In Homer, a space for LGBTQ youth to be themselves

Dec 26, 2017

Rainbow Army participated in last summer's fourth of July parade.
Credit Kachemak Bay Family Planning Clinic

Identifying as gay or lesbian or anywhere on the LGBTQ spectrum can be a struggle for those who are trying to find out who they are, but for teens making their way through middle and high school, exploring their sexual and gender identity can be especially hard. But one program is giving teens in Homer a space to talk about what it’s like being an LGBTQ teen in rural Alaska.

Last Tuesday, around seven teens gathered at the Youth Resource Enrichment Cooperative—better known in Homer as the R.E.C Room. The weekly program is called the Rainbow Army. Teenagers were sprawled out on couches and chairs. To begin the meeting, they said their names, favorite food and preferred pronouns.

One member of the group was Skyler. He's a demiboy, someone who identifies as part male and part agender. The 14-years-old high school freshman is short, with bright-dyed-orange hair.

“{My] pronouns are they them or he/him and favorite food chocolate, I guess,” Skyler told the group.

This ability for Skyler to publicly introduce himself is pretty new. It was still a struggle for Skyler just this past summer.  

“I've been homeschooling but I was going into public school and I was kind of rushing to try and figure out like oh who am I before I go to a public school,” he said.

It’s been hard for Skyler to get more information about gender identity. Skyler’s mother was accepting of his identity ever since he started exploring who he was, but other family members haven’t been. Then his mom heard about an LGBTQ support group.

“I remember one of the days, the entire day was just like learning about these new things and it was just like oh my gosh, I didn’t know!” he said.

The group began this summer and Skyler said the meetings and exercises weren’t always easy. He remembers going in front of his peers and placing his gender and sexuality on different scales.

“It was kind of an awkward situation like I don't really know many people here and I'm kind of telling them more than I've told my own family,” he said. “It was kind of nerve-racking but at the same time I was kind of excited to see  like where do I fit on the scale and think about it.”

As time wore on, Skyler became more comfortable with the group and invited his friends to join. By mid-summer, the group made a Pride float for the fourth of July parade. The reception from the community and their non-LGBTQ peers was extremely positive and the teens participating in the Rainbow Army asked for the program to continue.

“It really helped me push myself to figure out who I am rather than just kind of sit on it,” he said. “I know my mom kind of suggests to not make it such a big deal or anything like that but it's really hard not knowing who you are and really wanting to figure that out.”

Irene Saxton is the facilitator and founder of the group. Saxton grew up in Homer and then lived in the Lower 48. She moved back here roughly two years ago and was surprised to see some of the support that she had grown up with was gone.

“I identify as gay or queer and when I came here, I asked around to some of the teens and the people that I know and there was a definite lack of support for LGBTQ teens,” she said.

Saxton works with South Peninsula Behavioral Health Services, also known as the Center. She created the support group as a collaboration between the Center and the Kachemak Bay Family Planning Clinic. When the group started, Saxton always had a lesson plan ready for the teens. They talked about things like pronouns and the history of Pride. But now, it’s less formal.

“Well, it's really nice for them to be able to come and just unload and just talk about what's going on," Saxton said.  “It’s not always talking about LGBTQ issues. I think we did origami one time. It's talking about how their week was or how finals were…”

But the teens in the group also bring their baggage, and the program gives them a safe space to talk about difficulties at school and at home.

“Sometimes kids come in and it's really really upsetting what their parents say to them and I want to say that’s surprising but it's not," she said. "I hear a lot about bullying as well and that's another issue that I try and help with as well." 

Around eight to 10 teens come to the Rainbow Army each week, and the program just received a $10,000 grant from the Pride Foundation. Saxton said the grant will be a big help to keep the program going.

The grant will also help support the LGBTQ community in other ways. For instance, The Kachemak Bay Family Planning Clinic facilitates a peer education program on sexual health in schools, and the grant will help ensure their entire lesson package is LGBTQ inclusive.

Back in the REC room, the teens took advantage of their time to talk about issues in their own lives. One teenager, Trevor, started talking about new gender-neutral pronouns to go by.

“I found fay, fair, fairs,” Trevor said.

But even though everyone seems pretty comfortable, Skyler, the freshman with orange hair, said the group is always open to people who are struggling with their identity:

"I've kind of gotten to a situation where I don't need so much help with all that," he said. "But I'd love to help anyone else I can."