It bears all the hallmarks of a self-help group: a nondescript multi-purpose room, mismatched chairs arranged in a circle, a folding table laden with drinks and food. But this isn’t a 12-step meeting. It’s a support and social group for LGBTQ teenagers living in Philadelphia’s suburbs.
Every Friday night, they travel to a church in Wayne from as far away as Bucks County. There, they discuss the highs and lows of their weeks, eat pizza, play board games, and just hang out.
The Main Line Youth Alliance is their safe place. (To keep that safety somewhat intact, first names are used in this story.) Most members say that they couldn’t get through the week without the group, which is celebrating it’s 20th anniversary this year.
“This is the place where we can be ourselves,” says 18-year-old Anna.
A senior at Conestoga High School, Anna has been coming to MYA since her freshman year, 12 months after she came out as a lesbian. “We don’t have to censor ourselves or worry about what people think of us,” she says.
On this Friday night, the MYA discussion seems to favor typical teenage topics: academic stress, friendship drama, unfair teachers, and how little their parents understand them. Then 15-year-old Skylar arrives, smiling, waving and apologizing for being late. Skylar is wearing red velvet Doc Martens, a stylish jacket and a whisper of eye makeup, leaving little doubt that the Lower Merion High School sophomore is a girl.
So it’s a little surprising that Skylar prefers the “they/their” pronoun. “My gender is non-binary,” says Skylar, as she rummages through a backpack to unearth cosmetics. “There’s judgment in my home, although not to an extreme. My parents often revert to cisgender (identifying with a person’s born gender) phrases and sometimes use wrong pronouns, or even talk about femininity as if it’s just one thing. Sometimes I correct them, but these days I just let it go. I don’t want to be combative with my parents about the expression of my gender.”
Skylar applies black liner and dark shadow to both eyes, then bright-green metallic lipstick. Removing a knit cap reveals a head with a quarter inch of blonde fuzz. Just like that, Skylar’s gender is now distinctly non-binary.
Some Main Line Youth Alliance members change clothes to match another gender or use different names. Others switch pronouns when referring to boyfriends or girlfriends. Often, they choose to do it at MYA because it’s easier on their parents.
Skylar’s parents appear to be supportive, if confused. No one taught them how to parent their non-binary child. Skylar’s mom had “a typical parental reaction” to her child’s shaved head. Hair used to flow down Skylar’s back. “She got very sad,” says Skylar, whose mother also has blonde hair, which had been a bond between them. “Very clearly and stereotypically feminine. But it’s just hair—and this is the real me.”
Further examples abound at MYA. Many fathers have a wealth of advice about dating girls, but struggle when talking to their sons about their crushes on guys. Mothers know a lot about preventing teen pregnancy, but they tend to stumble around the issue of venereal diseases transmitted between women.
There are more intractable issues, like navigating the unrelenting depression of a transgendered 14-year-old who’s on hormone suppressant therapy and recently had surgery to remove both breasts. There are also the parents who refuse to acknowledge the transgender identity of their 17-year-old child. That teen—born female but identifying as male—is a leader at MYA and in his high school’s LGBTQ community. At home, he’s suppressed and shamed.
That intolerance pains MYA members, who also chafe under more benign forms of parental protection. They live in a culture of rainbow flags and “Love Is Love” hashtags. Most of their parents, meanwhile, came of age at a time where gay slurs were part of playground parlance, Ellen DeGeneres was (temporarily) banished from TV for coming out as a lesbian and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was official military policy.
Many MYA members express impatience with what is still a heteronormative culture. “We need to keep moving forward or move culture forward ourselves,” says 18-year-old Ben, a Woodlynde School senior sporting nail polish on his fingers and toes.
But safety is a parent’s priority. What some teens label repression may really be an abundance of caution. “We’re talking about two different messages,” says Joanne Glusman, the adult moderator of MYA and president of its board of directors. “One conversation is about love and acceptance. Another conversation is
about safety. If I don’t think you love me, I’m not going to believe that you’re worried about my safety. I’m going to see your concern as an unwillingness to accept me.”
