Glitter Brigade: The Magical Beginning of A Queer Youth Group

Glitter-Brigade_Rory-Midhani

I wish I could say that starting a queer youth group has always been a priority of mine. Or that I’ve always wanted to create a safe space for underserved queer youth of color to exist and develop community with each other. It feels like when other people tell their stories, they’ve always been connected to the needs of their communities and the people living in them. But that’s not me and in order to talk about this queer youth group thang, I’ve got to let the beginning be and let out the life bits that are less than shiny.

Before I found community, refuge, and rediscovered joy in Autostraddle, before I started working at a kickass Arts Center, before all the things/people/experiences that have helped me re-create myself as a functioning love-filled, powerful human, I was pretty much a self-centered party-dyke, with enough creative energy to pretend I was an artist, when mostly I was a functional mess. I worked 17hr + days on NYC film sets, then spent my weekends and any/all weeknights I could binge-drinking and partying like a hood rat rockstar. My queer community didn’t exist. My world consisted of lesbian lunacy parties that favored excess and high-maintenance drama over meaningful, soulful person to person connection. I didn’t think I needed any of that hippie shit anyway.

photo by fiercepussy

photo by fiercepussy

Where else were the lesbos? What else did gays do? I didn’t know and again, I didn’t give one solid damn. I was in a relationship with someone who kept the party going. My friends did the same, even though they weren’t really friends, they were people with whom I could black out with and swap post-puke stories. I hated myself, my world, and yet I was in so deep that I couldn’t imagine any other way.  Wait, maybe that’s a lie. At some point I just stopped thinking I was worth any better. Something’s always gotta give. Put enough pressure on skin and it will bruise, more pressure and flesh will be bypassed until blood and bones are exposed. My best friend’s death changed everything forever. That is a literal statement devoid of even one gasp of hyperbole. It’s hard to even write this part. I’ve come so far in my grieving process but trying to find the words for this brings out the soul-ache that’s never left. She died and the world stopped moving. I don’t even remember breathing. Woke up one morning, a few months after the end, and I was unemployed, single, wrecked, and in need of a reason to keep waking up. My best friend had dedicated her entire adult life to serving the needs of her Latina lesbian community. She worked directly with people in need, was of the people, and now was gone. No one can or will ever fill the void she left on this planet. But again, something’s always gotta give. Flash forward to the universe being open to a fresh start and providing me with the opportunity of working for an Arts Center in my community.

christina

In my dreams, Christina’s proud of me, living eyes wide open, awake, breathing. All of this backstory, all this extra, to get to the part about starting an LGBTQIA youth group. This is my root, this is what holds me to the earth and creates the vulnerability necessary to give energy and love to something else.

Starting up a thing isn’t easy. I tried connecting to other local youth-oriented community groups to start this youth group for QYOC. but nothing worked. Either the politics of the adults involved didn’t mesh with mine, the people weren’t as committed as they said they were, or I just wasn’t able to make an outside schedule fit with my Arts Center schedule. Life. Life. Life. I gave up, frustrated, thinking maybe I was taking on too much or maybe it wasn’t my place to start any group for anyone because who the hell was I anyway? Other things filled my plate: indie movies, falling in love, laundry, A-Camp, etc.

Still it gnawed at my queer heart. Youth group. Youth group. What about that LGBTQ (all the letters) Youth Group? I shared my feelings with an openly queer co-worker. His eyes lit up and he said, “Girl, we can do all that here at the Arts Center.” So we got together, made plans, met with the higher ups, created detailed outlines, thought of huge inter-connected workshops and panels to host with other groups and … weeks went by without actually having a youth group meeting. The world of grown ups is filled with meetings and Google docs and holy snap, we were drowning in all of our good intentions.  Then one day during teen arts programming, a kid waited for me at the end of class and asked me — without looking me in the eyes — if there were any “community meetings, you know for like lesbians that are teenagers.” I asked her to repeat herself because she’d spoken so so softly, and she did and then she ran like hell. RAN. Flash. Out. Done. She never came back to the Arts Center.

