Baltimore City

Gay youth center planned

The 16-year-old had been living for days on the streets of Baltimore after his parents kicked him out because he is gay. He came to the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore looking for assistance. A week later, a 12-year-old lesbian who had the support of her parents called the center to find other kids "just like her."

These anecdotes from the past month underscore the need for a drop-in center solely for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths in Baltimore, according to Andrew Ansel, programs manager for the community center. The 33-year-old organization plans to open the first center in the city dedicated to LGBT youths by the start of the school year in the fall.

Ansel believes that his center has the experience needed to assist LGBT youths, who are more prone to alienation, abuse and homelessness.

"Youth are coming out at a lot younger ages," Ansel said. "It is becoming less stigmatizing, but there are still a lot of challenges. It is still very difficult to come out in high school. Ideally the community center would be the central focal point for after-school programming for youth."

A number of the centers and facilities available to assist youths in the city are not "gay-friendly," according to Ansel. The 16-year-old homeless teen Ansel recently met reported being harassed and not feeling welcomed at a local homeless shelter for youths.

"He didn't want to go back," said Ansel, who gave the teen referrals to homeless shelters and other resources.

Kurt Ragin Jr., 21, said that when he attended Archbishop Curley High School, he was one of three openly gay students in a student body of about 1,600. Having an outlet like the planned Baltimore center would have made life easier for him and the other gay students he knew.

"In Baltimore City, [LGBT youths] are trying to survive," he said. "I think the youth drop-in center would give them an opportunity to seriously look at themselves and determine what they are going to do in their lives."

The drop-in center, which will be housed on the first two levels of the organization's four-story Mount Vernon building, will provide tutoring, mentoring, HIV testing and an overall support system for the youths.

LGBT centers "offer the support and resources that many youths cannot access in school in a safe environment," said Anthony Ramos, director of communications for the New York-based Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. There are 200 LGBT centers across the country, many of which offer youth services, he added.

The Baltimore center is being planned at a time when budget constraints are threatening to reduce the number of gathering places for teenagers. More than half of the city's recreation centers may be closed under a plan by Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, who has promised to keep the centers open through the summer if the City Council passes a tax package to help decrease the $121 million budget shortfall.

The planned youth center is seeking grants and other funding to cover the costs of paying staff to run the day-to-day operations. Ansel estimates that the program will cost from $280,000 to $580,000 a year to run.

"We're taking the next two to three months to form a detailed business plan," Ansel said. "We decided not to rush things. We are doing it slowly and methodically so that we can do it right the first time."

The center is also attempting to work with the Baltimore City public school system to ensure that once the center is open, school system employees will be encouraged to inform students about its existence. The center could also help any schools that wanted to start a gay/straight alliance, Ansel said.

Many of the services that will be provided are the result of a 10-question survey completed by 63 LGBT youths last year. The survey was administered by Connect To Protect, a nationwide initiative geared to creating community-specific programs to reduce the spread of HIV among young people. The company has agreed to provide HIV testing and counseling at the center.

"With the young population, they are ever changing. ... They have very early needs. Those needs are going to be met here," said Lamont S. Bryant, project health research coordinator for Connect To Protect's Baltimore office at the University of Maryland School of Medicine's Department of Pediatrics.

Bryant hopes his organization's work with the center will help to thwart risky behaviors that have led to an increase in the number of new HIV infections in the state.

Data show that despite accounting for 3.5 percent of the general population, men who have sex with other men accounted for 37 percent of the new HIV infection cases in 2007. That was up from 20 percent in 2002.

"It's startling," Bryant said about the data.

Mentoring will also be a major component of the youth center. Ninety-five percent of the LGBT youths surveyed by Bryant's group said they were seeking mentors.

"They're looking for people with good teaching skills, who are trustworthy," Bryant said. "A lot of these kids are kicked out of their home. They need an adult to advise them."

The mentoring aspect will be a relatively new concept for the LGBT community in Baltimore.

"The HIV/AIDS epidemic from the '80s caused a huge gap," Bryant said. "There is a generation that is simply not there. And there has always been the distrust of older individuals. When it comes down to bettering your life, mentorships are necessary."

Sixty-one percent of the youths said that they did not know of an area for teens where they could socialize.

"Once we saw that number we were like: 'OK, we have to do something,'" Bryant said.

"I can't describe how many times I've answered the phone and feeling that sinking feeling when you couldn't help them out," he said. "You feel like you are not doing enough."

Ragin, who is a Morgan State University junior, believes that a youth center will provide support and curb risky behaviors.

"Day by day, you see the youths falling off. If they are not in school or working, they are escorting or selling drugs," he said.

"This is going to give them hope, and an opportunity and chance to get together."

During high school, Ragin was accepted by his family and did not suffer much harassment by classmates, which helped him to graduate and go on to college.

But research shows that gay youths are more likely to face hostile school climates than the general population of youths, according to research from GLSEN.

GLSEN's 2007 National School Climate Survey of 6,209 middle and high school students found that 86.2 percent of LGBT students experienced harassment at school in the past year, 60.8 percent felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, and 32.7 percent skipped a day of school in the past month because they felt unsafe.

As a result, the grade point average of LGBT youths who experienced high levels of physical harassment because of their sexual orientation was 2.4 compared with 2.8 for the general population, according to the 2007 climate survey.

Gays and lesbians also account for 40 percent of homeless teens, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, a New York-based political advocacy group.

"I did have friends who didn't have any place to go," Ragin said. "There were no organizations to help them. … With the drop-in center, a lot of things can change slowly but surely."