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Finding help under the rainbow


When Perryn Morris started to let people know that he was gay, he found acceptance from his parents and many friends. But it wasn't so easy when he encountered hurtful teasing from some of his middle school classmates.

" 'That's so gay' and 'faggot,' " were some of the comments the 17-year-old recalls.

Today, Morris has a network of friends on whom he could count for support and encouragement.

As a member of the Rainbow Youth Alliance -- an offspring of the Howard County chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays -- Morris can discuss his experience and concerns with other gay teen-agers in a welcoming environment.

"It gives you an opportunity to be yourself and be with people who understand you," said Morris, who will be a junior at Mount Hebron High School in Ellicott City. "If you could be yourself around them, you could eventually be yourself around everyone."

About seven years ago, adult members of PFLAG, an advocacy and education group, noticed that more and more teenagers were attending the group's meetings and decided to organize a group to address their issues, said Colette Roberts, president of the chapter.

"When I was in high school, there was no group like this," said Ray Sheets, one of two adult leaders of the youth group. "I'm from the Eastern Shore, and this activity and meeting place is unheard of. These kids are coming out so much younger now, and they need the support to have the coming-out process be smooth, the way society is today."

Rainbow Youth Alliance members tackle typical teenage matters of school, family and friendships, but those issues are also entangled with their sexuality. They talk politics, current issues, such as gay marriage and adoption, and strategies to deal with negative backlash from peers.

"It's not a therapy group; it's a social support group," Sheets said. "We deal with what the kids are going through."

Besides the discussions, members socialize -- shopping at The Mall in Columbia or watching movies.

These teenagers, mostly 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds, come from across Maryland, including Carroll, Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

For some of them, the group is the only place where they can feel comfortable -- either because their schools don't have a gay-straight alliance or they know very few gay teenagers who are out at their schools, members say.

Some young adults attend parochial schools, the teens say, where officials frown upon their openness.

Instead of its typical meeting at Owen Brown Interfaith Center on a recent Tuesday night, about 12 members of the Rainbow Youth Alliance talked about their coming-out experience and coping with the aftermath in a special panel discussion.

Their stories were extremely personal, touching upon depression, counseling, and family and church reactions. Some were funny, others sad. The teen-agers were comfortable talking openly -- and for the record -- about their experiences.

Theresa Macheski, 17, of Laurel, told of how supportive many students and faculty were at her all-girls Catholic school in Prince George's County when she decided to reveal her sexual orientation.

Still, an incident in which some hate epithets were written in a bathroom stall shattered her complacency.

"The administration didn't do anything," Macheski said.

Others spoke about feeling rejected from their churches, whose members condemned their lifestyles.

Amy Greene, 20, who graduated from Glenelg High School in 2002, told her family and friends that she was gay during her senior year.

"It was so great that Rainbow Alliance was here because, it sounds cheesy, but having a sense of community is so essential to thinking positively about yourself," Greene said. "In my high school, there wasn't anyone else around; no frame of reference. You could feel OK, but you need to be reinforced."

As the evening wrapped up, Roberts told parents and friends in the audience that a mother had pulled her daughter out of their meeting, forbidding her to be active in the youth group. In many ways, Roberts saw this incident as one that exemplified the struggles of gay teenagers.

"Our role is to be supportive and give the kids love," she said. "Please reach out and be there, and tell them how much we love them."

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