Maine Welcomes and Affirms ALL Youth
Founded in 1996 as part of Coastal Outright, OUT Maine is a non-profit, youth advocacy organization dedicated to the support and empowerment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth under the age of 22 in rural Maine. Its core program for many years has been a weekly drop-in center in Rockland, a safe space for youth to seek support, find their voices and explore opportunities to become contributing members of their communities.
For its first 14 years, OUT was run entirely by volunteers. In 2010, with support from the Maine Community Foundation and generous individuals, OUT embarked on a capacity-building process to sustain its drop-in program and better address the range of challenges that face LGBTQ youth in their transition from adolescence to adults. In 2012, OUT expanded its work to include school and community initiatives - the arenas in which youth spend the majority of their time and faces the greatest challenges.
Expanded work naturally led the organization to hire staff. By 2014, OUT had executive director, program director and administrative/events coordinator and was well on its way to earning its 'small but mighty' reputation. OUT has received support from the United Midcoast Charities, the Maine Community Foundation, the Lerner Foundation, the Rocking Moon Foundation, the Catawamteak Fund, the Jonathan Stein Charitable Fund, the Messler Family Foundation and many generous individuals. Thanks to all for their support!
The Vision: A Banquet of Inclusion for the Midcoast
OUT's vision is a midcoast Maine region that is welcoming and affirming of LGBTQ youth - with visible, confident youth leaders who actively work to ensure a supportive, inclusive environment in their schools and communities. Its more comprehensive program now includes four target areas - creating safe spaces in our communities; making schools safe through school climate change work; building a strong, educated provider safety net; and providing education and support for parents and families.
These four targets are symbolic of the four legs of a banquet table - for without a leg, the table would be unbalanced and would be adequately support LGBTQ youth.
Four Legs of the Table
Creating Safe Spaces in our Communities
OUT's drop-in program is a safe space for youth to explore and express their identities at any point in their journey, a place where they can find supportive peers and adult allies, confidential discussion groups, community-oriented projects and activities, and space to be free of judgment. It plays a critical role and has made a profound difference in the lives of many rural LGBTQ youth.
Take Cameron, for example, a 3-year attendee of the drop-in program, who talks about his experience before and after he discovered the program:
"I was so shy and had no confidence at all, people would shut me down, tell me to shut up, I felt terrible about myself... whenever I'd walk down the street or sit in class, I'd be so afraid of off-hand comments, so afraid of snickers, someone yelling out their window... but as soon as I come in here, I know I'm not going to be judged, they treat me like a human being, I feel like I belong here... now I'm standing up for myself, talking to people in the halls, I can confidently go up to someone and shake their hand... I'm so much better than I used to be..."
Each drop-in session includes a meal, support, discussion on important issues and opportunities for social time. Trained adult advisors are always present and new adult volunteers are always welcome.
OUT youth regularly participate in activities outside the drop-in sessions as well, including Pride Festivals, UMaine at Machias' Rainbow Ball and Lewiston Queer-Trans Youth Summit, to name a few. They help sponsor numerous events, including movie screenings and discussions Southern Poverty Law Center's film "Bullied: A Student, A School, and A Case that Made History." Jamie spoke to 3,000 students from eight local schools. As a victim of bullying that turned violent and left him hospitalized, Jamie delivered a powerful message that students can stop bullying in their schools and communities. His message galvanized a number of regional schools to examine the ways in which students and faculty were failing their LGBTQ youth.
Approximately 100 young people participate in OUT’s rural drop-in program each year. While hundreds of youth have been served since 1996, it’s only a fraction of the estimated 300 to 500 LGBTQ youth in midcoast Maine at any one time.
A large part of the LGBTQ youth population in rural Maine, particularly those under age 16, remain outside the reach of this in-person opportunity – due to transportation limitations. OUT is addressing the challenges of transportation by harnessing the power of the internet.
In 2016 and 2017, OUT will reach and engage more isolated LGBTQ youth in midcoast Maine by:
- Creating a more accessible and user-friendly website.
- Piloting an internet-based chat room to replicate the safe space of our drop-in program.
- Exploring video conferencing opportunities to create virtual drop-in centers for rural areas.
- Working with local organizations to develop more drop-in programs around the region. In 2015, OUT worked with the First Unitarian Church of Belfast and local teens; a Belfast weekly drop-in is now underway.
Making Schools Safe through School Climate Change Work
Harsh realities face LGBTQ youth in rural Maine schools. A startling eight out of ten LGBTQ Maine youth experience regular verbal harassment based on their gender expression, with two to three times the rate of suicide attempts of Maine's heterosexual teens. Rural, isolated midcoast LGBTQ teens are particularly vulnerable, reflected in Knox County having one of the highest rates of suicide attempts among this group.
These at-risk youth deserve our immediate attention and they’re the reason OUT has significantly expanded its advocacy work to improve school climate.
There is increasing national recognition that the school environment is where experiences of LGBTQ youth can be improved most successfully. School climate work, particularly the creation and support of Gay Straight Transgender Alliances (GSTAs), is a proven method of reducing experiences of homophobic discrimination, harassment, bullying and suicidal ideation.
This fact is particularly important for rural youth, who spend the most number of waking hours in school, due to limited transportation and opportunities for gatherings elsewhere. There are over 7,000 students attending 21 rural public secondary schools in Lincoln, Knox and Waldo counties.
OUT’s school climate initiative is making a difference!
OUT is in the third year of a school climate initiative designed to improve the dialogue among students, faculty and administrators about the challenges facing LGBTQ youth in midcoast Maine.
