A newsmagazine by and for the youth of Louisville

On the Record

A newsmagazine by and for the youth of Louisville

On the Record

A newsmagazine by and for the youth of Louisville

On the Record

Our City’s Sanctuary

Since the 1990s, queer youth have come together in a support group that encourages important conversation and provides a space to connect with LGBTQ peers.
Our+Citys+Sanctuary

writing by SAMMIE HADEN • design by CLAIRE DIXON

 

Across a room full of vibrant colors, a purple curtain at the back of the room stood out. Behind it was a walk-in closet — so large it could be a small thrift shop. But unlike a thrift store, there were no price tags on the clothes or frantic shoppers in the aisles. 

The closet, named the Beyond Labels Resource Closet, was packed with clothes for queer youth to try on and take home — free of charge.

Since the start of 2021, Em Joy, director of the Louisville Youth Group (LYG), has watched queer youth pick out gender-affirming clothes before the beginning of group meetings. Some members wear the clothes during meetings alongside their friends at LYG, whom they feel comfortable with, and some choose to take them home. These clothes make up only a fraction of the support LYG has given queer youth for years.

LYG is a nonprofit support group for LGBTQ youth in Louisville and surrounding communities. Established in 1990, the group has acted as a safe haven for young people ages 5-24 for decades.

Group meetings are held at LYG’s central location — First Lutheran Church on East Broadway. From the outside, “Louisville Youth Group” sounds like a Christian youth group. Joy said that the name and location of the group were no coincidence. 

“We were founded in 1990, so we wanted to fly under the radar and be more secretive to protect the folks who weren’t out to their families or who weren’t out to their communities yet,” Joy said. “And so we still have that name. And with that name, and our history, it carries a lot of weight.”

Although LYG’s name has stayed the same for over 30 years, the organization and its members have changed over time. Kyle Gaddis, father of a current LYG member and a former member himself, noted the changes he observed since his time at LYG.

“There definitely are a lot more live talks about being trans, being non-binary,” Gaddis said.

Since Gaddis’ departure from LYG in 2006, the LGBTQ community has taken major steps nationwide — namely the 2015 legalization of same-sex marriage and removal of discriminatory laws. Although these changes were made at the national level, Gaddis felt that they translated locally — all the way down to LYG kids’ interactions. Gaddis returned to LYG with his own 8-year-old child, Rose, who identifies as non-binary — a discovery they made through their time at LYG. Gaddis noted that, compared to his fellow alumni, kids in current group meetings seemed not only more confident in themselves, but more comfortable talking about their identity with the people around them. Gaddis hoped that Rose could benefit from the outspoken community, and they did.

“We read a book, like a storybook, about gender identity,” Gaddis said. “And, the moment we were done, they were like, ‘That’s me.’”

Although Rose felt supported by LYG, coming out can still be a scary, monumental moment in a young person’s life. The passing of Kentucky Senate bills limiting LGBTQ discourse and opportunities has only exacerbated this anxiety. Such legislation has been a major talking point in recent news.

In the past few years, legislatures in states across the U.S. have introduced over 500 controversial bills limiting LGBTQ rights. The American Civil Liberties Union reported in a continually updated infographic that, as of December, the Kentucky legislature proposed 11 of these bills — most notably SB150 and SB145, which have both been passed into law. 

SB145, which Gov. Andy Beshear signed into law in March, outlined eligibility rules for interscholastic athletes. It’s controversial because of its section ensuring that athletes are grouped with their biological sex. This impacts Kentucky’s trans athletes, who aren’t able to play with or compete against peers of their preferred gender.

SB150 was also signed into law in March after the Kentucky General Assembly overrode Gov. Beshear’s veto on the bill. SB150 limits the discussion of LGBTQ issues in school, denoting it as one of the “don’t say gay’’ bills that were introduced in several states. Florida passed the original “don’t say gay’’ bill in July 2022. The passing of SB150 caused an uproar in the commonwealth — specifically in local high schools, where students at schools such as Atherton High School and the J. Graham Brown School organized protests and walkouts. 

The Trevor Project, an organization providing crisis services for queer youth, reported that in a 2023 survey of 28,000 queer youth, nearly two in three respondents said hearing about these potential state or local laws censoring LGBTQ topics made their mental health “a lot worse.” 

For many young people, school was the place where they could exercise personal expression freely and safely among like-minded peers. This included queer expression. SB150 encroached on this expressive outlet by censoring queer discourse and removing privacy protections of LGBTQ students. 

However, Joy believes that LYG provides a safe space for members to express their queerness and have conversations surrounding gender and sexual identity that they can no longer have in schools. 

“We have always created safe spaces for our community, and we’ll continue doing so,” Joy said. “Regardless of what the government says, it’s what the organization was built on.”

LYG is led by a full time staff, volunteers, and youth leaders who hold multiple group meetings per month. These groups include the Junior Group, which serves children ages 5-12, the Teen Group, ages 13-19, the LYG Rising group, ages 18-24, and more. 

Clover Gossman, 21, began attending LYG meetings in the summer of 2019, when he was beginning to accept himself as a trans man. Navigating one’s identity can be difficult, but Gossman’s friends at LYG accepted him for exactly who he was — nothing more, nothing less.

“During my first meeting there, I told a few people that I’m trans and they were like, ‘What? You’re trans? I thought you were cis,’” Gossman said. “That really reassured me because I was always super worried about whether or not I passed as a man.”

Even after aging out of the Teen Group, Gossman attended the LYG Rising group meetings and planned to continue. 

“I grew more comfortable in my identity because of LYG and how accepting they are,” Gossman said. “I very much cherish all my friends I’ve made there for that.”

LYG Rising prepares young adults to thrive as a marginalized group after they leave LYG. 

