Walking into the room where Fiesta Youth meets on Tuesday nights from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at University Presbyterian Church, I’m immediately taken back to my years as a youth group kid. All the elements are there, junk food, floor pillows, and giggling.
Connor, a 15-year-old member of the group’s advisory board, is right in the middle of the fun. He’s well-spoken, engaged and confident. The kind of kid who welcomes newcomers and creates an atmosphere of hospitality.
But this was not always the case, Connor tells me. Before finding the Fiesta Youth community, Connor felt alone.
“I didn’t really know anyone who was LGBT who I could confide in,” Connor said.
While he grappled with his identity on his own, his social anxiety grew. The cruel world of middle school sniffed out his insecurity and treated him unkindly.
Looking to the group, he explained their purpose: to create a safe place for teenagers working through their identities as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender. I would soon find out that there are even more designations in the lineup. Many in the community include “queer” after the standard LGBT designation (LGBTQ). The Fiesta Youth members fell along a spectrum in their external expressions of their gender.
“We have a few who are the ‘out and proud’ type, and a few who are closeted,” said Connor. This would mean no group pictures. Some kids’ parents didn’t even know they were there – much less their high school teammates and classmates.
Later, during introductions, everyone stated their name, favorite color, and their preferred gender pronoun (PGP). They do this every week because, for many of the teenagers who are sorting through gender and sexuality, it changes that often. Use of “they/them” is encouraged for those who are not comfortable being categorized as”he” or “she.”
This is where my mind is really blown, imagining the courage to say these things as a 14, 15 or 16-year-old.
I think back to my own miserable middle school years and shudder. Curly hair and braces had been the worst of my struggles, documented in notebooks full of woeful poetry. What if, like these kids, I had been grappling with something far more profound than frizz and orthodontia? Something far more fundamental: sexual identity.
“There are so many kids who feel wrong or out-of-place. We need to give them a place,” said Connor.
Amelia Menton, one of the adult leaders, is devoted to the cause of supporting LGBT youth. Menton works with City Year at Sam Houston High School. She’s trying to start the school’s first Gay Straight Alliance (GSA). We both comment that such things did not exist at our high schools and middle schools – coming out at all was not really an option for most kids.
The thing is, we all knew that there were gays and lesbians among our peers. When they came out in college and adulthood, for the most part we were not surprised. What surprised us were the tales of inner torment and isolation.
Cultural acceptance of homosexuality and transgender identities is growing, but high school is still difficult. Kids are still heavily bullied, sometimes to the point of self-harm, for their gender identity and sexual preference. Or just for being different. The hope for these kids is that there are adults who are fighting for them, creating safe places for the kids to process and loving them unconditionally.
Kim Mayfield, who serves on the board of Fiesta Youth, also remembers her coming of age.
“I didn’t even know who or what I was,” said Mayfield.
When she moved from Idaho, Mayfield decided that it was time to get involved in LGBT causes in her new “big city” home, especially those that would support youth. She found her way to Project Embrace, which works with LGBT foster youth. Another organization close to her heart is Project H.O.T., which is striving to increase awareness and prevention of HIV in San Antonio and Bexar County. Her daughter, Mika, and her partner, Rebekah Saville are also regular faces at Fiesta Youth.
When I ask Mika how she identifies, she confidently lets me know that she is “pansexual.” She then has to explain to me what that is, which she does with patience and matter-of-factness, as though she were explaining an algebra problem.
These kids are actually very patient with the adults in their life who might be having a hard time understanding this intimate process.
“It’s important not only for parents to be supportive, but for us to be supportive of our families as well,” said Connor (at which point I said a silent prayer that my children would be so mature at age 15).
On the night I visited, the mother of a transgender teen was bringing her daughter and two friends to Fiesta Youth for the first time. While the kids delved into the night’s activities, she sat at the table with Mayfield and Saville. They shared insights into the community, and encouragement for this mother who was determined to learn how to support her 15-year-old daughter. The conversation was emotional, but also went into practical ways to express gender transition without permanently altering the body.
Fiesta Youth intends to be a safe place for “allies,” the friends and family of the teens who are trying to understand how to better support and love them. In fact, that’s exactly how it came to be.
Emily Leeper started Fiesta Youth two years ago when her daughter, Jackson, confessed that she was struggling with her sexuality. This after a long battle with panic attacks and depression. The Leepers found out that there were no peer-support groups for LGBTQ youth in San Antonio, and immediately began to connect to others who felt the need for such a group.
In the fall of 2013 their efforts came to fruition, and Fiesta Youth began. Now there are an average of 14-15 kids there every Tuesday, some regulars, some newcomers.
By meeting in a church, another element to the LGBTQ experience is transformed.
Connor explains that his family had suffered a lot in their former church on account of his sexuality.The church, in recent history, has been a source of anxiety for this community. There is an awareness growing among the Christian church that the topic has been mishandled for many years, fostering distrust and animosity between the communities.
Welcoming Fiesta Youth to create a safe place for kids to express their identity and struggles, Connor sees that University Presbyterian Church, through the use of their SoL and Education Centers is taking a step away from an embattled tradition.
“It’s saying that the people of your religion don’t hate you. God doesn’t hate you. I think that’s a hopeful message,” Connor said.
*Featured/top image courtesy of Fiesta Youth.