For local LGBTQ+ Teens and Tweens, it’s becoming easier to …
BE YOU. It’s okay. Go ahead. Just be yourself.
This advice sounds elemental, perhaps so rote we don’t truly hear it. However, sometimes this adage is far from easy. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “to be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
This is especially true for those who don’t fit into neatly packaged masculine and feminine gender boxes. The moment a child is born, we proclaim them “A Boy!” or “A Girl!” But what if it isn’t this simple?
To “Be Yourself” can feel to many like a joyous dare and an invitation to shine. However, this mostly innocuous phrase can be isolating and scary if you don’t seem to fit in. It gets even harder for the child who hears a whisper inside that says: ”I’m not what you see, I’m not what you expect me to be. THIS is me.” As one Carbondale Middle School student expressed, “if I can’t be myself, does this make me invisible?”
The answer is No. And Yes. The truth is, it’s complicated.
“What I tell kids all the time is, it gets better,” says Alfred Lafave of Rocky Mountain Gay for Good. (GFG). He visits student groups along with GFG Board member Janet Gordon, who is a counselor trained in supporting tweens and teens and their families. On a recent Thursday lunch gathering at Carbondale Middle School, students colored invitations with rainbows, unicorns, and bubble letters proclaiming, “Be You” and “All Are Welcome.”
“What was it like when you started telling people?” a sixth-grade girl softly asked, not looking up, while coloring rainbow hearts on an invitation.
“I won’t sugar-coat it,” Lafave answered, “It was hard. But eventually, I was seen. And now I feel accepted exactly as I am.”
Throughout the Roaring Fork Valley right now, there are a number of initiatives intended to support LGBTQ+ students with precisely this – being seen – being accepted and included exactly as they are, as well as finding ways to cope with situations in which they don’t feel seen or safe.
Student-led GSAs & LGBTQ+ Groups
(GSA = Gay-Straight Alliance; or Gender / Sexuality Alliance) These are student-and-community-based campus initiatives that started in pockets throughout the U.S. during the 1980s. They create a safe place for students of all gender identities and sexual orientations to find support and friendship.
Aspen, Basalt, Carbondale, and Bridges High Schools, as well as CRMS, sponsor campus GSAs. Students at Glenwood Springs, Coal Ridge, and Parachute High Schools are attempting to form GSAs on their campuses. Last school year, students at Carbondale Middle School formed the youngest GSA on the Western Slope.
“It is quite unique to find a middle school GSA,” said CMS prevention specialist Kari Yuen. “But the years spanning grades 5 and 8 can be the most difficult time for children who feel isolated. It is especially challenging for those who don’t feel accepted due to their gender identity.” She cites statistics provided by Healthy Kids Colorado, a division of the State’s Department of Public Health & Environment. “Kids who identify as LGBTQ+ are four times more likely to hurt themselves, or consider or attempt suicide, and also least likely to reach out for support.”
So GSAs build community within schools by emphasizing respect, inclusion, and acceptance. They discuss common language for speaking about gender identity, in the hope of helping kids learn how to speak about themselves and each other, so that mutually respectful language can ripple out into their broader school communities.
Roaring Fork Valley GSAs are finding support from the school district and faculty-sponsored diversity efforts. The groups manage their own fundraising and have been awarded grants from local nonprofits, including Aspen Out, One Colorado, and Rocky Mountain Gay for Good. CMS students made a formal request that the Town of Carbondale creates an inclusion plan, which is in the works. Official recognition builds acceptance.
This community nonprofit has raised funds and awareness for 42 years by organizing the annual Aspen – Snowmass Gay Ski Week. Six years ago, they began supporting Roaring Fork Valley youth by funding various projects and by providing support from Janet Gordon, who works directly with the GSAs to provide group mentorship, healthy discussions, and individual counseling. The group recently hosted an event for the Valley’s LGBTQ+ youth during Gay Ski Week, where kids from seven different schools gathered for ice skating and burgers.
“The kids found affirmation from the adults who were there. It’s something that many straight people can take for granted – the expectation of acceptance, the sense that they will grow up to find love,” Gordon explains. “So when these kids see happy, confident LGBTQ+ adults walking around holding hands, they get to internalize the message that they are going to be okay. Life gets much better after high school. They will grow up, and they’ll find love and acceptance.”
