By Calvin Men, Santa Cruz Sentinel
Saturdays are safe days for some LGBTQ teens in Santa Cruz County.
On Saturdays, the Diversity Center of Santa Cruz County hosts a meet-up event for LGBTQ for middle and high school students.
“A lot of students that come to our group aren’t just gay or lesbian. They’re also bisexual, pansexual, trans,” said Alex Santana, lead youth program coordinator for the Diversity Center. “They’re students who are questioning their gender. Those are the students we see coming more often that are experiencing transphobia or homophobia at school.”
The group meets regularly in Santa Cruz to hang out, as many of the teens describe. While hanging out can mean the usual for teens — snacks, jokes, internet videos, sitting on the couch — it can also mean heavier topics — bullying, sexual identity and navigating the nuances of gender.
There were 18 teens in Saturday’s session and the mood was lighthearted. The group gathered to celebrate Piper DeBella’s 14th birthday. Piper, who was born female and transitioned to male last year, was all smiles and joked with the group. But it’s different for him at school.
“At school, people say a lot of horrible stuff,” said the Aptos teen, adding that peers at his school make jokes about being gay.
The group allowed Piper to make friends without feeling judged. Many of the teens called the meeting a safe space to discuss those topics, which some said could and do ostracize them at school.
Max Brandt, a 17-year-old Santa Cruz resident who identifies as trans and gay, attends every week and has been a part of the program for at least three years.
“It gives us a chance to be who we are in a safe space where we know we won’t be judged for it,” he said.
Santana said the program fills a gap in the area. While there are a number of LGBTQ support programs in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, a majority are affiliated with academic institutions. This group is focused on middle and high school kids, he said.
While Santana said the perception of the LGBTQ community has shifted from tolerance to acceptance, there is still a lot of ignorance on issues out there and still discrimination.
“People talk about what’s going on in their schools. If they’re being harassed at a certain school, the kids share affirmative advice. They’re there for each other,” Santana said.
More than support the group’s morale, the Diversity Center also works in coalition with other county and city agencies to identify and change pockets of problems. Schools with the most challenges with LGBTQ students are identified and the organizations work to assist them with changing policy, Santana said.
What: LGBTQ youth meetup for middle and high school students
Watsonville: 3:30-6 p.m. Fridays at First Christian Church, 15 Madison St.
Santa Cruz: 1-3 p.m. Saturdays at The Diversity Center, 1117 Soquel Ave.