Atlanta's LGBTQ Institute offers monthly safe space for youth to 'belong'

The LGBTQ Institute Executive Director Tim'm West poses outside of The National Center for Civil and Human Rights. West created the LGBTQ youth-based program You(th) Belong to allow young people the opportunity to garner support, friendships, counsel and a place of belonging within a safe and productive environment. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

As a teenager growing up in southern Arkansas, educator and youth advocate Tim’m West often found himself a unicorn among horses.

While he was coming to terms with his queer identity, he felt isolated in having no representation that he could see himself it, both in his community and on his television.

“There was no affirmation, wasn’t an ‘Ellen’ or ‘Will & Grace’ or ‘Noah’s Arc,'” said West. “The only thing that you saw about LGBTQ people were things that were not positive.”

Beyond Pride

A team of WABE reporters take a deeper look at the issues affecting LGBTQ people in Georgia. Plus, LGBTQ Atlantans in their own words, Pride events calendar, LGBTQ coverage from other NPR stations across the South and more.

It was moments such as this from his past, as well as the rising amount of anti-LGBTQ legislation in the present, that made West feel the need to take initiative for a younger generation of students and teenagers who are now in his former shoes.

“I was talking to my fellow board members, and when we came in in 2015, we were still under the Obama administration, and if you had told me that there would be all this legislation and book banning and censorship and anti-drag queen and anti-trans, I would have said, ‘We’ve gotten past that,'” the human rights activist said. “The main thing that has concerned me is the impact that this has had on young people.”

And with You(th) Belong, a monthly program committed to providing support and affirmation to LGBTQ children, youth and young adults, he hopes to make that impact last.

You(th) Belong is a program of The LGBTQ Institute, a division of The National Center for Civil and Human Rights that is dedicated to advancing LGBTQ equity throughout the South. West is a longtime advisory board member at The LGBTQ Institute, and in January he became its executive director.

You(th) Belong events are held monthly in a new location and allow youth to take the stage in showcasing their self-expression, such as poetry and artwork, as well as have open discussions on LGBTQ history.

You(th) Belong connects Atlanta LGBTQ youth with leaders, speakers and educators within the community to have open discussion and an exploration into LGBTQ history and culture. (Courtesy of Tim’m West)

According to Morna Jane Gerrard, a Women’s/Gender and Sexuality Collections archivist at Georgia State University, LGBTQ representation in Georgia has been documented since the mid-20th century, within the same period as the 1969 Stonewall Riots.

“There have always been LGBTQ people in Atlanta,” said Gerrard. “Not surprisingly, the records that we have in Special Collections mostly date back to the late 1960s — a time when people were beginning to feel more determined to live and love authentically and publicly.”

While there has been a larger embrace of LGTBQ Georgia residents in recent years, various legislation, including an upcoming law to restrict treatment and prohibit gender-affirming surgery for transgender minors, has made support for LGBTQ minors more crucial than ever.

“You(th) Belong … provides young people with the opportunity to meet and engage with change makers and leaders.”

Morna Jane Gerrard, Women’s / Gender and Sexuality Collections Archivist – Georgia State University

“To know that in 2023 that there are still young people committing suicide, contemplating suicide is just travesty to me,” said Dequadray White, program and volunteer coordinator for Atlanta Pride.

West, who himself survived a suicide attempt at the age of 16, said, “For all the progress we’ve made in the LGBTQ community, some of that does not translate to young people.”

“Young people need to feel seen, heard, celebrated and empowered,” said Gerrard. “You(th) Belong is great because it provides young people with the opportunity to meet and engage with change-makers and leaders. As they do this, hopefully, they will envision futures for themselves that will include them stepping into those roles.”

Members of You(th) Belong tour the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, an active collaborator of the program. (Courtesy of Tim’m West)

Since the program’s inception in March, attendance rates have gradually increased, with the amount of support and diversity in participants being a pleasant surprise to West and his staff.

