By Cara McDonough / Photography by Nick Caito
As the evening begins, the presenters lay out the ground rules.
This is a “safe space,” they explain, where respecting each other’s opinions, questions and bodies is important, and expected.
They add, however, that the small room – where about 12 people have gathered on a chilly Friday night in November, and is undeniably cozy with worn couches, colorful pillows and a few soft blankets – also serves as a “brave space.” Being safe doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t be a little uncomfortable.
Courage is a hallmark of the Friday Night Activities at True Colors, a Hartford-based nonprofit that advocates for sexual and gender minority youth. The events are held in the organization’s office and led by the organization’s Youth Leadership Team, made up of three high school students who plan and facilitate the events. The gatherings provide an accessible gathering space for individuals who want to connect and, perhaps more importantly, learn from one another, covering topics and cultural issues relevant to today’s queer youth and their allies.
Plus, it’s a lot of fun.
As participants check in at the door, writing their names and preferred pronouns on color-coded nametags that indicate whether or not they are comfortable being on social media, they greet one another warmly and then make a beeline for the plentiful snacks set up in the hallway. There is a lot of laughter.
The activities are open to the public and follow a rotating set of themes, including Pagan Discussion Night, Drag Night and Movie Night. This particular Friday’s theme is Intergenerational Night, and while most of the attendees (which include staff, interns and the Youth Leadership Team) are young adults, the idea is to get individuals of different backgrounds and ages together in the same room to discuss current issues in a friendly environment. Tonight’s participants will be taking part in a gender and pronoun workshop.
“I think this is so important because Hartford is one of the most diverse cities I’ve seen. So there should be a space where we can come talk to each other,” says Luis, a Hartford High School student who attended the event. [Last names have been withheld at the request of True Colors.]
“This is where you learn,” agrees Lorena from her spot on the couch. Lorena is a student at Central Connecticut State University who is doing an internship at True Colors. She says that beyond acting as a necessary home away from home for the youth it serves, the organization’s dedication to educating the public on relevant topics is crucial, especially in today’s volatile political environment. Events go above and beyond LGBTQ topics, she notes; a recent Friday Night Activity focused on cultural appropriation.
She’s right. The crux of True Colors’ mission is informing the public in innovative ways while acting as a home base for LGBTQ youth, who feel not only accepted but also empowered there.
The organization, founded under the name Children from the Shadows in 1992 by its current executive director, Robin McHaelen, works with social service agencies, schools, clinicians, social workers, college and high school students, and many others, conducting trainings, seminars, workshops and discussion groups on sexuality, gender, diversity and inclusion.
In addition, the organization runs the state’s only LGBT mentoring program and holds the country’s biggest LGBT youth conference with more than 3,000 attendees. This year’s, scheduled for March 22 and 23 at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, will include workshops, a drag show, and a dance.
And many True Colors programs, like the Youth Leadership Team and Queer Academy (the organization’s 6-week youth leadership summer program for queer and ally youth aged 13-19), give young people tools to educate and advocate on their own, working to change their schools and communities for the better.
The organization’s office is a testament to the enthusiastic individuals who lead and gather there, with draped rainbow flags, colored lights, posters advertising upcoming events, and inspiring quotations dotting the walls. It is a bright, inviting and powerful space.
“This is a place to connect with the community and see what their needs are,” says Jaymie, who currently serves on the Youth Leadership Team and presented at Intergenerational Night. “I really love being able to provide that support in a relaxed environment.”
“For me, True Colors is a place that we can come together and lead,” says Bren, another member of the team, who presented as well, along with the third member of the team, R.J.
The Intergenerational Night showed how well the emphasis on youth leadership serves True Colors’ overall mission.
The team had created an informative PowerPoint presentation, accented by worksheets with scenarios and questions for discussion. They explain an elegant “ouch/oops” rule at the outset: if someone says something that offends you, use “ouch” to express the feeling; “oops” is the preferred, simple reply from the offending individual, rather than profuse apologies.
While the rule was never invoked, that Friday’s agenda served an important and complex educational purpose. The program focused on non-binary pronouns, which are chosen by individuals who identify as something other than “he” or “she.” Topics included usage of non-binary pronouns (such as “they” and “them”) as well as the newer, or “neo pronouns” (such as “xe” and “ze”); ways to incorporate more inclusive greetings into your vocabulary (greeting a group as “Hey, all!” instead of “Hey, ladies!”); and how to react sensitively to those dealing with
evolving gender identity issues (for example, no longer using someone’s “dead name” – the name given at birth – to refer to them if they have chosen a new one).
These were dense and cutting-edge topics, deftly handled by an impressively young panel of experts.
But while the topics were heavy, the atmosphere was not overly serious. These were, after all, teenagers, so the evening featured the hallmarks of a night out with young adults. There were plentiful snack breaks and digressions – including a side conversation about how much everyone loves cats – and some casual dancing, too.
“I’m always dancing,” says Bren, breaking out a few moves in between slides.
On the flip side, discussion included more serious issues at school, including the use of single-sex bathrooms and trouble with teachers. Participants listened respectfully and provided sound suggestions.
“True Colors’ core mission is to create a world in which youth of all orientations and genders are welcome, valued and affirmed. It’s about capacity building, really – making sure that LGBTQ+ and ally youth, and those responsible for their health and well-being, have the tools they need to make that vision a reality,” says McHaelen.
“Our youth programming is so important. Friday Night Activities, for example, not only give youth a place to belong and to feel welcome, but provide the youth who organize the evenings the tools they need to advocate for themselves and others going forward,” McHaelen says.
“Our youth leaders are learning how to successfully run groups, how to use and integrate feedback loops into their planning, and just as importantly, learning about themselves and who they are – all through an intersectional, social justice lens. Growth and capacity building. That is what this is all about.”
The crowd at the Intergenerational Night certainly echoed that sentiment, returning again and again to the idea of embracing new concepts and validating others’ identities. It was clear that no one in the room expected anyone else to be an expert, or never make mistakes. It was all about learning, acceptance, and inclusion.
For the young people who count True Colors as a sanctuary, that sense of inclusion is key. And they are working tirelessly to ensure everyone else out there in the world has a chance to flourish in their own safe, brave spaces.
“I know I have a place to go after a hard day. I have a spot here,” R.J. says of True Colors. “For me, it’s a sense of belonging.”