bomb graffiti everywhere all the time forever

bomb graffiti everywhere all the time forever

I grabbed my co-worker and told him that we needed to just hold a youth group meeting. We’d taken to calling it the Glitter Brigade. We agreed that planning, developing a curriculum, and taking our time was important but that our kids needed the group like ASAP yesterday. If one kid asked for it and ran, how many others couldn’t even ask? I wouldn’t have and didn’t ever ask for something like that when I was a teen. We held the very first Glitter Brigade meeting the next week. And we asked our teens to name the group whatever they wanted but when they heard us call it the GB, they fell in love and so we’re officially the Glitter Brigade. Our first meeting included 3 teens, 1 intern, and me and my fabulous co-worker. The subsequent hour and half was seriously one of the most magical moments in my life. It felt like A-Camp in the Bronx. It felt like Christina was alive and blessing all of us.

us at the 1st meeting, b4 my heart exploded

us at the 1st meeting, b4 my heart exploded

The following are some ideas on how to do something like this. NOTE: I am not a professional Queer Youth Group person. I’m a queer nerdy teaching artist with a beautiful workplace that supports this type of youth group. The following is not the best or only way to facilitate a youth group. These are just the things that helped us make the Glitter Brigade come to life.

  1. Connect with a teen center, arts organization or any local community center. Volunteer first, be of service to your people before you decide what you think they need. Build trust and see if this is something you can fully commit to.
  2. Immediately go to some queer conferences, workshops, panels, etc. Take notes on how they are run, logistically and emotionally. Look for icebreakers, structure, themes.  See NYQueer, The Allied Media Conference, The Creating Change Conference etc.
  3. Find an adult partner that is 100% committed to this youth group. Having a peer to build this with was essential for me. Take and appreciate leadership together. Trust that the youth will see you and in turn, own their group and be the leaders they need to be.
  4. Write out or create a Google Doc that contains the following info: Big dreams for the group, attainable short-term goals, attainable long-term goals, purpose, trajectory, and what about it excites you. These things will shift as the goals are narrowed and shifted via the teens but without them, floundering is almost inevitable.
  5. Plan your first meeting like it was a party, a very structured party. Promote it like it was an after-party.
  6. Have the meeting. Ask the youth what they want and need from this group. Start over and do those things. This isn’t about you at all, not anymore.

Next month, I’ll lay out the structure of our first Glitter Brigade meeting and talk about some of the issues I’ve had with my hyper-intelligent and super strong/supportive co-worker. I’m going to share this post with our teens and tell you what they had to say. They know I’m writing this. They love that I’m sharing these ideas. So here we are. Let’s go Glitter Brigade forever. If you have any resources, tips, or suggestions for how to run a queer youth group, please feel free to leave them in the comments. Also, if you have any questions, please feel free to ask me and if I don’t know the answer, I’ll do the best I can to find the resources to help you out. We’re a community; let’s work together to do our best for these damn beautiful kids.

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Gabrielle Rivera is an awesomely queer Bronx bred, writer, spoken word artist and director. Her short stories and poems have been published in various anthologies such as the Lambda Award winning Portland Queer: Tales from the Rose City and The Best of Panic! En Vivo from the East Village. Her short film "Spanish Girls are Beautiful" follows a group of young Latina and Caucasian girls who like girls as they hook up, smoke up and try to figure sh*t out. She also freelances for Autostraddle.com while working in the film and television industry. Gabrielle is currently working on her first novel while bouncing around NYC performing spoken word and trying to stick it to the man.

gabrielle has written 68 articles for us.

37 Comments

  1. Thumb up 28

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    Again, this has been timely about the “21+ to enter” conversations I have had with my friends and really with myself when it comes to queer spaces without alcohol. This is really important and in this context of queer youth, I remember hearing stories of people knowing there were queer and needing to get fake ids to “be queer.”

    I think as a community we need to occupy more spaces and make them queer friendly especially for the youth. I love pride but holy shit it would be nice if we can have a honest conversation about the copious amount of alcohol and tobacco sponsorships, I have a background in marketing and I would like that my “top-of-mind” branding of pride not always be “Absolute Vodka.” Anyway, I love, love options and I’m working on trying to make more queer spaces sans alcohol.

    I remember going to my local college LGBT group before I was 21 and it was nice but I always felt that I was not there, not “gay enough” because I have yet to turn 21. I remember the local gay bar having an 18 and up nights and when I think back those times were fun, really fun. I remember seeing a girl in a wig and it she was so happy to be there drinking soda water. I remember talking to her and dancing, no “liquor courage,” or any altering substance just the high of dancing with someone you thought was cute.

