High school should be easy for 17-year-old Josh Jenkins. He is handsome, charming and equipped with a sly, warm and wickedly smart sense of humor; it’s tough to talk to him and not think he’s a shoo-in for prom king.
Yet he has struggled at Durango High School, where he is one of the few students who is “out,” or openly gay.
He estimates that, “max, there’s 12 of us in the school district. There are more lesbians. But it’s just really hard.”
Josh is one of the passionate teenagers calling for a Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender youth center, a safe place outside school where lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender kids from Durango can find information, support and, most of all, each other.
They may get their wish. On Wednesday, DHS guidance counselor Sarah St. John and former counselor Jennifer Stucka announced that “The Rainbow Youth Center” will have its first open house from 5:30 to 7 p.m. July 7 at the Powerhouse Education Building.
St. John says the need for an LGBT youth center is great.
She said Durango’s adult LGBT population is a strong, thriving community.
“But in comparison to big cities, the needs of LGBT youth – especially in this rural area – are not being addressed appropriately.”
Just weeks ago, St. John and Stucka convened a focus group attended by six teens and two parents to discuss their common vision for the Rainbow Youth Center, a safe, affirming place far from school where LGBT kids can find support, information and peers.
“These kids are amazing,” said St. John, “and they know what they want: They’re asking for a place where they can be visible.”
Greg Weiss, a board member of Four Corners Alliance for Diversity, said he thinks a center for LGBT teens is “definitely a worthwhile cause and much needed in the area.”
“I think what we’ve been seeing over the last few years is that people are coming out at a much earlier age – and for middle and high school students, there are so many changes that they’re trying to navigate as it is. Coming to terms with their sexuality adds a whole other layer to it.”
Schools are making some headway. Spokeswoman Julie Popp said while no Durango School District 9-R schools have gender-neutral bathrooms, students who self-identify as being a “particular gender” have access to that gender’s bathrooms and facilities.
In an email, she said, “There are many programs and clubs throughout the schools and the community that allow students supports within the LGBT community.”
But when it comes to LGBT students’ lived experiences, Durango schools at times can be isolating and hostile.
Josh said when he went to Miller Middle School, “it was really hard. I was bullied because I was gay. At 13, I had suicidal thoughts.”
He came out at the end of eighth grade, and the bullying stopped. But while Josh has found DHS to be a much less brutal environment than middle school, students’ casual sexism and homophobia frustrates him, especially from classmates on sports teams.
“Guys will say: ‘That’s so gay!’ or ‘You’re such a faggot!’ They don’t realize how stupid they sound,” he said.
As a survival strategy in an often miserable high school hierarchy, Josh “tries to stay under the radar.”
“It’s just four years of my life. It doesn’t really matter. I’m a hermit. I don’t want to be noticed too much – but ... I also want to be noticed.”
Likewise, Maya Blaisdell, a 15-year-old Animas High School student who runs the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), said when she was 13, “I was scared to come out in Bayfield,” an act of courage that still impresses her father.
Rowan Blaisdell said their family always had been “pro-feminist and determined to support her.”
But at Bayfield Middle School, reaction to his daughter’s coming out was decidedly “mixed,” he said. “People weren’t exactly jumping out of the woodwork to support her.”
While Maya’s experience at Animas High School as an out LGBT teen has been comparatively better, Rowan said overall, “there just isn’t support in Durango. And a lot of kids don’t want to take part in school-based programs. A teen center would be fantastic – and it’s needed, for parents, too.”
Right now, LGBT teens in Durango describe a kind of informal underground railroad, where older, out LGBT kids provide guidance to younger LGBT kids struggling with their identity, helping answer the most basic, painful questions, such as “Am I OK?” and “Will my parents still love me?”
Maya is mentoring at least one 11-year-old in this improvised capacity, Rowan said.
But until there’s a downtown space away from school for LGBT teens to safely congregate and learn from each other, Maya worries that it is like the blind leading the blind down a lonely path to freedom.
“There’s a couple of kids in the GSA at school. But for me, it’s very hard to find other gay kids in the area,” Maya said.
Her father said few heterosexual adults look back on their adolescence – and especially their sexual coming of age – and think, “that went smoothly.”
“Being a teenager is hard. But being a gay, lesbian or transgender teenager is harder. On top of the normal teen angst, there’s some shame if the reaction isn’t positive. I think if you shut a gay kid down, there’s often just a lot more self-loathing.”
Beyond emotional sustenance, St. John said she hopes the Rainbow Youth Center also will provide teens and parents with sex education that is relevant to LGBT youths.
At DHS, Josh said “I can’t rely on the school system, and I don’t want to ask my parents about sex anymore.”
The dearth of good information leaves LGBT kids to fend for themselves.
Proving that when it comes to high school, few things ever change, Josh said with questions about sex, he turns to the Internet and “my most sexually active friends.”
Even at progressive AHS, Maya said sex-education proved woefully inadequate for LGBT teens.
“For me, it was completely geared toward heterosexuals. The only time they ever talked about a gay person was talking about AIDS,” she said.
The Rainbow Youth Center is in the teething stages. St. John and Stucka still are trying to figure out the basics and raise money. But for LGBT teens in Durango, it has become the focus of a lot of hope.
“If it got up and running, we could invite straight kids, too, or people who are in the closet because they do sports and don’t want to be demonized by their friends,” Josh said.
“I think a lot of people become gay when they’re older. But when I first was coming out, I went to (my mentor) at the Boys and Girls Club with all my questions – things I needed to survive high school. A center would be awesome. I don’t want anyone to be like the teens you hear about on the news who commit suicide.”