Shannon, 14, is concerned about becoming a freshman at Peninsula High School.
“I’ll be a freshman next year,” Shannon said, whose last name we are withholding. “It’s a bit scary. Our school has a lot of problems … it’s constant name calling or a lot of jokes about (being LGBTQ).”
Shannon, who prefers to use a gender-neutral pronoun, said they came out to their family and friends recently about their sexuality and gender, but has found living on the Key Peninsula put roadblocks on their journey.
“I wanted to put a (Gay Student Alliance) in Key Peninsula Middle School,” they said. “I have tons of friends who say awful stuff … I came out to my close friend group this last year. I had a mental breakdown in the middle of a barbershop thinking about it before school started. And my dad is not accepting. So I thought we should have a place for (LGBTQ) students.”
Unfortunately, Shannon’s idea failed to come to life. But now Shannon has found some reprieve in the Oasis Youth Center’s new satellite group that meets on Tuesdays at the Key Peninsula Civic Center, 17010 S. Vaughn Road NW.
Shannon, and a handful of other local teens, meet with the group for snacks, card games, a “check-in” and other fun activities.
“It’s nice to be here and not question whether I should wear my binder,” Shannon said, referring to a device they use to flatten their chest. “I have anxieties now but being here in a small group helps. I am trying to quietly let my other (LGBTQ) friends know about this place.”
The Oasis Youth Center has been based in the Tacoma-area for more than 30 years, serving the young LGBTQ community by providing education, resources and events for teens and young adults to meet and feel safe.
“Oasis is the only drop-in and support center dedicated to the needs of LGBTQ youth ages 14 to 24 in Pierce County,” the center’s website states. “We are a youth-adult partnership in which youth and adults come together for shared teaching learning and action.”
The center is fiscally sponsored by the Pierce County AIDS Foundation, which means the nonprofit also supplies teens with the tools needed to practice safe sex.
Director of Programs and Training Matthew Wilson said the new Key Peninsula group started just a couple months ago and is a way for the nonprofit to reach out to students who don’t have a way to travel to Tacoma for events and classes.
“We’ve had some involvement with (Peninsula High School) but we’ve never had any real programs here,” Wilson said. “We talked with some of our supporters because we really needed to get out into the community because they are not served by public transit. And half of our youth come from outside of Tacoma. The Key Peninsula felt like the place that needed us.”
The center brings two staff members and two youth advocates from Tacoma to help teens who visit become more involved. So far there is less than 10 students from the Key Peninsula visiting the group, but Wilson said they are picking up steam.
“When you are LGBTQ you already have a feeling of isolation,” Wilson said. “And when you are in a smaller community it can feel worse. So we are targeting small communities to help deal with issues such as bullying.”
During the program the staff hosts what they call a “check-in.”
“It’s where we go around in the circle and talk about our week,” Wilson said. “It’s kind of like a peer support group. What’s going well? What’s not going well? That is a way to feel less alone and to have someone listening to you. All these years that’s what people say they like the most because they make new friends.”
Bridget Hafner, 18, is a home-schooled student from Tacoma who is a youth advocate and volunteer for The Oasis Youth Center. She chose to come help garner support and welcome new teens to the Key Peninsula satellite group.
“I know of LGBT centers in Tacoma, Kent, Renton, there are plenty in Seattle, but there is not a lot that is reaching out to these rural areas,” Hafner said. “So having locations like this is great for teens who live here but can’t go all the way to Tacoma.”
Hafner said because she was home-schooled she didn’t deal with a lot of bullying, but she sympathizes with her fellow LGBT teens, such as Shannon.
“There is something special about being in a place that allows you to be fully yourself in your identity, especially when that’s not really allowed in spaces like school,” Hafner said. “There are also opportunities like youth council and leadership summits to grow in this environment.”
Wilson and Hafner said they recognize the Key Peninsula is a more conservative area than larger cities like Tacoma or Seattle, but both view this as an opportunity to educate the community about LGBT teens and make the community a safer place for its teens.
“I don’t get easily offended,” Hafner said. “So you can ask me anything and I’ll try to explain it step-by-step. Sometimes I think it’s not really prejudice but a lack of understanding.”
“I hope we can get to a place where this isn’t a political issue,” Wilson said. “And by being here we can work on that.”
Even though the group is just getting off the ground, teens like Shannon have already found a new place to relax and feel like themselves. Shannon spent Tuesday playing a riveting game of UNO, laughing with her new friends.
“I have friends who said to me ‘I was openly gay (on the Key Peninsula) and it was a nightmare,'” they said. “But I come here and I don’t feel that. I don’t feel unsafe.”
Want to join?
The Oasis Youth Group is hosting a weekly LGBTQ teen meet-up from 3-6 p.m. Tuesdays at The Civic Center. Everyone, LGBTQ or not, between the ages of 14-24 are welcome. Meet-ups include snacks, games, free resources, information and weekly "check-ins."
For more information, visit oasisyouthcenter.org.