    I remember that I just love to dance.

    I forget sometimes because I’m drinking too cool to be on the dance floor, until I get tipsy. Dancing sober, yo, I can break it down, in fact because I’m totally bragging, I’m a great dancer! I might be getting older but when I go out on a mission to dance (heeeeey Stonewall Fridays and Hot Rabbit NYC) I don’t drink, I just dance and have a great time. I get to show off my moves and when a lady dances with me (and if she can dance too) we burn.

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    This line is so important and awesome:
    Have the meeting. Ask the youth what they want and need from this group. Start over and do those things. This isn’t about you at all, not anymore

    I finished up my second social work degree, and I can tell you, even with folks who are taught this – programs, especially youth programs, are not for you, they’re for the people who attend and they should run the show – it’s hard to implement. you have to build in their wants, needs, and desires, and you have to do it from the beginning.

    Thank you! I can’t wait to see more articles about the Glitter Brigade!

  3. Thumb up 6

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    Funny, really, how timely this is… I’ve been in touch with my daughter’s gay (and lovely and very commited) teacher, to try and make something happen in her high school (in Montréal, in the east of the island, where not much is going on for us, and especially for young people). We’re only getting started, but your article and the subsequent ones are gonna help a lot. Thanks, Gabrielle, and congrats to you all responsible for the Glitter Brigade, it sounds amazing… :-)

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    THIS THIS THIS THIS THISSSSSSSSSS ALL OF THIS. I’m one of two case managers for our LGBTQ youth mentoring program in Delaware and we have bupkiss for the kids here, before our United Way LGBTQ initiative kicked off here. So far, there’s been SO much support, but the kids still don’t have anything like a youth group, outside of their GSAs. It’s a give and take because 30+ schools in our tiny state have GSAs, but the kids that don’t have GSAs or aren’t comfortable going to GSA still don’t have anything. BUT hopefully we’ll have something started soon. Also, YOU ARE PREACHING TO MY CHOIR ABOUT ADULT POLITICS. This article is everything and more and I can’t wait to hear more about what you’re doing up in NY!

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    I am so looking forward to this – in fall I’ll be an intern at my college’s pride center, and right now most of the people there are under 21. hoping this’ll give me some good ideas!

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    I’m so excited about this series and about the work you’re doing in general, Gabby — this is such an important priority for our communities to work towards, and I’m so glad you’re helping our readers do it!

  7. Thumb up 1

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    Wow, I wish this existed for me as a teen! I especially love that you’re reaching out to young queer people of color. It’s so hard finding peers that you can relate to and trust when you’re first coming out/figuring out your queerness. Good luck! And I can’t wait to hear about all the special things that you’re doing with the Glitter Brigade.

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    This is brilliant, Gabby!!!

    Being a queer teen for me meant taking shots of Heaven Hill in basement parties (yuck), getting turned away at 21+ events, and trying to figure out life.

    I can’t wait to see what you and the rest of the Glitter Brigade creates.

  9. Thumb up 4

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    This is amazing and I’m so glad people are out there getting stuff like this started! Youth programming is so incredibly important and it seems like people pay so much less attention to the needs of teens outside of GSAs, especially those who are POC or otherwise underprivileged.

    I actually co-founded and run a statewide youth group in North Carolina called QueerNC, and we’ve found that utilizing social media is one of the best ways to get teens in the group connected and letting others know that the program actually exists in the first place(we currently serve 300+ youth across the state). Also, getting youth involved in leadership of the program is essential and I’m so glad that you mentioned that. Our group is entirely youth-led and adult supported and I feel like it’s the best way to empower teens to begin working to create change. Anyways, if you (or anyone else, for that matter), would like to connect, feel free to email us at [email protected].

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      Hey Brennan, thanks so much for this and for providing an email address. I would love to connect with you about your process co-founding your org. 300 youth is AMAZING. I would love to know in detail how that large of a youth community has been built and maintained. Blessings to you and your group for continued success and community building.

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    OK but really, Glitter Brigade might be the best name of any queer youth group ever.

    I totally grew up in a religious youth group as a kid and spent a lot of time at a local youth club and I sometimes wonder what would have happened if a queer youth group had existed/been on my radar. It’s something I never would have asked for or even known I needed, but it would have been everything.

