GENEVA – The only indication that something important was happening are the two rainbow “Got Love?” signs posted outside the Unitarian Universalist Society of Geneva on Second Street.
Inside, the church was dark and quiet, but gay teens knew where to go for their twice monthly drop-in center, a lifeline for young people in the LGBTQ community to socialize, relax, talk about coming out – as well as more serious concerns.
“I think it’s really important to have a center like this,” said Zoe Steele, 16, a junior at Geneva High School.
Steele said she first came to the drop-in center to support a friend who has having difficulty figuring out how to be a part of the gay community.
“It was very important to bring my friend, who did not have the support [he/she] needed at home or at school,” Steele said. “I want it to be able to continue with funding and the members it needs to continue.”
As a member of the gay community herself, Steele said she gets a lot of support at home. The Kane County Chronicle featured Steele’s two mothers, Laura Steele and Amanda Littauer, in a 2012 Mother’s Day story.
The drop-in center has been hosted by Youth Outlook for the past year and a half. The 20-year-old organization was recognized with proclamations in Batavia on May 21, Geneva on Aug. 6 and St. Charles Aug. 20 for the group’s work to support gay youth and help prevent suicide among at-risk gay youth.
The cities’ proclamations noted that the rate of homelessness and suicide is disproportionately high among LGBTQ youth, “many of whom are vulnerable because of feelings of isolation and fear.”
Youth Outlook, which is based in Naperville, is the first social service agency in Illinois dedicated to supporting LGBTQ+ youth in six counties of Northern Illinois, including Kane County, and received the Human Rights Campaign for Excellence in Service, the proclamations stated.
“Youth Outlook has served thousands of young people from the Chicagoland area at several drop-in centers... by providing a safe environment for LGBTQ+ youth to be themselves in the company of their peers,” the proclamations stated.
The drop in center in Geneva is open from 6:30 to 8 p.m. the first and third Thursday of the month.
“In this setting, we’ve got kids talking about coming out issues. We’ve got kids talking about their parents divorcing. We’ve got kids talking about losing their parents. Kids talk about losing their friends to suicide,” Youth Outlook Executive Director Nancy Mullen said.
“We have had kids who have attempted suicide, coming to us directly from an inpatient unit. We’ve got kids walking in the door – pretty much every night we’re open – with this almost inherent sense of, ‘I have no value. There is nothing of me that is valuable,’” Mullen said. “Welcome to Youth Outlook. That is what we came together to fix.”
'It was better to be nothing rather than queer'
Mullen said she came out in the 1980s when there were no role models, just AIDS and isolation.
“As I was growing up … my only role model was a lesbian who lived down the block,” Mullen said, describingher neighbor in South Philly as a woman who wore men’s clothes and a scowl, and would "stomp down the street."
“I was a little bit afraid of her," Mullen said. "I told myself, as a young LGBT person, ‘I don’t know what I am, but I am not that. I am pretty certain I am not that.’ And in my neighborhood, it was better to be nothing than to be that. … It was better to be nothing rather than queer."
Mullen’s life story could make a documentary or mini-series: She became orphaned during her senior year of high school, was homeless and lived in a 1973 Ford Pinto.
Mullen said there were basically three trajectories back then for homeless gay teens: a hospital, a jail or a cemetery.
“Now our kids get to have a different path,” Mullen said. “This job – this whole agency – has become for us, about giving kids those [positive] messages exactly when they need to hear them. … ‘I see your potential. Now you have to see your potential. And you will always have someplace to go as long as we are here. … We are here when you want us, when you need us.’”
'Fires of hell'
Everything the agency has been working for in the last 20 years is coming to fruition, Mullen said.
But it has been a long, frequently terrifying journey since its start in Aurora.
“We got death threats in 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2001. We had lots of people telling us they would set fire to the church with our kids inside it so they would know what it was like to experience the fires of hell,” Mullen said. “That was the culture when we started this agency."
But as Youth Outlook continued to create allies and partners among parents, professionals, government agencies and churches. Now, she is being asked how many drop-in centers can the group open, and if can she start a new parent group and a new group for siblings of transgender kids. Places are seeking her for speaking engagements, and others seek services for younger kids. In the last two months, there have been requests from six counties to open a new center.
An open house for adults looking to support the initiative earlier this summer at the Geneva Unitarian Church drew more than 50 people. Youth Outlook founder and executive director Nancy Mullen said interest in supporting gay youth was “exploding” and the need for more volunteers and drop-in locations was ever more critical.
The group has one full-time staff member, Mullen. Beyond that there's a half-time employee and 100 or so volunteers. Mullen said the need for more volunteers and financial support is also growing.
'It's really cool'
The August drop-in meeting at the Geneva Unitarian Church was hosted by volunteer coordinators Kaiden Bumbar, 20, of Kaneville and Denise Fairbanks of St. Charles.
Bumbar had gone to Youth Outlook meetings as a teen attending Kaneland High School, but now volunteers as he has aged out, he said.
“I volunteer because when I needed a place like this, it was here for me,” Bumbar said. “And I would just like to continue that and make sure it stays open for other youth who may need it.”
Denise Fairbanks is mother of the late Michael Fairbanks who died in 2013. He had been Youth Leader of the Year in 2009 for his work with Youth Outlook.
“I … kind of picked up where he left off,” Denise Fairbanks said.
A 16-year-old girl at the drop -in center said it means a lot for her to be able to come to the center. Though the Chronicle generally does not use anonymous comments, but agreed to do so to protect the speaker's identity.
“I forget to be prideful a lot of the time because I am surrounded by a decent amount of homophobia – not from family but like at school,” she said. “I kind of forget to have pride. I have my pride pins on my jacket and stuff, but you forget, you know? Here it's just like gay flags and trans flags and it’s really cool and makes me remember...who I am.”
More information is available online by visiting Youth Outlook's website, youth-outlook.org.