The Journey

Spokane's Gay Community and It's Youth
By Annie Ogdon

Wells decided to enter into her junior year not denying her sexual orientation. However, she was not going to do any sort of public announcement regarding it.

She has occupied her time working with Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) clubs in Spokane schools since she moved to Cheney High School her junior year.

Wells says she always felt an air of "we don't like you and we don't want you here" from Cheney students. She chose to be greatly involved in the theater and art departments.

"High school wasn't bad, but I always surrounded myself with good people," Wells said.

Many students like Wells have felt the same disconnect with others who write off the gay youth community at first impression. Odyssey Youth Center has become a transforming place for youth struggling with their sexual identity.

The organization was started in 1991 in partnership with the Spokane Regional Health District to test young men for HIV/AIDS. In 2001, Odyssey broke off to create its own non-profit and young women were included gradually. The organization has evolved into a center for social and emotional learning, teaching youth the basics of how to get a job, the transitions into adulthood, and health education.

"It's what I would call a safe place where everyone is welcome," said Ann Marie Floch, Odyssey program director.

Located in the Perry district of Spokane, Odyssey works to develop troubled youth as leaders and advocators. Odyssey Out Loud is a program for teens to learn leadership qualities and prepare each individual to take on an advocacy project.

The PRIDE Foundation is a major financial backer of Spokane's gay-focused organizations such as Odyssey Youth Center. The PRIDE Foundation continually find avenues to build up advocacy in the Spokane youth culture. PRIDE frequently writes grants for GSA clubs in public schools. PRIDE also award scholarships for LGBTQ students, youth with LGBTQ parent and heavily involved allies. Seven Spokane recipients were awarded the scholarship last year.

The number of youth visits at Odyssey shows the depth of youth the PRIDE Foundation is able to assist. A total of 2,682 youth visited the center in 2008: 49 percent were young men, 50 percent were young women, and 1 percent transgendered. Within that total, 67 percent were lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, questioning (LGBTQ) and 30 percent were straight youth advocating on behalf of their friends.

Odyssey is known more as a gay center, but its main goal is to help youth ages 14-21 in their current life situations. The mission of Odyssey helps address the confusion adolescents' face in discovering their identity, gay or straight.

Floch said the Odyssey youth show a different level of love towards one another. They are more like a family. "The kids that come here, really end up staying throughout their youthful years," Floch said.

Odyssey was a perfect avenue for Wells to engage herself in various outreach programs, specifically in schools. Wells saw the importance to be involved in GSA clubs because she saw the good it represented for LGBTQ youth.

The clubs are the one space in life where LGBTQ students do not get the negative vibe as it creates a good base for students to lean back on, Wells said. Students need to learn appropriate sexual education and discuss other similar issues. The club works together to figure out student's options.

"Because we are different, we will always be harassed," Wells said. "I am going to embrace who I truly am as a person and as an individual."

More than 45 percent of gay males and 20 percent of lesbians reported having experienced verbal and physical harassment during high school due to their sexual orientation, according to The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force "National Anti-Gay/Lesbian Victimization Report".

Two teen boards represent Odyssey to coordinate various events that provide avenues for reconciliation between students and adults, including the Youth Conference for Hope. Barbie Oldham has served on the teen board to provide her personal insight for such events as the youth conference. The Youth Conference for Hope is an event that will put on several workshops specifically focused on LGBT youth, their parents, and their teachers to reach mutual understandings in dealing with one another.

Oldham is a bisexual youth who has been involved with Odyssey for a year and a half. She moved from Kansas to Spokane when she was 14 years old. At this time, she started to embrace Gothic culture. She began high school at Lewis Clark and managed to stay there for only six months before transferring to the West Valley School District Contract-Based Education. Contract-Based Education is focused on one-on-one teacher to student education.

She said other Lewis and Clark students would nag her for being different especially as a Goth and then as a bisexual. Contract-Based Education offered her more inclusion with 10 kids to a class and more focused studies. The contract-based teachers work with the students in a caring, nurturing way to assist student to meet their educational goals with a high emphasis on personal and social growth.

Oldham said at contract school no one cared about her sexual orientation or if she was a little different. "They were there for the same reason: to get an education." Oldham said. "No one ever found real reasons to fight each other."

Oddly enough, Oldham's openness to the gay community comes from Kansas pastor Fred Phelps, the founder of and other anti-gay protest organizations. His church members picket funerals of American soldiers claiming that the nation's tolerance for homosexuality will lead to its destruction. His strong beliefs made her contrasting beliefs even stronger. With the support of her loving mother, she openly embraced the gay culture at a young age. Her acknowledgement in turn made her realize it was acceptable to like girls.

Her confidence with her bi-sexual orientation is not without its drawbacks. She says being bi-sexual is difficult because she is judged by both communities, gay and straight. She does not let these remarks get in her way.

She came to Odyssey in April 2007 and wishes she had come since she was 14 years old. She already knew everyone at the center.

"Every gay teen I know under the age of 26 has been to Odyssey," Oldham said. "Everybody knows everybody."