  11. Thumb up 3

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    I find people who are able to make amazing things out of hard times to be inspiring and astonishing. Being an introvert leading groups of humans is pretty intimidating, but this article makes me feel like I could maybe do it. Thank you for sharing!

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    Gabby– hearing about your story and your decision to just JUMP IN and what you’ve learned for reals made me tear up with sadness/joy/inspiration. It’s an incredible story and I can’t wait to hear more.

    It also makes me think about how valuable (and, honestly, how difficult to find) mentors who are “half a generation” above you are. People in their twenties mentoring people in their teens, and people in their thirties mentoring people in their twenties. The way that schools and families and jobs and all of those things work the “adults” around you tend to be an entire generation removed and I think there is something incredibly valuable about the middle ground mentorship.

    Anyway, best of luck and keep us posted on how things go!

  13. Thumb up 0

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    I am so incredibly excited to read this article, and I’ll definitely be following along. This kind of community building is dear to my heart, and I’m glad you’re talking about the process with such candor. Cheers!

  14. Thumb up 1

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    I can’t wait to hear more about this fabulous venture! I have no experience whatsoever with anything like this and so have no useful information to impart, but I know I wish there had been something like this when I was younger and still trying to figure things out. Even now that I am waaaaaaay older than you or the people you are looking to help, just the thought of somewhere I could go where there were other people who might be a bit more like me or where I could be myself and not act the way others think I should makes me happy. What you’re doing is needed and it’s great and I wish you every success.

  15. Thumb up 3

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    This made me tear up.

    I’m really looking forward to this column…
    I am involved in running a queer youth faith group, and I am the queer officer at my university…and have no idea what I’m doing with either.

    But somehow us queers seem to form the strongest and most honest of communities, regardless of how flawed the program is.

    It’s some kind of magic or something.

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      That’s what I want to try and do you know like be a part of that queer magic making. i’ve been associated with some lgbtq groups before and i’ve watched them implode from basic petty shit: email gossip chains, misuse of funds, and straight up complete lack of focus on connecting with a community’s needs.

      i’d love to be in contact with you two. the idea of a queer faith-based youth group is so so beautiful and radical. i would have died of happiness if i had one of those growing up.

  16. Thumb up 1

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    This is so, so important. I tried to start one in my high school last year, but my school is so small that there was almost no interest. It’s so great to hear that there are groups out there and that they’re working!

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    I would have to agree with your teens: I love that you’re sharing these ideas because it’s really important and I look forward to hearing what they have to say about the GB. Thanks for making this a priority and good luck with everything!

  18. Thumb up 1

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    This column makes me miss my volunteer-work in the previous city where I was living because I was going to high schools to talk about queer identity, and the most rewarding part of my day was chatting with the nervous students who sometimes just cried with joy at us being there. I really, really want to get back into doing that kind of work in my new city, so I’m going to be reading every article of yours with rapt attention <3

  19. Thumb up 0

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    I’ve recently started volunteering with an established queer organisation that has youth groups. (This one!) The main thing I’ve learned – the young people will tell you what they need. All your best plans will probably go off the rails if you push an agenda too hard!

  20. Thumb up 1

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    I teach English language classes at a private university in Southeast Asia and have given a lot of thought to starting some kind of queer student group, as there’s currently zero visibility for sexual minorities. On the one hand, the predominantly (rich) Buddhist student body is a bit quicker than average, I’d say, at abandoning traditional family and cultural prohibitions of going against the grain of society and the group would probably flourish as long as we took measures to respect people’s privacy. On the other hand, the university is owned and operated by foreign Muslims, many of the staff and some students are Muslim, and I know there would be significant institutional resistance to organizing this group, even off-campus. In fact, I’m fairly certain I would lose my job if word got back to the administration. :/

    I look forward to reading more of your column. Maybe it will give me the courage I need to “do the right thing.”

