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SGN INTERVIEW: Queer Youth Space in Seattle
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SGN INTERVIEW: Queer Youth Space in Seattle

by Shaun Knittel - SGN Staff Writer

Pink stickers that read "WE NEED QUEER YOUTH SPACE" can be seen everywhere on Capitol Hill. Queer Youth Space (QYS) volunteers have put them on telephone polls, street signs - even bus stops - to declare that a safe space that is led, owned, and organized by Queer youth, for Queer youth is a need, not a luxury. The radical and revolutionary nature of QYS has drawn collective criticism from the very LGBT community they represent. The group has been accused of reverse ageism, whining and bitching, and intra-community segregation. SGN spoke with QYS officials to address these accusations (which they claim stem from a misunderstanding of the organization's goals), planned events, and their hopes of receiving a $100,000 grant from Seattle Neighborhood Marching Fund as a non-profit THREE WINGS.

WE NEED QUEER YOUTH SPACE
"The beginning of QYS started when a couple Queer youth activities started challenging the assumption you have to be 21-plus to enter Queer spaces," Kyle Rapinan, QYS/THREE WINGS organizer, told SGN. "We began to organize late last year, and it's been an amazing experience. We held the Queer Youth Mutiny event where over 100 young people came and voiced how to make Seattle more Queer youth-friendly."

Since then, Rapinan says that about 20 youth have been meeting regularly to organize events that are youth-led, adult-supported, and that would benefit the LGBT community.

QYS officials say they have applied for a $100,000 grant which, if awarded, would create Queer Youth Space in the Capitol Hill neighborhood which would be "led and organized by the constituency." According to Rapinan, the money has to be matched by 100,000 community dollars and would be used for the 2011 program. "This space would be radical and revolutionary in that it would be youth-led and services would be provided, but the space would also operate as a cultural/artist space in which arts, activism, wellness, and education coexist and flourish," he said.

Rapinan says that the assumptions that QYS has not reached out to the LGBT community at large and is operating completely on their own are not accurate. "QYS has been critically analyzing the process of 'partnering' with any youth-serving organizations because a core value of QYS and THREE WINGS is a model to work 'with' youth rather than 'for' young people," Rapinan told SGN. "One strategic partner has been Seattle Young People's Project, an established youth-led, adult-supported organization that was the fiscal sponsor for the Pride Foundation grant we were awarded earlier this year."

In the short time QYS has existed, the organization's officials say there has been a learning curve. "I would say that some lessons learned so far include how to operate as a collective, how to distribute information, and how to have fun while you work," said Rapinan. "Personally, I have learned that you are never too young to start making a difference. Just because you are 15 years old doesn't mean you can't organize a project binder."

The first pilot program, post-Mutiny, for youth-led Queer organizing happens this weekend. "QYS will present 'Still Screaming,' an all-ages open mic art night on April 17," said Rapinan. "The event is free, and should be a great chance for Queer youth to find a sense of community in a anti-ageist space. All the information is on our website, www.queeryouthspace.com." ("Still Screaming" will be held April 17, 7:10 to 10:10 pm at Club Diamond, 332 5th Ave. N.)

THREE WINGS
So what, exactly, would a $100,000 matching fund grant get Seattle's Queer youth? Rapinan says it would gain them a physical Queer Youth Space that would support their constituency with "three wings" of services. QYS applied for the grant under the non-profit moniker "THREE WINGS" as their ticket to legitimacy.

According to QYS/THREE WINGS officials, WING 1 would consist of a Cultural Activism Lab to build Queer peer support networks, positive youth identities, and community pride by providing a space where Queer youth could socialize, work, and create together. The Cultural Activism Lab will include a café, arts and cultural gallery, performance/class space, and community organizing spaces. The lab would serve as the face of THREE WINGS, and the primary function of its physical space would be so that young people could utilize the open format to make media, socialize, and get engaged with local activism.

WING 2, the Wellness Collaborative, would provide critical education and mental health services to address the disparities for health and wellbeing experienced by Queer youth. QYS officials say, "WING 2 will address disparities in the quality of life of Queer people, and other compounding factors, through holistic counseling, coaching and goal-attainment partnerships, peer mediation, health/legal information and referral, academic support, classes/groups aimed at personal healing, and community wellness." THREE WINGS would offer these services in a non-confrontational and confidential way.

WING 3, the Research & Education Institute wing, would work to positively impact the policies and cultural practices that negatively impact the community by developing a "think tank" to build leadership and promote policy and community change through research, education, and advocacy. The institute would also produce alternative media and web resources, research-based resources, and educational materials. It would provide technical assistance and consultation to schools and agencies.

According to Rapinan, the steering committee is a diverse group of individuals who identify as members of the Queer community. Members range from 16 to 31 years of age, and the vast majority skew younger. Educational backgrounds vary, and nearly 75% are current high school or college students. In addition, members come from a variety of familial backgrounds, including foster care, single-parent households, and the majority have experienced homelessness or unstable housing at some point in their lives. None of the members own housing, and most live with their families, in student dormitories, or rent their living space.

"Every member of the steering committee has experienced verbal or physical harassment, and the majority have also experienced violence due to their perceived or actual gender identity or sexual orientation," said Rapinan.

Collectively affiliated with over 40 Queer youth serving organizations around the Seattle area, Rapinan says QYS/THREE WINGS are "truly members of our community, those who have sought out support, as well as contributed to existing resources."

