From the first meeting of OutCT in 2013, some members were suggesting that a youth program was necessary. Today, the group hosts regular meetings for LGBTQ teenagers to socialize and learn new skills and interests.
At a recent meeting, participants took turns at carefully cutting pieces of stained glass for the creation of a mosaic table, which will be auctioned off at OutCT’s annual fashion show on May 7. Others convened in the kitchen to help with the creation of a spaghetti sauce.
The OutCT youth group is designed to be a safe, accepting environment for high school students who identify as LGBTQ – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer. The group meets once a month and offers social activities such as games and karaoke as well as structured activities.
“There’s always something to look forward to in this group,” says Jasmin Cazares, a transgender student at Waterford High School.
Lindsay Gillette, co-chair of the OutCT Youth Program, says one of the main goals of the group is to help attendees feel authentic to themselves. The meetings also give the teenagers an opportunity to plan and request their own activities and goals.
“We try to take suggestions from the kids, because we want to make it about them as much as possible,” says Gillette.
Ilana Papernik says OutCT has developed partnerships with several people in the community who can assist in developing team-building and vocational skills. She says the group’s participants have asked to learn everything from performing CPR to plunging a toilet.
“We keep going back to the kids, and it’s amazing what they want to do,” says Papernik.
OutCT was founded in 2013 with the original purpose of establishing an annual New London Pride Festival. The nonprofit organization branched out to establish a number of cultural and social events to promote acceptance of sexual orientations and gender identities, including educational forums, art shows, and film series.
The group’s annual fashion show, Born This Way, seeks to bring diversity to the runway. The outfits will be designed by participating models and inspired by gods and goddesses around the world. Top sponsors for this year are Antonio Hair Design, Mystic Aquarium, and Majestic Jewelers. The event will be held May 7 from 5-9p.m. at the Port N’ Starboard at Ocean Beach Park, New London.
When it first began, most of OutCT’s programming was geared toward adults. But when approximately 40 youth showed up for an informal meet-and-greet at the 2015 New London Pride Festival, the organization decided it was time to start a group focusing on teens.
The first youth event, a pizza and bowling party at the Coast Guard Academy, took place in October 2015. The OutCT Youth Program now meets from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. on the third Sunday of every month at 36 Main Street in Noank. Mario De Lucia, president of OutCT, says the goal is to always have at least two facilitators present at each meeting.
“These kids can just come in and feel comfortable to talk about whatever,” says De Lucia. “They know that no matter what, they’re not going to be judged.”
A.J. Rioux, a gay Norwich Free Academy student from Bozrah, found out about the group while attending the New London Pride Festival. He says he enjoys the activities at the meetings and the opportunity to connect with more LBGTQ youth.
“I feel like I belong here,” he says. “I don’t have to hide my sexual identity.”
De Lucia says LGBTQ youth face a number of challenges, including bullying, depression, and discrimination. In addition to its other activities, the OutCT Youth Program provides social and peer support to help its participants, including access to a licensed clinical social worker.
Gabrielle Martin, a gay Grasso Tech student from Pawcatuck, says the meetings are a nice way to simply hang out with other youth. She says the participants are also very accepting of each other.
“You get to connect with people,” she says. “And if you need it, there are people there for you.”
The space for the OutCT Youth Program meetings is provided by Noank Community Support Services. Drivers licensed through this organization and the Department of Children and Families are available to provide transportation to the monthly meetings. The group’s facilitators have also received training, funding, and other assistance from Connecticut College, the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut, and the Hartford-based LGBTQ youth support group True Colors.
De Lucia says the organization has also been in touch with Gay-Straight Alliance groups in local schools to let them know that the monthly meeting is open to all supportive teens.
“As long as they come in peace, they’re welcome,” he says.
The program is currently only open to high school students, but there are plans to extend it to middle school students at a later date. There are several ideas for expanding the program in other ways, including road trips, a summer camp, or working with participants to create an OutCT Youth Program brand. De Lucia says he also hopes to have the program support initiatives to help their communities.
“I think it’s important for them to realize that this stuff doesn’t just happen,” he says. “People make it happen.”
For more information on the OutCT Youth Program, visit outct.org or call 860-339-4060.