"DC" grew up in a very conservative and religious community in Floridaand knows all too well about the horrors of bullying.
He was bullied regularly in grade school, although "DC" didn't even know what "gay" or "fag" truly meant at the time. When he came out to a few close friends and his mother while in middle school, they were very supportiveand he thought things would be even better in high school, so he came out right away.
His close friends were supportive, but the rest of the student body was notand the bullying increased. He was severely beaten by a student, just for being gay. He even had a teacher tell him on the last day of school that he was disgusting and that he was going to hell.
"DC" tried to commit suicide because of all the homophobia that he was facing. He questioned whether he should live or die, if so many people hated him for something that he could not change.
Through counseling and the support of his mom, "DC" was able to realize that life is worth living.
He moved to Illinois' North Shore after his freshman year in high school, but the bullying and vandalism continued at his suburban Chicago school. So the school social worker told him about the Pride Youth Program, run by Northfield-based Links: North Shore Youth Health Service, a non-profit organization that empowers young people to make informed, responsible decisions about their health, well-being and sexuality.
"When 'DC' came to Pride for the first time he was quiet," said Erschel De Leon, Pride Youth Program director. "He didn't know anyone, and he wanted to meet other LGBT teens.
"Over the past two and a half years I have seen his confidence grow, and he has become an advocate for his fellow LGBT classmates. He is the one LGBT student that other teens turn to when they need to talk to someone, including many students who are not out to their families or to many of their friends."
"DC" is now 17 and one of the student leaders of his gay-straight alliance. His school hosted its first GSA dance this year. "DC" also does public speaking for Pride.
"He goes to schools and shares his coming-out story and gives the LGBT teen community a face and a voice," De Leon said. "He talks passionately about how homophobic language hurts, and how in some cases, it can lead to self-harm and suicide. His story makes a tremendous impact on the audience.
"It is so amazing to see youth come to Pride and, over time, grow to become leaders in their high school, continue their activism in college, and become more self-confident. One of my favorite moments is when a youth said, 'I'm gay' out loud for the first time and the group applauds. The feeling of support and relief that they feel is so hard to describe. Even after 17 years of facilitating LGBT youth groups, I still get teary-eyed when that happens in group."
De Leon, 39, lives in the northwest suburbs and has worked at Links for almost 11 years. She is single and an ally.
"Twenty years ago, Pride started with one group meeting once a week; we now have four meetings," De Leon said. "Pride has weekly meetings in Evanston, Northfield, and Palatine, for all LGBT students in grades 9-12. The Evanston group is a collaboration with the McGaw YMCA. We also have a group for girls who identify as lesbian and bisexual called Sappho's Sisters that meets every other Tuesday in Northfield.
"The Pride Youth Program fulfills critical needs for LGBT youth," De Leon said. "National studies show that LGBT students are still verbally, and sometimes physically, harassed at school. LGBT teens are at increased risk for truancy, poor grades, and dropping out of school. They are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol and more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers."
"The Pride Youth Program provides a safe, confidential space for LGBT youth to build community and support each other, helping to prevent the most severe issues from impacting these young people's lives."
De Leon said the program has many goals, including helping youth feel connected to the gay community, develop strategies for coping with homophobia, and develop a positive vision for their future. The program also educates participants about HIV/AIDS and other STDs and how to prevent them.
Links has been around since 1973, and Pride sees youth from 47 different communities in the north and northwest suburbs. The youth who attend the program regularly are all in high school, De Leon said, and the racial/ethnic mix is reflective of the communities served.
De Leon said it's a mix of male, female and transgender youth. A few of the schools represented include New Trier, Evanston, Glenbrook North, Glenbrook South, Palatine, Fremd, Conant, Hersey, Rolling Meadows, Deerfield and Warren Township.
Clearly, the biggest issues facing LGBT teens these days, De Leon said, are bullying, family rejection, severe depression that often leads to suicidal thoughts, increased risk of substance abuse, and homelessness.
"Pride meetings are a combination of structured and unstructured time," De Leon said. "Our group discussions consist of a range of topics, including the coming out process, HIV/STD prevention, dealing with homophobia, building healthy relationships, exploring gender identity issues, etc. Guest speakers enhance the program by sharing their personal coming-out stories or their expertise about legal rights, LGBT-friendly colleges, issues of faith, or political activism."
Last year, Pride reached 215 young people who came to the program for a combined total of 1,602 visits.
"I want to see the Evanston Pride and Sappho's Sisters groups grow," De Leon said. "Both groups are fairly new, and getting the word out is always a challenge at first. LGBT youth can bee hard to reach, especially those who aren't outand they are often the ones who could benefit the most from support groups.
"I'm also working on incorporating a youth leadership component for the group."
The Pride Youth Program is funded through individual donations, fundraising events and grants from Cook County, local townships and foundations, De Leon said. Links' next benefit, with a Kentucky Derby theme, is April 21 in Glenview. Links is also accepting applications for new board members.
The Pride Youth Program is one of the beneficiaries of the annual Proud to Run race in June along the lakefront. Pride participants volunteer to help with gear check, water stops and more on race day, if they're not running. "Proud to Run is a great opportunity for our participants to connect with the broader LGBT community," De Leon said.
"We also march in the parade every year. Last year, we had the largest group we have ever had of youth, alumi, and adult volunteersabout 50 people. It is a lot of fun for the youth to see the diversity of the LGBT community in Chicago and to be a part of the parade."
So how has the program changed De Leon?
"I learn from the youth everyday," she said. "I've really come to appreciate their ability to persevere. They have a strength within and sometimes they just need a little help finding it. It is such a privilege for me to be a part of that journey. To see the youth overcome the hardships they face from their family, peers, and community is one of the reasons I do continue to do this work. I love being an educator and a facilitator."
See www.linksyouth.org for more information.