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OutCt provides a safe space for region's LGBTQ youth

In 2015, when Curtis Goodwin, then 22 years old, started the outCT youth program, he was creating something he wished he had growing up.

“There weren’t enough outlets for youth that identified as queer or their allies,” Goodwin, now a New London city councilor, recalled. “I know myself, growing up being a Black queer male, I didn’t have any mentors or safe places to go. No outlet. No resources. So I felt it was absolutely critical to provide that safe space.”

The program, which started in Mystic and is now based in New London, has new leadership and a growing membership these days, but the mission has remained the same: to provide gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning and allied youth in southeastern Connecticut the kind of experience they didn’t have growing up.

“Some of the kids don’t have a comfortable home life in their identity and they might not necessarily have a lot of other people who they can associate with, who understand them, so this gives them that,” said Polly Sioux, co-chair of the program.

When Sioux, a 63-year-old transgender woman, was growing up she didn't have any place to explore what she was feeling.  

"When I was the 18, I would go to the gay bars. I didn't know what was going on. I was lost," she said. "It was the only place I knew to go."

The program, which is run by volunteers, is is open to those ages 12 and older. Participants meet on the third Sunday of the month, usually at Ocean Beach Park, now virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Most of our members are trans or non-binary because that tends to be the kids who need more support right now,” said Lindsay Gillette, co-chair of the youth program. “There’s a lot of complexity in trying to discover your identity and discover who you are."

While these youth may have access to gay-straight alliances, or GSAs, through their schools, these groups are often run by allies, people who don’t identify in the queer community, Gillette said.

“We’re completely an adult queer-run group, which is helpful (to these youth) to have early access to the community at large," she said, adding it's also important for them to have safe spaces at school.

Ky Connal-Nicolaou, a 16-year-old member of the group from Preston, said when they began questioning their identity in high school, they leaned on the group for support.

“It was great to have the youth group to help me through that process of gender identity because I was really lost with that,” said Connal-Nicolaou, who identifies as gender fluid and pansexual and uses the they/he pronouns.

The program provides opportunities for its youth participants to socialize with their peers who are going through similar experiences as them. But they also have the opportunity to take part in LGBTQ events and engage with speakers on a range of topics such as sexuality, discussions that aren't always taking place in other aspects of their lives.

Eighteen-year-old Lilith Davies Smith, who was involved first as participant and now as a volunteer, said the group served as the main vehicle through which she explored her self-identity growing up.

“All of my questioning was in the youth group. I went through all of my stages of gay, lesbian, queer. I played with labels. It was just a really open, free space to do that. No judgment. It was amazing,” she said.

The program has strayed from rigidness, instead promoting the exploration of identity, Gillette said.

"When we used to meet in person, we specifically had paper name tags inside a sleeve to encourage if you want to try a new name or a new pronoun, month to month" she said. "This is your space to explore and feel safe in doing that."

The program provides a sense of belonging for these youth, said Alix O'Neil, 32, who recently began volunteering with the program. Regardless of how involved they are, participants know the group serves as safe place for them to come and be themselves.

They have continued to meet virtually throughout the pandemic.

"For a lot of youth that we have, I think it would affect them a lot if we weren’t able to have this group as a way for them meet to and connect with us," O'Neil said.  

The volunteers say it's been important to keep the group going, even virtually, throughout the pandemic.

"Some of them are stuck at home with families who they are not able to fully be themselves around," said Colleen Lavin, a volunteer.

While Lavin said she's only 10 years older than many of the participants, when she was in school and trying to figure out who she was, "I didn't have any role models to turn to or look at to compare myself to."

"It's so nice to be able to provide that community and that space for them to support each other," she said. "Sometimes I feel like we are just there to allow them the space to do the work themselves."

For more information on the program go to http://outct.org/youth-program/.

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