After she wrote about being a lesbian for a high school paper, Nicole Barclay’s English teacher referred her to Together for Youth.
Barclay started attending the support group for LGBTQIA2S+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning, Intersex, Asexual or Ally, 2-Spirit) every week.
“I was suddenly around people who I didn’t have to hide who I was in front of. They didn’t make assumptions; they didn’t care. I was, for the first time, around people where I felt like I could truly be honest and open about my orientation,” Barclay said.
When schools around the Twin Ports closed due to COVID-19, Barclay reached out to TFY facilitator Kathy Hermes to see how she could help. They, along with Barclay’s wife, Katelyn, started brainstorming content for care packages — and the need is great.
Some youths may be in spaces where they have to entirely conceal their identity, and that can be traumatizing. A nonbinary-identifying kid may typically have access to friends and educators who honor their preferred pronouns and name several times a day.
But sometimes, home can feel tense, unsafe or violent. Young people stuck in unsupportive homes might hear their "dead name" and pronouns, and that’s going to compromise their already threatened sense of self and self-worth, Hermes said.
Generally, the youths she works with are prone to isolation as a way of protecting themselves, a fact they were starting to address in group. Before the pandemic, they had walked around Leif Erikson Park, and local photographers taught them nature photography techniques. They got out for a scavenger hunt.
They’re encouraging young people to get outdoors, at a safe distance, even more now than before COVID-19. With isolation comes self-doubt, depression, despair and an inability to see a lengthy future. This pandemic magnifies those risks, which were already there for queer and marginalized people.
Together for Youth have been videoconferencing their meetings. It is a roller coaster of goofy teen energy, where they’re showing each other their pets and stuffed animals, and also their mental health stories.
“Last week started with kids saying, ‘I texted the suicide text service four times.’ That’s a heavy place to start a meeting,” Hermes said of one of the group’s video meetings this spring.
Lesbian, gay and bisexual youths in grades 7-12 are more than twice as likely to have attempted suicide as their heterosexual peers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“It saved my life and the lives of several of my friends,” Barclay recalled of her time as a member of Together for Youth.
From her Duluth home, she said she knew the kids would really depend on their community to feel themselves and a sense of validation during the pandemic, and the care packages are a way to offer support and encouragement.
Barclay reached out to community members, and they raised money to buy grocery store gift cards. Someone made face masks. They added snacks, adult coloring books, journals and letters of support from Mayor Emily Larson, journalist Dan Hanger and signed photos from local drag queens.
“A little bit of love in a satchel,” said Erin O’Daniel of the care packages.
O’Daniel works closely with Hermes and Together for Youth, and she recently delivered a care package in Duluth.
For LGBTQIA youths, it’s easy to feel invisible, and we are literally, physically separated from one another. Any kind of engagement is helpful right now, O’Daniel said, reflecting on her time as a teen.
O’Daniel said she is grateful to be in a place where there are a lot of community members who want to lend this kind of love to queer and trans youths and make the Twin Ports a more inclusive place.
“It certainly happened slowly, but it is happening. What an important time to be reminded of that,” she said.
The weeks-long effort was uplifting, said Katelyn Barclay. We’re all struggling in some way during the pandemic, but this is one way to focus on kindness.
Seeing a foundation being built for the next generation is encouraging, Nicole Barclay said.
“We’re nowhere near done with this movement, but we can build that foundation for the kids. … That’s what they did during Stonewall, they started that foundation for us.”
If you’d like to support Together for Youth members with grocery store or gas gift cards, email Kathy.Hermes@lssmn.org or call 218-529-2224.
Together for Youth: This weekly support group for LGBTQIA2S+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning, Intersex, Asexual or Ally, 2-Spirit) people is at lssmn.org.