Glusman is a social worker with Main Line Health’s Bryn Mawr Family Practice. The teens respect Glusman, obeying her many rules at the structured meetings. Glusman doesn’t have much tolerance for adolescent antics. Not only does she have 20 years of MYA meetings under her belt, but she and her wife, Joan Bennett, have more than 30 nieces and nephews. They’ve seen it all.
♦ ♦ ♦
Every Main Line Youth Alliance meeting begins with a recitation of the rules: Cell phones must be on vibrate, pronouns must be respected, no interrupting or side conversations, no drugs or alcohol, no hooking up in the parking lot, no outing people if you see them outside of MYA. The minute members walk through the church door and head into the basement for meetings, Glusman’s wife is sitting at the door, reading or knitting. Bennett remains there for more than two hours, quietly standing guard.
Glusman also issues guidelines for how kids should behave immediately after meetings, when the older teens migrate to Gryphon Café, Starbucks or Wayne’s pizza shops. “They’re welcomed in those businesses, but rowdiness is a sure way to end that tolerance,” she says.
While hate crimes are a possibility, the real danger so far has come from the teens’ inner circles. There have been suicides, mental health crises, and emotional wars waged by unsympathetic families and friends. Glusman, Bennett and MYA’s other adult supporters form a cocoon around MYA kids, connecting them to community resources and hosting holiday dinners and other events.
Many return from college to attend meetings or at least stay in touch, forming an extended LGBTQ network that reaches beyond the region. One of those people is Britton, a 30-year-old nurse who lives in Rochester, N.Y., with his wife and their child. Britton was a female freshman at Springfield High School when he became an MYA member 16 years ago.
Britton didn’t come to grips with his gender identity until his 20s, though he came out as a lesbian at 13. Shortly thereafter, he learned about MYA from another gay teen. He had a supportive family, played sports and had friends, but he was bullied and ostracized at school. “I lived for Friday nights,” Britton recalls. “Only at MYA did I feel connected to a community. When you’re around people who are like you, you don’t have to explain the details of yourself—you can just be you. Very often, knowing I’d go to an MYA meeting got me through the week.”
Calling MYA his “supplemental high school,” Britton says the group was educational as well as social. “Teen years are really about learning what you want to do with the rest of your life by going to school, church or synagogue, playing sports or music,” Britton says. “At MYA, young people learn about being members of the LGBT community. Most of the rest of the world is filled with heterosexual examples of relationships, marriage and parenthood.”
Britton chafes at the idea of being an LGBT role model. But he thoroughly endorses the “it gets better” mantra many adolescents cling to as they suffer through middle and high school.
Twenty-year-old Rina knows how important that mantra can be. It’s one reason she attends MYA meetings. Now a freshman at Montgomery County Community College, Rina was Thomas for most of her life, transitioning after graduating from Horsham High School. “Horsham was a great school, and everyone was chill with LGBT people,” says Rina. “It just took me awhile to realize that I was one of them.”
Six feet tall with curly red hair, Rina likes to wear moon boots, A-line mini skirts and thigh-high stockings, reveling in a glam femininity. She recently found employment at Victoria’s Secret. “I had to get a job to afford the clothes,” she jokes.
Rina is not fully out to her family. Though she lives with her parents, she’s told her mother but hasn’t come out to her father. She hides her clothes and shoes, switching into female attire after leaving the house. Rina’s father did accidentally unearth the treasure trove of high heels she keeps in her car trunk. He hasn’t commented on the shoes—or Rina’s long hair. “He thinks it’s ’80s rock band hair,” Rina says. “That’s a parental prism for you.”
Maybe he’s simply waiting for her to tell him. “My dad may be doing the right thing, and I will have that discussion with him,” Rina says. “I know it’s an overdue conversation.”