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      i’ll write about this more in later columns but just wanted to reach out and say that I have 100% support from the Arts Center. The exec directors, program, directors, and EVERYONE i work with is in support of this group. Without their limitless and always positive connection to glitter brigade, I don’t know if it would exist. It would be way way difficult. The revolution begins in the hard places so go forth if that’s your destiny but like basic needs need to be met too. If I had to choose between my job and the glitter brigade, that’d be really f*cking tough. But I’d probably raise hell, esp with a platform like Autostraddle. An action to start a group like that in the situation you’re in could change the course of your life. I think I’d ask myself what is the most effective way that I could be of support to queer students. Then I’d try to find them and ask them myself. Do they even want your help? You know like see if and where you are needed.
      Would love to hear more from you and good luck and much love.

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    I’m very excited to read more about the practicalities of starting a youth group like this! I’ve been feeling increasingly interested in starting one in my own town. There is literally nothing here, no LGBT groups or center at all. I’m not sure this is right for me but I want to find out if it could be. There is a LGBT group on my campus but no one does anything or knows what to do, so I’m thinking I might try to start with that and try to make something of it.

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    In Australia, I don’t think GSAs exist. At all. Or maybe they’re just not a common thing. So there’s no support group for people until they get to university, unless they took the time to find something out of school, and by “find” I mean really go searching, dig deep to find something queer youth-oriented.

    I guess we’re lucky the drinking age is 18 because that’s three more years of pubs and clubs, yo, but for a lot of people it’s still a long wait.

    Can’t wait to hear more about the Glitter Brigade!

  23. Thumb up 3

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    Rainbow drops! They make any meeting decidedly better from personal experience!

    When I was fifteen a friend and I decided to start a queer youth group at our school- and it’s still active now as far as I’m aware. We had huge trouble because the teaching staff weren’t supportive due to fears over our safety and the controversy that it could cause. In the end we took things into our own hands and advertised over facebook. It worked out well and we built our own community, but looking back I realise what a risk it was. The problem with being young is that adults will always accidentally invalidate your identity.

    Queer youth are stuck in an impossible position where we are neither recognised by society nor our community at a time when we need more support than ever. We grasp at the stories of older queers in order to feel connected, yet this ‘community’ seems inaccesable and in denial of our existance. There are few dedecated resources out there for queer teens beyond the bog standard ‘coming out’ advice, so what happens then? Do we have to wait until we’re old enough and queer enough to be accepted?

    People like you are so important because you have the respect, motivation, and, well, age necessary to give queer youth a home. Thank you so much for sacrificing your time and sharing your story with others, I’m inspired by your ability to turn a negative event into positive action. Keep doing what you’re doing because you seem awesome, and I know that you’ve already imporved those kids lives in simply listening to them.

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    Great article! Timely too, because I’ve been wanting to get involved in queer youth advocacy/ support groups in my city. I was always too terrified to go to the local one as a kid, but their existence still held huge significance for me.

    Excited to read more as things develop!

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    This is actually amazing. I would be so thrilled to have something like this where I live, but I can’t even imagine how that could happen.
    Maybe after I come back home with (hopefully) a social work master’s degree, this is something I could work on here in NC.
    I think it’s so great that you’re doing this and making a difference for queer kids like us.

  26. Thumb up 1

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    I second the need for a drug-free, alcohol free, inclusive safe place for queer youth to meet other queer youth and get support. Also, I agree that Pride has turned into a bit of a raging queer party which not only promotes unhealthy lifestyles for queer youth but also misrepresents the queer community to the rest of the nation.

    I go to the LGBTQ Youth Space in San Jose. It’s a safe space for queer youth to hang out; receive social services including free personal counseling, psychiatric services, and health services; and participate in peer-led activities and support groups. The great thing about the Youth Space’s model is that it uses peers (in their late teens and early twenties) to staff the center, except for two outreach managers who are a bit older.

    I started going to the Youth Space for personal counseling and about four months later I finally had the confidence to go to the Space during it’s open hours and hang out and participate in programs. I’m so glad I did and wish that I could’ve accessed this resource earlier. It’s been a life-saving place for me to heal from trauma; cope with mental illness; and meet other queer youth and combat my internalized homophobia and be safely welcomed into the queer world.

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    It would be cool if a teen or two got to post something, if not at entire article. The number one misstep of teen/youth group facilitators is not including youth in the decision making and planning process and feedback process. Having a youth or two present in the room when adults are making decisions is the least we can do about this whole ageist thing. This means going beyond asking what they need–it’s even more magical when they (the youth) can ask their peers what they need because they likely can do it way better than adults can.

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