In the initiative’s past two years, OUT conducted a number of leadership trainings for LGBTQ youth and, more importantly, OUT has almost quadrupled the number of GSTAs in Lincoln, Waldo and Knox counties from three to eleven– 100% of our mainland high schools in these counties now have a GSTA, as well as North Haven Island and the Wiscasset Middle School. OUT developed expertise in working with diverse Maine schools and created a comprehensive toolkit for addressing school resistance and forming GSTAs. We are now reaching into more middle schools with the same goals.
Collaboration – with individuals and organizations committed to improving school climate for LGBTQ youth – is essential to OUT’s school climate work over the next few years. To that end, OUT has partnered with Camp Kieve-Wavus in Nobleboro, where it conducted its first overnight leadership retreat for regional LGBTQ youth in 2015 to develop a plan of action for region-wide school climate change. As a result of that retreat, Belfast High School now has a GSTA and efforts are underway for a GSTA in the middle school. Our second annual youth retreat, April 29-May 1st, 2016, drew attendees from South Portland to Machias, as teens around the state want to join our work.
OUT also has developed a training curriculum that can be incorporated into school and agency professional development. We now have a menu of six 20-minute in-service programs available for faculty trainings and lunches.
With the wide range of interest and support for GSTAs in our regional schools, from obstructionist to embracing, youth and faculty need ongoing assistance to sustain GSTAs. This help is particularly important if GSTAs want to carry out programs and activities beyond providing a safe meeting space.
OUT is building an infrastructure for ongoing coaching and mentoring to help GSTAs grow and thrive.
In 2016 and 2017, OUT will:
- Work with school leadership, faculty, students and community partners to expand the number of GSTAs in middle schools, with the goal of implementing GSTAs and/or educational programs in the remaining regional secondary schools by 2018.
- Support existing GSTAs in expanding from safe meeting space to programs and activities, to possibly include school-wide faculty education about LGBTQ youth, a more inclusive LGBTQ curriculum, and school-wide education and awareness campaigns.
- Create a coaching/mentoring program for GSTAs that uses technology-based support – a program that maximizes training and networking while minimizing resources required.
Building a Strong, Educated Provider Safety Net
Many youth will never feel safe enough to come to a drop-in program or actively be “out” by participating in a GSTA in their schools. Those providers who work with LGBTQ youth and their families – health care, mental health, clergy, youth service providers – are the ones who will see these youth in their daily lives. It is critical that these providers understand the challenges faced by these teens and have the tools and referral sources to support and empower them and their families. These providers, who interact with LGBTQ youth on a regular basis, are a critical resource for these youth. Trained providers also leverage OUT’s limited resources to build a sustainable support system to make the midcoast climate more welcoming.
In the last year, OUT has trained over 500 providers in the midcoast region on supporting LGBTQ youth and their families.
In 2016 and 2017, OUT will:
- Continue to provide this half-day training for community providers – health care professionals, teachers, school staff, behavioral health professionals, faith community representatives, youth service providers – that focuses on the realities faced by LGBTQ youth, their risk factors and successful ways to provide support and resources.
- Reach out to professional organizations and conferences to provide this information in a workshop format. Staff presented at the ACES conference at Point Lookout in the fall of 2015 and at the Maine Counseling Association annual meeting in April 2016. We will be presenting at the statewide 4-H conference (September 2016), the Maine School Counselors Association (October 2016) and the Island Teachers Conference in (October 2016).
Providing Education and Support for Parents and Families
Parents and families of LGBTQ youth need support and resources, too. Many have nowhere to turn for answers to their questions. OUT continues to receive calls from parents whose children have come out to them as LGBQ or transgender, and they are drowning. They don’t know how to respond supportively, their spouses/partners are often not willing to accept that the child is LGBTQ, and too often youth are kicked out of their homes and left homeless. LGBTQ youth represent a disproportionate number (up to 40%) of homeless teens in Maine and our midcoast region has no resources for unaccompanied homeless youth.
OUT’s goal is to help parents and families address these issues more effectively and reduce the incidence of youth being on the street as a result of family challenges through ongoing parent/family support groups.
In 2016 and 2017, OUT will:
- Work more closely with area clergy to develop a faith-based initiative for youth and family support within their congregations.
- Explore the possibility of starting a PFLAG chapter or working directly with an existing parent/family support initiative to incorporate LGBTQ youth support more concretely.
- Work with community partners to explore the need for, and best ways to provide, support groups for youth, trans youth and adults, and parents and families in collaboration with other regional efforts.
Your Support Is Critical
OUT is passionately committed to creating a welcoming and affirming midcoast Maine for LGBTQ youth – but its efforts come at a cost. This work needs a financial investment by people who care about LGBTQ youth in the midcoast region. People like you.
Consider for a moment what life in midcoast Maine would be like for LGBTQ youth if it were not for the vision, commitment and strategic thinking of the board and staff at OUT. Youth like Cameron would still be harassed and belittled. Local schools would be failing their LGBTQ youth by not providing safe places for youth to meet and organize. Communities would lack informed and supportive providers who serve as a safety-net for LGBTQ youth.
All youth deserve compassion and support as they transition from adolescence to adulthood. OUT believes we should not only provide a landscape that is welcoming and affirming, but should train youth to be advocates and leaders, giving them the tools to create this landscape themselves.
OUT is preparing today’s youth to be future leaders and in doing so, is making a world of difference for the LGBTQ youth of tomorrow. Won’t you be part of this important initiative?
“Having a GSTA in my school has made a big difference. There is less harassment and bullying, and now we have a safe space where we can be ourselves and make plans for how to do more education around our school. We couldn’t have done this without the support of OUT. I hope everyone who cares about this work will make a donation to OUT.”
- M.L., Medomak Valley High School