QYS officials say that it is the intimate familiarity and involvement with Seattle's current offerings for Queer youth - and lack thereof - which creates their effectiveness in forming an organization and conducting outreach and fundraising for it. "We are fulfilling the needs of the community in exciting and revolutionary ways," states QYS/THREE WINGS. "We are truly the community, those who are experiencing heterosexist oppression and the struggles that accompany that, and we are organizing to challenge it."

DEFENDING QUEER YOUTH SPACE
"We have been accused of reverse ageism, which is a common misconception, just like reverse homophobia," explained Rapinan. "Adults have the power, the money, the resources, the time, and the established Queer spaces to take advantage of. Adults find community in spaces, whereas Queer youth operate online and in the parks of Capitol Hill. Queer youth have a few services that were set up by adults, but in the end our issues are not represented to the mainstream - like money for the same-sex marriage fight in place of homeless shelters for Queer youth."

Rapinan says that it is important to note that QYS is a collective of adults and youth who donate their time and energy to this endeavor and because of this, Queer youth are finding mentors - and "adults are, also."

"QYS is an inter-generational community initiative, and if some adults are saying we aren't paying the proper respect to the work and time they spent for our liberation, then I am sorry for the misconception," he said. "Queer youth are organizing, and we have years left in our struggle for liberation. If adults stand with us, anything is possible & but if not, there is always another grant Queer youth could apply for, which coincidentally, was set up by adults to improve our community and find space for diverse populations."

Another point of contention that QYS wanted to clear up is its relationship with Lambert House. Rapinan maintains that QYS has not, and will not, say that the services provided by Lambert House are unnecessary. He says that the two organizations can and should coexist.

"Some of our members feel like they have outgrown Lambert House because they want something to be in the hands of the constituents," he said. "Lambert House provides a valuable service, but we want to go beyond offering direct service. We want to have a space that is youth-led and directed space for education, the arts, and community health."

Rapinan says that Seattle's status as "super Gay-friendly" is still in flux. "Most of our members have been kicked out for being Queer," he said. "That is why we need safe space. A QYS would be a space that is against all forms of oppression, collectively run, and in the hands of Queer youth. We love businesses that support the LGBT community, as we frequently choose to meet at Kaladi rather than, say, Starbucks. But the difference is that if we want to paint the walls of Kaladi into a big rainbow, that would not be possible. In a space dedicated to Queer youth, that is totally possible, or if we want to have a weekly dance party in a QYS, or a poetry slam, that could happen. & Safe space means directed space, in the hands of young people. That is why we can't just 'take over' space."

Rapinan says that benefits held for Queer youth usually occur in bars or bowling allies, which cater to the adult population with money. "These spaces do not allow Queer youth to participate. It feels strange when we have a 'community benefit' but Queer youth aren't allowed to come," he said. "Not to mention that gala and ticket prices for such Queer events that have something to do with Queer youth are too expensive for Queer youth. Why not have staggered prices? I don't need a fancy dinner to be able to come to a benefit; give me a peanut butter sandwich and let me join the LGBT community."

"Queer youth are members of this community. This is especially visible when the only chance Queer youth have to come to a benefit is to be the volunteers and show dogs," Rapinan said. "If a benefit is for Queer youth, let them in and watch the dollars flow even more as adults connect and hear the stories from our population. Direct constituent voices are the soul of the event, like the Pride Foundation/GSBA awards."

Although a big part of the QYS dynamic is education and safety, some members say that the general population may also have misjudged the character of their events. "I think there is definitely a tendency for organizations that work for youth to become overbearing and inextricably 'adult.' Being both heteronormative and ageist, such organizations become 'parents,' committed to reproduction of certain forms: the sexless, innocent, and undeveloped child; the irrational, work-in-progress youth; and the to-be-treated, fixed, brought back to the fold deviant," QYS volunteer Kyle Croft told SGN. "They begin to prescribe and normalize behaviors (like no kissing!). This is exactly what QYS is working against. As an organization, we work as youth, not 'for' them. We don't want to help 'guide' Queer youth along a certain approach to being a Queer youth; we want to celebrate difference."

"What occurs to me is that QYS is beginning to emerge as more than a set of questions or a group of committed people," said Croft. "We've been criticized a lot for 'whining and bitching' because we haven't presented any events except for the Mutiny. People who encounter our website or Facebook don't see the hours of discussion and planning that we've put in because that behind-the-scene work is not relevant to them. Starting with a free open mic next week, we'll be launching at least one QYS event a month. Hopefully, as people begin to associate our name with events and entertainment, we'll be able to distinguish ourselves from the problematic organizations that actually exist & and people will see that we're about more than just 'bitching.'"

"The thing I want to stress is it is not the community versus QYS, but some folks versus QYS and the community," Rapinan told SGN. "Queer youth are a community, and it is QYS. Nothing will change that - not even if we do not get the grant, or if mainstream Queer adults turn against Queer youth. There is nothing wrong with Queer youth organizing, because the very act of organizing constituents is good for the Queer community in Seattle."

QYS is looking for pledges for their grant. QYS officials say they need people to donate professional services like legal, accounting, or grant-writing experience, as well as skill shares, workshops, food, art, furniture, computers, or cash. To donate, volunteer, or learn more about QYS, visit the organization online at www.queeryouthspace.com.

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