A Haven for the Hassled
Twelve years ago, when Dale Ayres was an unhappy gay kid growing up in a small Illinois town, he put the business end of a shotgun into his mouth and prepared to pull the trigger. His mom caught him in the act, though, and knocked the gun aside. Dale, now 27 years old and executive director of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Youth of Miami, Inc. (GLBT), walked away from the incident with two chipped front teeth and a determination to leave home.
"I was a confused kid like a lot of others are today," Ayres recalls. "I didn't have [GLBT] then, so that's what I'm trying to provide now." He cites national numbers that show 33 percent of teenagers who commit suicide are gay. And 50 percent of gay teens are rejected by their parents.
These alarming figures and the real-life stories behind them give GLBT, which began informally during the mid-Seventies, its raison d'être. By providing a supportive atmosphere for gay youth, the group hopes to dissuade a few desperate kids like Ayres from killing themselves. Its leaders also aim to provide guidance to help gay teens navigate an often-intolerant heterosexual world.
Since August the GLBT has had its first full-time office, a bachelor-pad-style joint at 3000 Biscayne Blvd. The place offers three couches, a kitchen, a stereo, a television, and a VCR for watching gender-bending resource materials. It also has a library and functions as a drop-in center with kindly karma for kids who want to hang out. Atop the TV is a jar of male condoms, a basket of female condoms, and a glass bowl filled with lollipops and Halloween candy.
On November 29 the center will officially celebrate its opening and be named in honor of GLBT's founder and first adult facilitator, Dr. Marilyn Volker. The event will feature performances by the South Beach Gay Men's Chorus and a youth orchestra. Also on that date the organization will lose its sandwich-sounding moniker. It will be rechristened Pridelines Youth Services. "It sounds a little bit less like a BLT," Ayres remarks. "We've got pride and we're creating all sorts of lines and connections."
The group has a long, though quiet, history in Miami. In 1975 gay teens, some as young as fourteen years old, began gathering each week on Monday nights in a meeting members euphemistically termed "Developing Your Self-Esteem." It was held at Miami-Dade Community College's Wolfson Campus. Issues up for discussion included coming out, safe sex, dating, and dealing with unsupportive or homophobic parents.
Two years later a sizzling gay-rights debate would make Dade County a national spectacle -- and send a strong negative message to those who attended the self-esteem meetings. After the county commission passed a homosexual rights amendment that was among the first of its type in the nation, singer and orange-juice queen Anita Bryant flew into town on her born-again broomstick. She led a movement that forced a November repeal of the law.
Volker was a hero during those dark days. She accepted the role of adult facilitator at the gay-youth meetings and fought to keep them going. In 1982 the informal gathering took on the GLBT name. Today Volker is a well-known sexologist, radio personality, and educator. She also serves as a sexuality consultant and speaker for a variety of organizations. "In those days people were very frightened," Volker recalls. "There was fear at that time that if a boy played with a spatula, he'd be gay. Or if a girl played with an oil can, she'd turn out lesbian. And if you were gay, you were pushed out to the street to what we called the five B's: bars, beaches, bathhouses, bookstores, and bushes."
Ayres came on the scene four years ago. He has become the grant-getting guru behind GLBT's evolution from a nomadic group operating on a shoestring budget to a nonprofit business with a projected year-2000 budget of $175,000. Ayres registered the organization with the state in 1996 and succeeded in winning tax-exempt status for GLBT in July 1998.
Like most gay-oriented entities in Miami, GLBT received a boost last December, when county commissioners once again approved a law that outlaws discrimination against homosexuals. "It definitely helped in the sense of getting our kids to be more organized and [better] advocates for themselves," Ayres says. More than 100 GLBT members raised money last month for SAVE Dade, a political-action committee that lobbied for the law.
Only three years ago GLBT was running on a $500 budget. This year Ayres secured $82,000 in grants. Next year that should double. Among the many organizations that have contributed to the group are the Women's Fund of Dade County and the Crown Books Foundation. The Health Foundation of South Florida contributed the largest amount, $17,500. And since October 1998, the Miami Light Project, a nonprofit arts organization, has donated studio space and arranged for GLBT youths to attend free performances and rap sessions with visiting artists.
Soon GLBT hopes to offer HIV testing at the Biscayne Boulevard drop-in center. The group also maintains an active social calendar, including its signature event: prom. Each year GLBT members from across South Florida participate in their own version of the high school ritual. The center also sends speakers to schools and businesses to talk about the problems of gay youth.
And the GLBT model is spreading. This year members will provide expertise to those administrating a $240,000 per year, four-year grant from the Centers for Disease Control. The money will be used mostly to set up a gay-and-lesbian resource center based on the GLBT prototype in Liberty City.
More important than the money, though, are the faces and lives of the young people who use the center. Stevie Alcocer has been attending for four months. The 22-year-old was married two and a half years ago in a small town outside Denver. Along with his wife, Audrey, Alcocer moved to Miami this past July. After the couple began to suspect that Stevie was gay, Audrey urged him to seek counsel.
In a group meeting one day, Stevie was asked to visualize his ideal partner. He declined. "Why?" a group member asked.
"I'm already married," he replied.
In the weeks that followed, Stevie came to accept his sexuality. He said he plans to file for divorce soon. Audrey is supportive, he says. They are still best friends. "The center gave me a chance to see other people like me and what they are going through," Stevie says. "You wouldn't think it, but it helps to know you are not alone."
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