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By Brad Kutner
Queer youth in Virginia carry a series of staggering statistics along with the already difficult burden of being gay in a conservative state. They are up to 40% percent more likely to attempt suicide, 28% percent will drop out of school and they have a 190% higher chance of using drugs and alcohol.
But the Richmond Organization for Sexual Minority Youth, or ROSMY, is here to help. Started in 1991, ROSMY runs support groups weekly for youth 14 to 20. It holds communities events and provides a safe environment for queer youth in Richmond and Charlottesville.
Sarah Koski, Administrative support and public relations person for ROSMY, explains their mission.
“To ensure equal opportunity for all Virginia youth to succeed. And make them feel like they belong and that they are welcome. Ensuring their success.”
John Dougherty, ROSMY’s Executive director, feels support groups are a great resource for queer youth, and is proud of the work ROSMY has done, however Dougherty believes change needs to take place from within the systems youth are apart of every day.
“The social change that needs to happen in VA. The kind of paradigm shift around how we see human development, gender and sexual identity development, as a natural process for all adolescence, and our responsibility to help adolescences get through what is the most challenging time of an adolescence’s life, successfully, shifts who we are and what we are all about” Said Dougherty.
Winner of the 2009 ‘Richmond History Maker’ award for social justice, ROSMY has been hard at work expanding their queer youth support. A ground breaking new project was launched last year with the hopes of changing the way schools and court systems handle queer youth, The Institute for Equality. Koski explains:
“We are seeking to reach as many youth workers through out VA to prepare them for any situation that might come their way. A safe contact; a straight ally.”
The Institute for Equality, created by Dougherty and nationally certified in 46 states by the National Association of Social Workers, is a continuing education course that gives tools to psychologists and teachers to handle sexual minority youth.
The course starts by establishing comfort levels for those taking the course. They use open ended discussion to talk about issues teachers and psychologists see in class rooms and court rooms every day. The Institute suggests language as a tool to help queer youth express their issues, and to help un-easy faculty to understand their own issues they might have. Doughtery explains how those who might be in contact with queer people, may still not be comfortable addressing queer youth with queer issues.
“Just because you have a friend who is gay, doesn’t mean you are comfortable addressing and supporting a youth who has come out as gay or that you are comfortable and supportive in addressing their relationship or how they can be healthy in their sexual practices.”
The Institute for Equality has had Henrico and Hopewell juvenile justice psychologists, and Richmond Public School psychologists work through the program. Harold Mitchell, Senior school psychologist for Richmond Public Schools, approved the program for 16 school psychologists. He was unable to attend the training session, however he said.
“What I can tell you is it was very well received. They felt very positive about it.”
Doughtery is currently working with Richmond Public Schools in the hopes of expanding the course to include teachers, a process that takes time.
Phil ford, a library Assistant in the central Virginia area, has a high school aged daughter in the public school system. He supports the idea of teachers being given the tools to handle sexual minority youth issues.
“There are people that are gay; there are people that are straight. I think the more educators understand issues of straight, gay or whatever… it can only be a betterment for society.”
Dougherty has not come up against much resistance so far and his professional back ground has allowed him to see the kind of questions troubled youth are asked in physiological testing. He is astounded questions about sexual identity are not included in physiological profiles.
“How is asking someone ‘how do you prefer to be identified in regards to your gender and sexual orientation.’ How is that more invasive then asking if anyone has ever sexually molested them?”
The Institute for Equality hopes to give teachers and school officials the tools to change the way queer youth are treated in schools. And in time, it might just work.
You can reach ROSMY through their website ROSMY.ORG, or by calling 804-644-4800
For Richmond Independent Radio News, I’m Brad Kutner