On storefronts around the Valley, you’ll find new rainbow stickers created by Deva Shantay of True Nature Healing Arts, so that local businesses can demonstrate acceptance and diversity. Business owners can drop by True Nature to pick up a $2 sticker for their storefront.
“I felt compelled to create something that would welcome parts of the population that often feel that they don’t belong or fit in – and in the present political climate, can even feel unwanted and disrespected,” Shantay explains. “This sticker lets each person know they are welcome and accepted while providing a sense of safety and comfort.”
This is Me
Shantay opened the door to deepening community-wide understanding of gender-identity last fall by offering a camp for LGBTQ+ children and their parents. The weekend workshop at True Nature Healing Arts was called “This Is Me.” It included a free community screening of Katie Couric’s National Geographic documentary titled Gender Revolution. Other activities included adult yoga, discussion, and therapeutic work. Children enjoyed outside adventures and visiting the Smiling Goat Ranch. They also made screen-printed t-shirts on the Carbondale Arts Rosybelle bus and sculpted with clay using materials from Carbondale Clay Center.
“I found that the beauty was in getting people together as a community, seeing that we are all allies for each other and our children, and knowing that we can learn from each other’s experiences,” Shantay, the mother of a transgender daughter, shares.
Not all of these children nor their parents have found the journey of acceptance easy, which is why mutual understanding is so important. “One thing we can do is practice being upstanders,” explains Lorri Knaus, CMS librarian and GSA advisor. “I am an ally, not an expert. What I can do is this – I can be vocally supportive and visible in welcoming everyone no matter what.”
Visible signs of support go a long way toward creating inclusiveness. Carbondale Middle School’s GSA created rainbow-colored Be You bracelets, given to anyone in the school or broader community who wants to wear it in support. The rainbow invitations the students have been making at their weekly meetings will go to GSA groups throughout the Valley, inviting students to join them in the first-ever community-wide Pride Parade. Everyone is invited to participate, to walk with the CMS group, or to simply wear rainbow colors in support.
LOVE IS …
the name of a new book written by local Montessori teacher Cathy Heyliger. Off the press in February, this is a children’s book that helps families talk about gender identity in open and accepting ways. The author found inspiration from the struggles of her two sons who came out in their early teens.
Love Is … for everyone exactly how they are.
Be sure to say hello to the author, Cathy Heyliger, at the upcoming Family Block Party (see below), where she will be signing copies. You can also find Love Is… at Explore Booksellers in Aspen.
How we speak about gender identity can be accepting and welcoming – or not. Parents can lead by example, helping their children to adopt inclusive language.
LGBTQ+ is an acronym for Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender and Questioning. It is a commonly used term that can help someone express how they wish to describe their identity. Many will mistake the Q to mean Queer, which dates back to the 18th century and is considered by many to be a pejorative term. The + is preferred by many as a way of including those of any gender identity.
GSA has historically stood for “Gay-Straight Alliance.” The nationwide trend is to shift this term to “Gender and Sexuality Alliance,” to be inclusive of transgender students and others.
“The whole point is to include, love and accept,” says Knaus, explaining why the CMS group has adopted the more contemporary language.
However, other local groups choose to continue using the traditional nomenclature. “Sometimes we forget that the S in GSA stands for Straight,” explains Kate Bradley, the faculty adviser for Basalt High School’s GSA. “Inclusion is a vital component of this movement, and one of the most effective elements of these groups is that students of every orientation and sexual identity are showing up in support of one another.”
A group of students in Aspen has chosen to call themselves “Alphabet Soup,” because, as the group’s mentor Janet Gordon explains, “these children have felt excluded all their lives, and they do not want to exclude anyone by assigning a label. So their group welcomes anyone who identifies with any letter under the rainbow.”
There is a problem with labels. On one hand, they give people a way to identify themselves and a way to relate to others who choose the same label. “But we don’t want people to feel confined by a label. Whatever you identify as you belong exactly as you are,” Gordon says.
In doubt about what words to use? “Be direct,” suggests Knaus. “Respectfully ask what words feel right to the individual and follow their lead.”
And, in case you’re wondering why rainbows? Because a rainbow is made with every color, and everyone can fit under it. Why unicorns? Because unicorns are both genders and are therefore free of prescribed gender roles. Unicorns get to be themselves, exactly as they are. So should everyone.