with local LGBT teens and young adults, Robinson said LYFE Mentors’ advisers learned they’ll have to be strategic and meticulous when pairing mentors and mentees together.

“Just because you pair a young lesbian with an older lesbian doesn’t mean a relationship is going to happen,” he said. “Like any relationship, there has to be chemistry, goals and a mutual understanding about why you’re there in order to be successful.”

No one at the helm of LYFE Mentors pretends that mentoring will end the risk of homelessness or attempted suicide. But by offering an adult to talk to, the group hopes to make a dent.

“Maybe we’re going to the root of the problem,” Mariner said. “To give an alienated, lonely kid someone to turn to who understands what they’re going through — maybe that’s the next step.”

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