It’s the position Rory Philbrick, 17, found himself in more than a year ago before he started attending Youth OUTright meetings in Asheville.
“Back then I was really depressed and I didn’t really handle it well. I hid my emotions a lot, and around October last year I lost my stepfather and the meetings helped me so much,” he said. “I would be a totally different person today if I didn’t go to YO.”
Youth OUTright — or YO — is a nonprofit organization with the mission of empowering lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth to be confident and vital members of thier community by offering them a safe environment to talk about their problems.
YO has been holding weekly support meetings in the Asheville area since incorporating in 2009, and beginning this month, teenagers in Macon County will have the opportunity to attend meetings closer to home.
When two YO supporters in Macon County reached out to YO in Asheville for help, executive director Jim Faucett said he was happy to start a chapter in Franklin to meet that need.
“Youth Outright has longed hoped to establish a presence in Franklin and other communities in Macon, Jackson, Swain, Clay, Graham and Cherokee counties,” Faucett said. “The Unitarian Universalists are providing us this opportunity by opening their space to us, and we’ve received funding from Mission Health that helps to underwrite our Franklin meetings.”
YO held its first support group meeting in Franklin back in May to gauge interest. About a dozen teens showed up and expressed interest in attending monthly, but Faucett said they decided to postpone the meetings until school started back in August to hopefully get a better crowd.
What to expect
Philbrick said he was nervous about attending the first meeting in Asheville because he was shy and didn’t know exactly what to expect.
“My friend told me about it and said ‘you should come — it’s really fun’ so we went and I just loved it,” he said. “It made me be more open and made me less ignorant of things going on in the world and how bad queer people are treated.”
Philbrick said it helped just being around other teens that were going through similar situations and sharing their experiences with one another.
Faucett said all of the support meetings will be led by two trained adult facilitators and will include introductions and an overview of the group rules.
“We start off with introductions — everyone shares their name and their preferred pronoun because we don’t make any assumptions about people’s identity,” he said. “The group rules are intended to make sure everyone is respecting themselves and others. They help to keep meetings safe and welcoming for everybody.”
Faucett said the meetings usually include a safe sex demonstration as well. While Youth OUTright doesn’t encourage teens to have sex, Faucett said the organization wants teens to know how to protect themselves and others if they do choose to have sex.
Another part of the regular program includes sharing highs and lows, a time for youth to share their struggles with the group. Faucett said the discussions also help the facilitators to know whether they need to follow up with a member after for a more private conversation about their problems.
“We want them to know this is a safe place — what you hear here stays here — confidentiality is encouraged,” he said.
For the first meeting in Franklin, Faucett said the program would include an interactive and ice breaker game to test the teens’ knowledge of LGBTQ history.
Need in Franklin
Even though Asheville and Franklin are a little more than an hour apart, the two communities couldn’t be more different. Asheville is one of the most liberal and progressive cities in the South while Franklin is a much smaller and conservative community.
Being a LGBTQ youth anywhere can be difficult, but youth in Franklin can easily feel more isolated and more fearful to be themselves in the small town of Franklin than the big city of Asheville, which embraces its culture of weirdness.
Chris Brouwer, a financial advisor for Edward Jones in Franklin, has been involved in youth LGBTQ programming long before he moved to Franklin 15 years ago. In Houston, Texas, he was involved with PFLAG — Parents, Family, Friends and Allies United with LGBTQ People to Move Equality Forward.
As a supporter of Youth OUTright, Brouwer and a Macon County Schools high school counselor reached out to Faucett to see if they could get a chapter started there.
“I just enjoy being a mentor — I want to show kids you can be a part of society and you don’t have to feel like an outcast,” he said.
He hopes having a Youth OUTright chapter in Franklin will give teens a safe place to go and ask questions — even uncomfortable questions about gender and sexuality.
Faucett admits that getting a program started in Franklin may have more challenges than in Asheville. He is hoping for the best but is prepared for any push back that may occur.
“Awareness of our organization is growing in the region — we would not be going to Franklin if someone in Franklin hadn’t contacted us to get something going,” he said. “We’ve got a growing core of people that are supportive — we’ll do everything to keep our kids safe.”
