Churches sponsor drop-in centers for gay teens

Churches sponsor drop-in centers for gay teens

Unitarian Universalist congregations in Tennessee, Utah, and Maryland affirm LGBTQ youth.


The ministry that goes on at Spectrum Café at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tenn., on Saturday nights is as important as anything that happens on Sunday morning.

The same goes for OUTreach Resource Center in Ogden, Utah, a program of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ogden, and the Rainbow Youth Alliance sponsored by the UU Church of Rockville, Maryland.

All three venues welcome high school–aged lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, and queer youth as well as youth who support them. All provide food, music, games, movies, and conversation.

David Massey is one of the coordinators of Spectrum Café, also known as “Spectrum Diversi-Tea and Coffee House,” which will begin its eighth year this spring. “We advertise it as a safe harbor for teens who identify as LBGTQ and their straight friends and allies, plus any other youth who are being harassed for religious beliefs, appearance, or abilities,” Massey said.

Youth who identify as bisexual, gay, lesbian, transgender, or queer, or who are questioning their sexuality, have few places in this culture where they can be themselves. Often harassed at school, sometimes excluded by family members, they can feel isolated.

Massey became interested in supporting gay youth after watching a cousin come out to his family. “Almost all of us had grown up in the Southern Baptist and Methodist churches,” he said, “and many of us had a hard time with the idea of someone we know being gay. I learned later that my cousin had a very hard time accepting his affectional orientation, and even put himself through shock therapy to ‘cure’ his homosexuality. Later he found pride in his true self, but I did not want other kids to have to go through that kind of trauma.”

So when the Knoxville church presented the Welcoming Congregation program in 2000 and participants expressed a desire to “do something outside the church,” Spectrum Café was born. (The Welcoming Congregation is a curriculum designed to help Unitarian Universalist congregations welcome gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.)

Sometimes only one person comes to Spectrum Café, but more often there are a dozen or more. Massey estimates the program has served more than 150 youth. “We treat it like any other youth program—no drugs, sex, violence, weapons, or alcohol.” Generally three or more adults are present.

“We know that we’re just hitting the tip of the iceberg here,” Massey said. “There are hundreds of youth out there who are struggling for affirmation of their affectional orientation. And ours is the only such program in this area.”

One of the youth who frequents Spectrum is Conrad Honicker, 16. A member of the Knoxville church, Honicker began attending the café when he was 12. “It’s a way to be around other queer youth,” he said. “High school is so heterosexual it’s good to be part of your own community. For some people this is the only place where they can feel comfortable. It’s very beneficial.”

The center has some live music, but the youth seem to prefer conversation, he said. There are also occasional speakers and film discussions.

There have been two landmark events in the life of Spectrum, said Massey. In 2004 it held a prom, attended by 50 youth. Then in 2006 two male teens, both members of the church’s high school class and Spectrum patrons, were walking hand in hand through a local park and were harassed. When other youth at the church heard about it, they joined with Spectrum to organize a “holding hands” rally and march attended by 150 people.

Massey said there was some initial concern that Spectrum would attract opposition. “At first we asked police to patrol the parking lot and we had people with walkie-talkies out there. We never had any problems. If we were two counties over, it might be a different story. We’re a pretty cosmopolitan county.”

He added, “I’m guessing some churches have decided not to have a program like this because of fear. That should not be the deciding factor.”

“You can’t do work for LGBTQ youth without taking a risk that you’re going to upset a parent,” Massey said. “What we can do is make sure the kids are safe when they come here.”

Adults at Spectrum do not counsel youth, but do “active listening,” Massey said. “We’ve had kids walk in not knowing a soul. It takes a huge amount of courage for a kid to do this.” He said youth are more at risk from repercussions from parents than Spectrum is. “Whatever risk we take pales to the risk teens take.”

LGBTQ youth are at much higher risk for delinquent behaviors than youth in general, he said. “I’m just proud that our church is willing to do this.”

