A new organization in Oklahoma City is creating a place for gay or questioning teenagers and young adults to find support and friendship. Oklahoma City Youth United meets at First Unitarian Church, 600 N.W. 13th, every week to give young people a chance to connect with their peers.
Ken Carl, one of OKCYU's founders and a member of the steering committee, said the Oklahoma City area had been without support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people for over two years.
"LGBT young people don't have the same opportunities to connect with their peers as other young people do, especially around the area of their sexuality," Carl said. "Study after study shows that LGBT young people struggle with isolation."
As a way of combating isolation, Carl and other adult volunteers decided to create OKCYU. One of the people Carl approached to help was Ann McDermott, now a member of the steering committee and the youth director at First Unitarian.
"Ken had experience with organizing these groups," McDermott said, "and I've needed a place where I can refer gay teens. I've had several in our church youth group over the years and had no place to refer them."
Many GLBT youth truly do have very limited choices for peer support.
Tyler, who requested anonymity, grew up in a small town just outside Oklahoma City and was involuntarily outed while still in high school.
"I spent most of my time in the counselor's office or with teachers," he said. "I eventually made a few friends who were OK with me being gay, but it wasn't until I was old enough to drive to clubs that I found a place where I could be myself."
McDermott said experiences like Tyler's are not uncommon.
"Only a few high schools have gay student alliances in Oklahoma City," she said. "There is a PFLAG group as well, but they really provide support for families and friends, not the kids themselves. We wanted to provide a safe, monitored environment for kids with nowhere else to turn. Many of their options aren't safe places."
The group has been meeting weekly for about two months now, but Carl said the first meeting was in November of 2008.
"We had about 70 youth and adults at the first meeting," he said. "We discussed the needs of LGBT youth in Oklahoma City and brainstormed what a youth group would look like. One of the things we committed to was that the group would be youth-directed and youth-led to the greatest degree possible."
OKCYU's steering committee is composed of three adults and three youth, so the young people do have a voice in the direction of the group. Carl said giving young people that kind of responsibility requires development of solid leadership and takes a little longer to develop than an adult-run organization.
"We still need adult volunteers of all kinds to work with the young people," Carl said. "Leadership development requires people to invest themselves and their time in the process." Greg Horton