YO does more than just hold support meetings. Faucett said the organization can work with its youth members to establish Gay Straight Alliances in their schools if they don’t already have one.
Philbrick said Asheville High School, where he attends, has one of the largest GSA clubs in the region and offers lots of support for LGBTQ students and straight allies.
Currently, none of the high schools in Macon County have any kind of GSA programs for students. Faucett said studies show schools that have a GSA have a more tolerable school atmosphere with less bullying and name-calling.
“Being a teen is difficult, but it’s more difficult for LGBTQ teens or even if a teen is just perceived to be gay,” Faucett said. “And it’s harder in a rural, small town — especially in the South.”
An estimated 4,000 LGBTQ youth live in the Western North Carolina region according to Faucett, but only 1,000 reside in Buncombe County, which makes it even more crucial for Youth OUTright to expand services into more rural areas.
“Whereas Asheville has the reputation as a progressive city in a conservative region, Asheville itself is not a bad place for LGBT youth, but the rest of Buncombe is not like Asheville,” Faucett said. “Hendersonville’s not so bad, Jackson County is a fairly good area because of the university and several openly gay owned businesses, but many other areas with very conservative environments are not welcoming sometimes and unfortunately are not a safe place for LGBTQ youth.”
What is gained?
Can a monthly support meeting really make that much of a difference in the lives of LGBTQ youth? All results point to yes. Faucett said a support system could make all the difference in their day-to-day lives.
“For the first time in their life they know they are in a majority when they walk into that meeting,” he said. “That kind of an experience has a way of making them feel good about themselves — just knowing people are on their side and care about them.”
Faucett said many of these teens grow up isolated and are told the way they are is a crime against nature and against God’s will. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, LGBTQ youth are more likely to be homeless, bullied, abuse drugs, drop out of school and to attempt suicide.
“By giving them more confidence and self esteem, maybe for the first time they will believe they can have a good future and lead productive lives,” Faucett said.
Philbrick is only a sophomore in high school because he had some difficulties in school that held him back, but now he is looking forward to his future. After graduating, he would love to become a LGBTQ leader to help others in the community, but he also has an interest in working as a backstage theater technician.
That peace of mind and optimism has come with going to the YO meetings and finally understanding who he is as a person. As of just a few weeks ago, Philbrick said he finally feels at peace with who he is.
“When I first started coming to the meetings, I was still really confused — I thought I was bisexual. but I never really felt comfortable with that,” he said.
He now identifies as a “demiguy” and pansexual. A demiguy is a born female that feels partially like a male but partially genderless as well. A pansexual can love in many forms without preference to gender, including transgender, androgynous and other gender fluid people.
Without Youth OUTright, Philbrick said he wouldn’t even be aware of many of these terms and wouldn’t have the courage to talk about it in the open without the support of others at YO.
“Go to the meeting because you’ll get so much support and love even if it’s just a few meetings,” Philbrick said to encourage teens in Franklin to get involved. “It may be a little bit confusing at first and chaotic, but it’s one of the best things ever — you’ll never regret it. Everyone there is so nice and supportive. They just want you to be happy and safe.”
Faucett said it was incredibly empowering for the teens at the meeting to support one another and grow into their true selves.
“When a new youth comes in and is overwhelmed, I’ve seen them and their compassion toward other people,” he said.
Support meetings for LGBTQ youth
• For youth ages 14-20
• From 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 12
• Held at Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Franklin, 89 Sierra Drive in Franklin.
• Youth Outright staff will facilitate.
• The meeting is free and refreshments will be served.
• For more information visit www.youthoutright.org.
Youth OUTRight Group Guidelines
• Everyone is entitled to confidentiality.
• Don’t come intoxicated to a meeting.
• Don’t bring any weapons or drugs to the meeting.
• Respect yourself and respect others.
• Don’t make assumptions about someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
• Be supportive, not confrontational.
• Group participation is desirable but silence is acceptable for those who choose it.
• Don’t monopolize the conversation or discussion.