Central Washington’s trans and queer youth create community

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In central Washington, there are few places where trans, queer, and gender-nonconforming youth can find that kind of welcome. Aside from The Space, the only other LGBTQ youth center in the area is the new Helen House in Ellensburg.

Babcock, originally from Grandview, a small town halfway between Yakima and the Tri-Cities, grew up in a religious household. As they began to explore their true gender identity, The Space provided a place to just sit and talk with other young queers, watch movies, play games, and be accepted for who they were.

“It was a place where I immediately walked in and knew: I’m fine,” said Babcock, who is now 25 and volunteers at The Space. “I still needed to figure things out. But here it doesn’t matter, you still belong here.

It’s a tough time to be an LGBTQ youth in rural America, and the Northwest is no exception. In March, the Idaho House passed a bill that would make it illegal to provide gender-affirming care to transgender children (although the Idaho Senate later rejected the bill).

A nationwide movement to limit discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity among children is growing, whether it’s Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law or efforts to ban graphic memories. Gender Queer in school districts across the country, including those of Kennewick and Walla Walla (Walla Walla voted to reject the book ban and Kennewick took no action).

In Ellensburg, a recent student election for class president at Ellensburg High School was marred by online harassment and vandalism in response to an openly gay candidate.

Tylene Carnell, a longtime LGBTQ activist and founder of Helen House, noted that attitudes in Ellensburg toward trans and queer people are mixed. She found many local volunteers and donors to support a space for LGBTQ youth, especially among students at Central Washington University. Although Helen House officially opened in 2020, it got off to a rocky start in part because the center had to close during the pandemic.

Carnell, who is originally from Boise and moved to Ellensburg in 2001 shortly after transitioning, said the university offers a more progressive and welcoming environment, but living there as a trans person remains a challenge.

“Being trans here is much closer to being trans in Seattle than it is in Idaho,” Carnell said. “But there were times when I was questioned coming out of the bathroom. Or sometimes I left downtown and went home to go to the bathroom because I was uncomfortable.

Anna McGree, director of The Space, said only about a quarter of young people who regularly visit the Yakima center have active family support. Most others did not tell their family or visit despite a lack of encouragement.

“No matter where you go, there are people who just won’t accept a place like this,” McGree said. “We really try to focus on people who love this place and want to see it succeed.” She noted that the center does not make its address public or display emblems such as pride flags – out of an abundance of caution.

Founded in 2016 and operated by Yakima Neighborhood Health Services, The Space provides a haven that includes social events, peer-to-peer activities, mentorship and mental health counseling. There is a cozy common area with a TV, a well-stocked art room, a selection of clothes and costumes, and a small kitchen. McGree said her staff and volunteers also work closely with Rod’s House, a drop-in center for homeless teens, to provide services to LGBTQ youth facing housing insecurity.

Of the 10 to 15 young people who regularly visit The Space, McGree said, five currently live in unstable housing. “A lot of them couch surf and never have a stable place, even if they’re not on the street,” McGree said. A personal case manager offers assistance to those who mention they are homeless, linking them to social services, mental health counseling and health care. They often take advantage of the center’s shower and kitchen, which is stocked with snacks.

Julie Baltista, Youth Outreach Coordinator at The Space, helps these homeless youth find housing services and provides them with life skills such as applying for a job or writing a resume. “A lot of them don’t have work experience or credentials,” Baltista said. “So I try to make it look as professional as possible without it looking like a blank sheet of paper.”

Baltista, who identifies as non-binary, first heard of The Space when they were leading the Gay Straight Alliance in high school. Although they describe Yakima as “divided” and having moments of “drama” regarding the trans and queer community, they are very happy to live in the town, which now features regular drag performances and an annual Pride Parade. .

“I personally think it’s a wonderful city,” Baltista said. “There are definitely people who disagree. But I love it. I like the community here.

The pandemic has been tough on the center and the young people who depended on it, McGree said. But programs like The Space’s mentorship program — in which LGBTQ young adults regularly speak with trans and queer youth — have continued during the COVID-19 pandemic via video calls. Although the center still does not match the number of young people served before the pandemic, it is gradually rebuilding.

The Space is particularly useful for young trans people who are questioning their gender identity. In addition to providing access to items such as chest compression belts, the center can refer young people to Yakima Neighborhood Health Services for gender-affirming medical care.

“Our medical staff are accepting very well,” McGree said. “They’re great, although a lot of people are going to Seattle for their transition. And that can be an obstacle in itself because not everyone has the means of transport to get there.

According to University of Washington researcher Arin Collin, who co-authored a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in February, providing adolescents with access to gender-affirming medical care, such as hormones and puberty blockers, is associated with a 60% lower chance of depression and 73% lower chance of suicide, Collin said of the 100 young people surveyed. “Additionally, for people who did not receive this care, the severity of the depression itself was much worse.”

Community support, like that young people find at The Space, is also hugely important, Collin said. “There is a very strong body of research, including the work of Kristina Olson, on the effectiveness of social transition. When young people are supported in their transition from a social perspective – allowing preferred gender, use of a name consistent with their gender identity – they have parity with their peers in health outcomes. of mental health.

McGree agreed, noting that having in-person gathering time has made a huge difference in the mental well-being of young people. She pointed to one visitor who had been hesitant to speak with others or share anything about her gender identity.

“Then they slowly started letting their guard down,” McGree said, adding that they signed up for the mentorship program soon after. “It was really cool to see this progression from ‘I don’t talk to you.’ I don’t want to talk about identity. show who I am.’

The Space also organizes regular outings, whether it’s handing out gift cards to young people and taking them shopping during the holidays, or a recent trip to see a local production of Hairspray. “It was so much fun,” McGree said. “A lot of young people had never seen a big play like this.”

Although none of the young people currently on the program would speak publicly about their experiences for this article, in a video created by The Space to promote its programs, a trans teenager spoke about being threatened at school and how stepping through the doors of The Space provided a haven. “I was in a really bad place,” they said, “but it felt like a moment of pure love.”

Babcock noted that simply asking for pronouns and asserting non-conforming genders can make a huge difference. During an outing to a café not too long ago, one of the youngsters came across the group while they were with their relative. They quickly whispered to their friends to use different pronouns, since they weren’t home.

“It’s really detrimental to someone’s mental health,” Babcock said. “And it’s a place where they can be themselves. And they may really want to reveal who they are to their parents. But for some reason it’s not safe.

When asked if there was any particular achievement they’ve seen working at The Space, Baltista laughed and said, “All, 100 percent. Every time you see someone new coming, you can see it on their face. They feel so happy, so comfortable talking to LGBT people like them. They feel safe, surrounded. And sometimes they don’t want to go home – it’s a home for them.

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