The OUTreach Resource Center in Ogden, also known as OUTreach Ogden, was formed in 2005 by the UU Church of Ogden. Chad Beyer, a substitute public school teacher and partner of the Rev. Matthew Cockrum, the church’s minister at the time, observed that LGBTQ kids at school and in his neighborhood were having difficulty. “There was a boy in the neighborhood who had been kicked out of his home after he came out,” said Cockrum. “He had no place to go.”

A group that had formed at the church to focus on LGBTQ issues saw the need and decided to reach out to these youth. OUTreach Ogden includes a Wednesday night drop-in center at the church. Supporters represent the LGBTQ community at meetings in the larger community, provide a resource library, and hold an annual open house for educators. They also work with community service organizations and help train lobbyists.

The UU Funding Program’s Fund for Social Responsibility has supported the center with grants of $34,000 over three years. The grants end in June, after which the center will be supported primarily by the congregation and other grants it can procure. Some support has been received from the United Church of Christ Rocky Mountain Conference, the Episcopal Diocese of Utah, and an Episcopal minister.

Gary Horenkamp is project leader for OUTreach Ogden. A lifelong Roman Catholic, he responded to an ad for the job and is now a part-time employee of the church. “We wanted to have a place where teens could feel comfortable—a safe space. Last week we had 37 people, although 25 is about average.”

He added, “There is nothing else in the community for these kids. Last year a state legislator tried to outlaw gay-straight alliances in the high schools. That’s the climate we’re operating in.

“Without the church this program would not exist. No one else would take it on,” Horenkamp said. “Other pastors have said they appreciate what we are doing, but their congregations are conflicted about this topic.”

Operating LGBTQ programs is a significant expense for the congregation. The first two years it cost about $25,000, including $20,000 to pay Horenkamp for 20 hours a week. This year Horenkamp is up to 30 hours and the center added classes in suicide prevention, sexuality education, and it is also mentoring a United Church of Christ congregation that wants to start a similar center. Costs this year will be $43,000.

Last summer the church raised $6,000 for the center, but most of the expenses thus far have been covered by grants. Horenkamp acknowledged that it will be a challenge to come up with continued funding when the UU Funding Program grants run out next December.

In comparison to OUTreach Ogden, Spectrum Café in Knoxville is funded on a shoestring. Massey says costs are less than $1,000 annually, mostly for food, video rentals, books, etc. All staff hours are volunteer and the church pays utility bills and similar costs.

The Rev. Theresa Novak, consulting minister at the Ogden church, said, “There’s a lot of pride in the church about this program. With the anti-gay climate in Utah, this creates positive energy. It’s really making a difference. What keeps it going is the need.”

High school junior Ian Becker attends OUTreach regularly. “I just recently came out to students at my school. The school happens to be a very accepting environment, but most of the rest of the state seems to hate people who are gay. Being able to be with people who accept you at OUTreach, and to learn about the LGBTQ community, is very important. I never thought there would be a place like this in Utah.”

The UU Church of Rockville, Md., launched the Rainbow Youth Alliance, a support group for LGBTQ youth, two years ago.

Founder Stephanie Kreps was inspired to do it after her son came out to her when he was 14. “We live in a liberal area and there are gay/straight alliances in many schools here and my son had a group of supportive friends at his public school,” she said, “but we thought it would be useful to have a support group outside of school.”

Fifteen to 20 high school youth come to the twice-a-month Sunday afternoon sessions, which include discussion groups, movies, and games. Program topics have included suicide prevention, sex education, drug awareness, and transgender issues. The group, which has been operating with volunteer help, has run the program for less than $1,000 a year. It recently received a grant of $5,545 from Brother, Help Thyself, a fund that supports gay and lesbian issues, to help it hire a social worker, Cynthia Thurston, to facilitate RYA meetings. Thurston has volunteered many hours to the program, said Kreps.

Kreps added, “Our minister, the Rev. Lynn Strauss, calls this our congregation’s most radical outreach. This has been not only for the youth, but also for the church.”

Related Resources

From the Archives