If Rina’s transgender journey is incomplete, it’s also largely drama-free, a message she imparts to younger MYA members. “They ask me if it gets better in college and I say, ‘Yes.’ People stop being petty. It’s really hard for LGBTQ middle schoolers because that’s the pettiest time of your life. People are awful to one another for no reason. That changes—usually.”
Though she hasn’t experienced it first-hand, Rina recognizes the cruelty directed at LGBTQ people. “One antidote is a strong community of love,” says Rina. “I’m not, like, a fountain of wisdom. But maybe I can help other LGBT kids. Sometimes, just listening does a world of good.”
♦ ♦ ♦
Rina’s generosity of spirit is mirrored in many Main Line Youth Alliance members, who offer words of encouragement for big troubles, like the anniversary of a parent’s death, and smaller ones, like 16-year-old Percy’s unrequited crush. “I had a long conversation with him, and he’s wonderful and great and amazing … and very, very straight,” Percy reports with a lengthy sigh.
The others respond with sympathetic nods and offer hugs. “I’m good,” Percy says before having a change of heart. “You know what? I’ll take that hug. I’ll take all of the hugs I can get.”
The MYA kids pile on, surrounding Percy with support for a situation they understand deeply. Minutes later, it’s Percy’s turn to return that support when Skylar recounts a story. At one point, Skylar identified as mostly female and gay, befriending a group of lesbians at Lower Merion High School. Now, though, Skylar’s gender fluidity is evolving and, along with it, a realization that bisexuality may be a more accurate identity.
Right now, Skylar is attracted to one particular boy. When Skylar confessed this to the group of lesbians, they were harsh in their criticism and pushed Skylar away. “That’s reverse intolerance,” says Percy. “They’ll only be friends with other lesbians? Then they aren’t friends at all.”
Other MYA members murmur their agreement. “By the way,” Percy adds, “I’m your real friend. Have a crush on whoever you want. I won’t unfriend you.”
Ben voices a similarly thorny story. A girl at school is obviously flirting with him, and although she seems quite willing, Ben won’t hook up with her. He’s unsure if she’s attracted to Ben or his gender fluidity. Ben doesn’t have romantic feelings for this girl, something that wouldn’t hinder many teenage boys. But he does have an internal code of conduct, even when that creates uncomfortable situations.
For example, a group of Ben’s guy friends have been making sexual comments about certain girls. It’s frequent enough that he wants to reprimand them.
“State your objection clearly, but don’t lecture,” advises Gabriel, a 17-year-old transgender senior at Great Valley High School. “Saying, ‘That’s not cool’ could be enough to change their behavior. If not, don’t hang around them when they act like that. Do you really want friends who behave that way?”
Gabriel and Ben hope to find like-minded friends when they get to their LGBTQ-friendly colleges, chosen only after careful research into academics, dorm accommodations for transgender students and campus activities. “I wish that we had the equivalent of historically black colleges, but we don’t,” Gabriel says.
Older MYA kids impart their first-hand experiences in finding colleges that embrace—not just accept—LGBTQ students. “We want the next four years to be better than the last four years,” Ben says.
No one at MYA admits to being outright bullied or the target of hate crimes, but they are exasperated by the limitations of their schools. That extends to seemingly positive initiatives like gay/straight alliances. According to them, most are overrun with straight cisgender students who want audiences for their personal dramas. “Wildly off base” is how Gabriel describes their discussions at his GSA. “But we don’t turn them away. We let them talk. Some of those straight kids have real issues.”
From her chair, Glusman poses, “Do you know how to connect them with resources?”
Gabriel nods, as do Ben and others. “We know warnings signs and how to contact the right people,” Ben confirms. “It’s kind of ironic that they come to us for help.”
The comment prompts a smile from Glusman. It’s not ironic to her—it’s exactly what she intended. Glusman has taught these kids to be tolerant, kind and supportive of all people. Someday soon, they’ll leave MYA, taking its lessons with them into the world.