Initially anticipating middle and early high school students, participants have ranged in age from nine to 24, with older members reaching out to serve as mentors to their younger peers.

“We have college students reaching out asking, ‘How can I help the program?'” said West. “On the other side, we have had elementary schoolers come in reading poetry, showing their art … who were trans and nonbinary and expressing [themselves].”

West said that the program’s walls can serve as a rare safe space for many LGBTQ youth throughout the city, who often face adversity within their schools and homes. LGBTQ youth have much higher rates of homelessness than straight youth, often due to being kicked out by their family members for coming out.

“There’s a hypocrisy in that a five-year-old can maybe know their orientation is a particular way and that’s not grooming, but lo and behold if a 10-year-old boy says he has a crush on a boy then it’s grooming, something’s wrong.”

Tim’m West, Executive Director – The LGBTQ Institute

“It is reflective of the society that we live in, which is white supremacist and cis heteronormative and patriarchal,” said White.

While White grew up around an accepting family and LGBTQ peers, he has seen firsthand the difficulties young queer people experience in trying to adapt to a society that is often polarizing.

In his position as Program & Volunteer Coordinator with Atlanta Pride, Dequadray White often interacts and coordinates events featuring LGBTQ youth. (Courtesy of Dequadray White)

He believes that the negative responses stem from most parents’ fear of the judgment, violence and mistreatment their family may experience for having a child that identifies as LGBTQ. But White said their own harmful attitudes and condemnation of their children only do more to harm than help.

“The bigger conversation is the lack of empathy … in a society that continues to dehumanize us, humiliate us and kill us … why bring that hate into your home?”

West said while there’s a substantial number of LGBTQ youth who lack encouragement from their families, he believes that in recent years there are starting to be more parents, siblings and friends active and present in supporting their LGBTQ loved ones.

“There are parents out here in Atlanta who want their kids to feel loved, who want their kids to feel supported … and I really want to elevate those stories as well,” West said, noting that roughly 33% of You(th) Belong’s attendees do not identify as LGBTQ themselves.

You(th) Belong offers an abundance of external resources and initiatives designed for LGBTQ youth to participate in. (Courtesy of Tim’m West)

West said that a double standard often arises when LGBTQ critics insist that children and teenagers are too young to determine their sexual orientation or gender identity, but are of age to determine if they have a crush on a member of the opposite sex.

“I think that we really have to call out the hypocrisy … kids are kids and will go through a journey of exploration and trying to find out who they are, and they need a safe space to do so. You can’t provide that safe space where you tell girls that they can only be attracted to boys, or boys that they can only be attracted to girls.”

Educator and The LGBTQ Institute Executive Director Tim’m West hopes to make a difference in the lives of Atlanta’s LGBTQ youth by providing a safe space that offers acceptance, support and encouragement. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

“I was watching a video on TikTok of this five-year-old boy bringing flowers to a little five-year-old girl’s house, and the comments were just overwhelmingly ‘oh he’s such a gentleman,’ ‘oh my goodness he’s going to be a heartbreaker,'” said West. “There’s a hypocrisy in that a five-year-old can maybe know their orientation is a particular way and that’s not grooming, but lo and behold if a 10-year-old boy says he has a crush on a boy then it’s grooming, something’s wrong.”

But despite difficult pastures in the nation’s current social and political climate, West is not willing to give up hope … and he hopes that his students won’t either.

“I mean, look at me,” he says. “The love and the friendships and the affirmations and the opportunities that I have been able to experience … I never thought when I was 16 that I would be able to live to see 50.”

You(th) Belong’s next meeting will occur on June 29 at 5:30 p.m. at 250 Williams Street NW. Registration is located here.

This story is part of the ongoing series Beyond Pride, in which WABE reporters take a deeper look at the issues affecting LGBTQ people in Georgia. Plus, hear LGBTQ Atlantans in their own words, check out a Pride events calendar running through the fall, LGBTQ coverage from other NPR stations across the South and more.