The Oasis Youth Center and the Rainbow Center were abuzz Tuesday afternoon, days before the kickoff of the Tacoma Pride Festival.
The festival, which has swelled over the years into more than a week of events, is a big deal. There were plans to be made, not to mention t-shirts, and the work filled the Oasis and Rainbow centers with activity in their shared building on Pacific Avenue downtown.
In the office of Oasis Youth Center Executive Director Seth Kirby, however, there was excitement for another reason.
Plans are in the works for what’s being called Project 13. According to Kirby, and Rainbow Center Executive Director Michelle Douglas, it has the potential to be a big deal itself.
For 30 years, the Oasis Youth Center has provided Pierce County’s young LGBT community with a “safe place to learn, connect, and thrive.” It all started humbly in the basement of a church in 1985 as a response to high HIV rates and discrimination of gay, lesbian and transgender people.
These days, Kirby says some 515 kids come through the doors every year, each looking for support and access to the long list of resources the organization provides. That ranges from leadership training and support around issues of sexual orientation and gender identity, to mental health vouchers and referrals to housing programs for youth experiencing homelessness.
The problem? Currently, what Oasis provides is available only to kids ages 14 to 24.
Enter Project 13 – a new program being developed at Oasis specifically for middle-school aged kids, from 11 to 14. The organization hopes to have it up and running by September, for the start of the new school year.
Kirby says there’s nothing like it in Pierce County.
But, make no mistake, there is a need.
As society shifts, our tolerance grows, and discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity make their way into the open — where they belong — more kids are feeling safe and comfortable enough to “come out” earlier in life. That may mean identifying as gay or transgender, or it may mean something else, like simply asking questions or grappling with who they are.
All of it presents tricky terrain.
And an opportunity to do better.
It’s a reality local schools are seeing firsthand, according to Jennifer Kubista, the director of student life for Tacoma Public Schools. “Whether people believe it or not, it is in elementary through high school where kids are figuring themselves out,” she tells me.
A Pew Research Center survey of LGBT Americans backs it up. In 2013, the center found that 12 is the median age at which lesbian, gay and bisexual adults “first felt they might be something other than heterosexual or straight.” The study went on to conclude that, “For those who say they now know for sure that they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, that realization came at a median age of 17.”
The same Pew survey of LGBT American adults found that, “About four-in-10 (39 percent) say that at some point in their lives they were rejected by a family member or close friend because of their sexual orientation or gender identity; 30 percent say they have been physically attacked or threatened; 29 percent say they have been made to feel unwelcome in a place of worship.” Meanwhile, a national survey of homeless service providers completed by the Williams Institute in 2012 found that 40 percent of the homeless youth served identify as LGBT.
In other words, for all the progress we’ve made, there’s still a very real support gap for children that the Oasis Youth Center is hoping to fill, at least locally. Kirby tells me in the last year the center has received “over 100 calls” from kids, parents or counselors looking for support for children that Project 13 could potentially serve.
They’ve been turned away.
Using the organization’s three decades of experience as a guide, and backed by new funding that has allowed for more staff, Oasis is creating age-specific programming to fill this void. Parental consent will be required, as will the consent of young participants. The vision is for eight-week sessions focusing on things like building healthy identities and healthy relationships, identifying community support, and preventing sexual assault. A series of community focus groups will take place this summer to help craft the specifics.
“Oasis has become my family. This is where I can celebrate being me, being who I am,” Oasis Center Youth Council member Michelle Barroga, 24, says. “I never got the opportunity for a place like Oasis when I was in middle school. Now, this next generation can have Oasis available to them.”
That’s a good thing.
Or, as Douglas more eloquently puts it:
“I’m not saying this is going to change the world, but this actually will change people’s lives.”
Call it progress.