Lavender Tinted Skies: The Importance of Queer Youth Spaces

It begins where I’m sure many of us begin: lying awake late at night, mind racing. I had just gone into ninth grade, and, in the past year or so, I thought about boys in a way that I assumed you’re only supposed to think about girls. And, well, I still like girls, don’t I? They make my heart flutter and my stomach sink. Don’t they? Is this all my hormones’ fault? Are they to blame? Do I now just get flustered by everything?

I once got aroused when my middle school history teacher leaned down at my desk and in a husky breath said “You can do better.” Maybe, though, that was just out of the fear you have at a young age when it comes to authority figures. But, it awakened something in me for sure. It lingered in my mind, his intense stare and strange stubble. He was handsome and fiery. It awakened something for sure.

And so, here I was, laying there in my bed that night, thinking long and hard about my life. I thought about every male friendship I ever had, and the female ones too. How I “desired” a girlfriend, but, honestly, was that just because that was how I thought I should be? I learned later in my life that that is called “heteronormativity,” that society pressures us to ‘desire to procreate and grow a traditional family.

In the middle of one of these nights, fresh from coming out publicly, thinking I had already been outed and panicking, I looked up local youth groups for those questioning everything. I landed on a few places in Cooper-Young.

Memphis Area Gay Youth—MAGY for short—was based out of a basement over at First Congregational Church, one of the most truly Christian organizations, located in Cooper-Young. That was the closest and most discreet (at least in my mind) place to discover myself.

It was a long walk, the longest I had ever walked. I told my parents I was going to a friend’s place, still closeted with them. And I even passed by my friend’s place on my way to purported salvation.

At every corner, though, I felt terror. Like I was being bad for doing good. By the time I got to McLean and Harbert, I felt like I would get caught. By the overpasses at Cooper and Central, I was almost certain that a cop would turn their lights on me and demand I state my business. But after waltzing past the fake trestle of Cooper-Young, I started feeling okay with myself, and that I could begin to be someone new, someone that I had been hiding away.

In the lavender-tinted night sky, I saw the Pride flag waving bravely and brazenly over the Memphis Gay Lesbian Community Center (now OUTMemphis) and knew that I would be okay.

Standing in the church’s backlot, I waited. Finally, I got the courage to knock on some doors.

Eventually, this steel door at the bottom of a handicapped ramp opened up for me. A stern but matronly face, blue hair bound up by a purple bandanna, stared out and said: “Are you here for the meeting?”

I said yes, and was ushered through the door into a rainbow hallway, and soon met a crowd of kids my age, their eyes full of similar confusion. I felt, for the first time, I was in a safe place to explore myself and my growing attractions.

Some of the meetings that I remember dearly were our Anti-Valentine’s Days, Movie Nights (where I saw classics like But I’m a Cheerleader and To Wong Foo), and when we had frank discussions of sexuality and how we felt. Sometimes we talked about oppression, about name- calling, HIV jokes, and even worse.

But some nights—the best nights, we simply talked. One of those nights dealt with what we thought our queer future could be, what we wished for.

I wrote down same-sex marriage, this being 2008 or 2009, a few years before that became a possibility. I remember where I was actually when the news of its legalization broke. I was dancing with some friends over at this gay club, Spectrum. It was 2011. I kissed a guy for nearly two hours after I heard the news, tears in my eyes.

While at MAGY I also met a lifelong friend, Luke Stark. He told me that, likewise, he felt immense support and freedom of expression while there.

photo courtesy of OUTMemphis

“I knew I was gay,” he relayed. “But my trans egg was super far from cracking. I met a trans man there. He was one of the first people I reached out to to talk about transitioning nearly nine years later. That’s a big thing. When I was younger I was actually kind of transphobic, but MAGY put me in a group with a bunch of folks that were all different shades of queer–that was invaluable.”

Additionally, MAGY also provided us with access to sex education, and even specifically talked about our queer history. “They did a whole presentation with a slideshow and everything. That was awesome,” recalls Luke.

It wasn’t just MAGY though. There were game nights and movie nights at OUTMemphis on weekdays alongside nonjudgmental adults ready to hand out free advice as well as condoms, adults who told me in passing how much they wished they had a program like this when they were growing up.

But honestly, this safe space extended to Cooper-Young in general—Black Lodge and Java Cabana being the two non-queer-assigned places and businesses where you know you could still find a friend like yourself reading a book and chatting about favorite films.

In fact, I have gone on to say that Cooper-Young is the “Castro of the South.” The rainbow sidewalks confirm it.

In college, having left Cooper-Young and MAGY behind, I felt so lost and confused, in the ether. But, Lambda, the college’s local GSA—Gay Straight Alliance, for those not in the know—opened their doors for me.

I started as a member and became their Treasurer before holding an interim Presidential position during a tense time between semesters. During that time, I started to understand how my counselors must have felt now that I was a queer adult leading the youth and being an example and authority for those younger than me. I guided them as I had been guided before.

I have learned that’s how all of it really feels lately: the younger generation, though they have it better,
still needs an old-head like me to tell the stories of the old days. Especially seeing as how so much of our modern legislation has desired to roll back the clock. The Tennessee Senate, at the time of writing this essay, is trying to outlaw gender expression, looking to overturn same-sex marriage, and roll back LGBTQ rights in general.

So, here’s to those good places that house our young folks, those unsure of themselves. It’s a cold world we sadly still live in, regardless of how far we have progressed. But these warm places, like MAGY, or Prysm, our newest LGBT youth group at OUTMemphis, will always provide a much- needed safe haven.

In these coming days, we will need those spaces now more than ever, to allow our youth a chance to be themselves with love and respect in abundance. Slideshows included in the curriculum.