by Emma Young
Most lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students in Virginia have been victimized in some way at school, and the majority of incidents were not reported to an adult, according to GLSEN’s 2014 School Climate in Virginia report. The report also stated that LGBT youth regularly experienced verbal harassment, physical assault and cyber-bullying in Virginia secondary schools.
Started in 2013, the local arm of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), is working to combat these incidents. PFLAG Prince William falls under DC Metro PFLAG, which is one of more than 350 chapters of a national organization “committed to advancing equality and full societal affirmation of LGBTQ people through its threefold mission of support, education, and advocacy.” When Jeanne Manford, a mother showing support for her gay son, held the first meeting in 1973, about 20 people attended. Now, the organization is 200,000 members strong with chapters across the country.
Reminding LGBT Kids They’re Not Alone
PFLAG Prince William hosts meetings the third Tuesday of each month from 7:30 – 9:00 p.m. at Bull Run Unitarian Universalist Church on Main Street in Manassas. The meetings provide “a place to go for support, education, information, and validation,” according to Lisa Boorom, one of the co-founders of the Prince William group.
“LGBT kids need a place where they can feel safe to be who they truly are, and make new friends, do fun activities, learn a thing or two along the way and help other kids,” Boorom explained. “We want to help them feel loved and confident, and unashamed of who they are. Feeling shame and hopelessness is crippling to any young person. We want these kids to have a place to come and feel welcomed and loved just as they are. We hope this will make them live a happier, more positive life.”
As an openly gay man who grew up in Northern Virginia, PFLAG Youth Facilitator Jason Shriner knows first-hand the value of having a place where LGBT teens feel like they belong. “When I was in high school, I would travel all over Northern Virginia and DC looking for people like me who I could connect to and relate to,” he recounted. “[Knowing that] there are people who care and understand you right in your own backyard…that’s extremely important…By providing a place for parents and kids to talk about themselves, their situations and really just be themselves, we’re giving families an outlet to improve understanding.”
He added that the group is also a resource, and “provides a lending library for our families to use.” These books, both fiction and non-fiction, “help the youth feel less alone by giving them stories to which they can relate,” remarked Lynn Schmitz, also a youth facilitator. Topics include coming out, bullying, parental support (and non-support), friendships and romance. Additionally, Schmitz said she has “started working with some local libraries… to address the lack of LGBT books they have to offer.”
Answering Parent Questions
The monthly meetings aren’t just for youth. A separate group for adults meets concurrently. “I recently had a mother contact me. Her son just came out to her at 15 and she wanted to know what she should do to support him. I felt uniquely qualified to help her as I also have a son who is gay and came out to me when he was a young teen,” said Schmitz. “I was able to tell her what my experience was like, what I did in certain circumstances, and she was very appreciative. She wants to support her son; she just has a lot of questions.”
Having questions and needing a place to turn for answers is a common experience. Inga Vinroot, a co-founder of PFLAG Prince William, related the story of a particularly emotional situation. “A father to a young man attended one meeting and briefly discussed his issues they were facing at home,” said Vinroot. “The son had just come out and announced that not only was he gay, but also HIV positive. The grief, fear and uncertainty on that man’s face will not leave me.”
Boorom recalled her own confusion when her son came out: “I was totally surprised…I had so many questions. ‘What do I do now?’ Will my son be beat-up or bullied at school? Is he old enough to know he is gay?’”
“This was the biggest shock of my life and I needed answers,” said Boorom, who turned to PFLAG for that guidance.
Meeting Needs of Entire LGBT Community
The support group facilitators are working to ensure they meet the needs of the entire LGBT community. With the recent focus on transgender issues, and with more transgender teens coming to the monthly meetings, the facilitators are taking Transgender Sensitivity training through DC Metro PFLAG to ensure they can answer questions and provide a supportive environment for transgender youth and their families.
However, more than monthly meetings are needed to combat day-to-day safety concerns, so PFLAG Prince William has a unique partnership with the Prince William County Police Department Crime Prevention Unit. The two organizations work together to “help build a bridge of communication and understanding between the LGBT community and the police department,” said Shriner, who added that the group has heard from openly LGBT
officers who were welcomed into the department. “[This was] reassuring, especially for the parents of LGBT children…that our county is being sensitive and respectful to all communities and that it takes all reported crimes seriously. PFLAG Prince William is now the point-of-contact for the department for LGBT issues in our community.”
“All are welcome to our meetings and special events,” said Shriner. “People assume we’re just for the parents of LGBT children, and while we are very focused on that aspect, community members can also provide insight and support.”
PFLAG Prince William will be participating in the Capital Pride Parade and street festival in Washington, D.C., June 13-14 and hosting its annual potluck cookout at Costello Park Pavilion at the Manassas Park Community Center on July 21, 7:30 – 9:00 p.m. Contact [email protected] for additional information or like Facebook.com/groups/PFLAGPWC for updates.
Emma Young is a freelance writer and stay-at-home mother in Dumfries. She can be reached at [email protected]