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Southside Boys & Girls Club launches LGBTQ inclusion initiative

Advocates hope new programming helps kids feel 'loved, supported, included'

A backpack is covered in pride buttons at Pride Night on Dec. 8 at the Southside Boys & Girls Club in Cedar Rapids.
A backpack is covered in pride buttons at Pride Night on Dec. 8 at the Southside Boys & Girls Club in Cedar Rapids.
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CEDAR RAPIDS — The Southside Boys & Girls Club is aiming to make the club more inclusive to area youths by launching an LGBTQ initiative.

Lori Ampey, director of programming for the club, said she long had wanted to have programming for LGBTQ youth. Last fall, the Boys & Girls Clubs of America started encouraged local clubs to offer their own programming for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth. Ampey said that was the catalyst she needed.

“The time is now to do something,” Ampey said. “There’s really nowhere for the kids to go. You see kids that come in that are questioning a lot. Just to give them the resources and the tools and just someplace to go and feel OK,

“I felt like it was just something we needed to do. We’re trying to form a place of inclusion.”

For now, the club is holding monthly nights for LGBTQ youth and parents to attend so kids will have a space to hang out, make friends, explore who they are and ask questions. Eventually, the goal is have weekly meetings where kids can have fun and explore questions together such as how they identify themselves or how they might come out to friends or family.

The initiative kicked off with a Pride Night on Dec. 8. More than 70 preteens and teens attended. Ampey said that’s more than she expected.

“You could tell they felt comfortable,” Ampey said. “There was no giggling or snickering or this group making fun of this group. They were all together. That was probably the best event we’ve ever done.”

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Parents attended, as well, said Jen Rowray, a member of PFLAG, an education and advocacy group for the LGBTQ community. She’s also involved in the Boys & Girls Club initiative, serving as a resource for parents looking for guidance and as a role model for youth.

“I want them to see a lesbian that’s healthy and happy,” Rowray said.

“I have kids and a job and am successful. I want them to see someone who is a role model.

“Even now with all the YouTube and books and things on TV, the norm is you’re assumed straight until told otherwise, unless you fit a stereotype and you’re struggling against that. They need a safe space where they can know they don’t have to fit the cultural norm to be normal.”

Southside Boys & Girls Club uses space in the First Congregational United Church of Christ, at 361 17th St. SE, for programming.

Eventually, Ampey said she hopes to have a separate center where LGBTQ youth could meet.

Rowray agreed.

“When I was growing up, our only space was the gay bar,” she said. “These kids deserve to have their own place without waiting to be old enough to go to a bar.”

Nate Harris, a freshman at Linn-Mar High, said he hopes eventual weekly LGBTQ nights draw more than just area middle and high school students who identify on the LGBTQ spectrum.

“I would like this to be a safe space for everybody to come to,” he said. “It starts off with having your own space. Allies can come and be support systems. As much as the LGBTQ community gets done, the allies do just as much to help.”

Having a space outside school Gay-Straight Alliance clubs could allow for more attendees, said Consuelo Steel, a GSA representative at Roosevelt Middle School. Steel also is involved in Southside Boys & Girls Club, and she hopes students from more area schools will attend its events.

“To have all these kids from all these schools that had probably never met before, for them to be in one place and say, ‘I accept you for who you are, whatever that label is or is not,’ it’s great,” she said.

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What’s important, she said, “is that kids feel like they are loved, supported, included.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8516; makayla.tendall@thegazette.com

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