“We talk about how to apply for jobs and things like that,” Gossman said. “When tax season comes around, we’re going to hold a meeting on how to do taxes.” 

As of October, the LYG Rising group was a fairly new addition to the organization, one that Joy themself implemented. 

“One of the reasons why I created the young adults group, the LYG Rising group, is because we had so many teens aging out of our Teen Group, and they had no other place to go,” Joy said.

The LYG staff knew that there were other kids out there desperate for a support system — especially at the height of COVID-19, when in-person meetings weren’t possible. 

So they started a virtual group that gave LYG members a way to communicate with their peers in a time of isolation. Among the kids attending these virtual groups were young queer kids at Maryhurst, an inpatient mental and behavioral health facility in Louisville. Even before COVID-19, queer kids at Maryhurst weren’t allowed to leave the facility often enough to attend group meetings. While the virtual group was discontinued after COVID-19, LYG refused to leave behind the young people at Maryhurst.

“Instead of meeting them virtually, we actually started a group at Maryhurst to be able to meet those kids and build community and support for them at that facility,” Joy said.

Joy and LYG still aspire to reach out to even more queer youth across Kentucky and provide them with a support group. While the organization is too small to offer more locations, other communities across Kentucky have formed their own local support groups for LGBTQ youth after witnessing LYG’s positive impact.

“LYG is also working with community members in some rural areas who want to start their own version of LYG,” Joy said. “Because we have paid staff and access to national resources, we collaborate with those folks to try to get them organized, get them off the ground.”

  • • •

LYG holds a variety of events every year — most notably their Pride Prom in the spring and Youth Empowerment Camp in the fall. The camp provides an opportunity for members to bond while learning about LGBTQ history. 

At the 2022 camp, they held a discussion on sapphic, or lesbian, history, alongside a weaving project, combining typical camp crafts with LGBTQ history.

This year’s September camp was a weekend without phones, and consisted of activities like a talent show hosted by drag queens and hikes around the campsite.

This past summer’s pool party was another bonding activity utilized to spend time with fellow LYG members and friends alike. But similar to the camp, the party’s activities were still informative.

“We held a mental health awareness session where, essentially, we gave people chalk and allowed them to respond to a prompt that was, ‘What does mental health mean to you?’” Gossman said.

Along with their major events, LYG tries to make attending meetings as accessible as possible by putting a calendar with times for each meeting on their website. There are no requirements to attend the group — anyone is allowed to come, whether it’s just once or for an extended period of time. Evelyn, 8, attended LYG for the first time in October and they fit in right beside the other kids in LYG’s Junior Group.

“I don’t really know many people like me,” Evelyn said, “and it’s really exciting.”

Evelyn is non-binary and struggled to find other non-binary kids their own age, so their mom recommended that they go to an LYG meeting. After that first meeting, Evelyn planned to attend more monthly meetings and LYG events. 

  • • •

As a nonprofit organization, LYG relies heavily on donations. For meetings, they use space donated by First Lutheran Church.

The Beyond Labels Resource Closet also operates out of First Lutheran Church, thanks to donations from clothing drives. LYG holds the drives to ensure the closet is always stocked for use by its members. The clothes are sorted into various bins and hung on one of several racks.

A special part of LYG’s closet is its collection of chest binders, a piece of clothing used to flatten one’s chest.

Some of Joy’s fondest LYG memories are offering chest binders to group members for the first time.

“The minute they put on a chest binder or a gender affirming item their whole body language changes,” Joy said with a smile. “They stand up taller, their faces just lit up with excitement and enjoyment and euphoria. To be able to see that kind of change, just by providing a simple piece of clothing — it’s huge.”

The clothes in LYG’s closet are also used to create more lighthearted memories, such as the Junior Group’s fashion show. 

“It was really fun because we got to dress up in things from the donations closet and we would be able to walk down the carpet and just have a blast,” said Vic, a 9-year-old participant in the show. 

  • • •

While Joy thought that LYG has made improvements in its 30 plus years serving LGBTQ youth, they believed there was still room for growth — starting with making LYG more accessible to the community.

In order to get to LYG’s meeting space, members have to climb a steep staircase — one that isn’t currently wheelchair accessible. While Joy and the organization have cultivated a close relationship with the church, they dream of a future where wheelchair-using members can be more involved.

Joy also wants to reach more rural kids who aren’t able to travel to group meetings. However, LYG’s nonprofit business model and lack of funding has proved that a new location is not in the cards for LYG in the near future. Nevertheless, Joy keeps their hopes high.

“We definitely have plans to do more outreach,” Joy said, “and exist in other areas outside of the greater Louisville area.”

Still, LYG continues to reach out locally. The Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) Network is a national organization focused on educating young LGBTQ people in youth-led groups on issues happening around them. LYG is part of the GSA Network, which entails working with JCPS counselors and therapists in the community.

In 2022, LYG served around 500 kids locally. Joy estimated that, since then, the Junior Group has either doubled or tripled in size. As LYG’s groups grow, they continue to be sanctuaries for members to discuss pressing topics — especially since, as of December, only one semester of school had passed since the Kentucky legislature signed SB150 into law, and even less time had passed since districts such as JCPS adopted policies to implement the bill. For LYG members and other queer students, the long-term effects of SB150 are largely uncertain, and as a result, so is their future. 

“When those bills got passed, our kids came into the group and they were completely depressed,” Joy said. “They felt hopeless and they felt like there was absolutely nothing that they could do to change anything.”

Still, their despair did not deter them from spurring into action. After the kids in the Teen Group worked through their feelings on the passage of SB150, they knew more could be done. 

They spent the remainder of the meeting learning about how to get involved in activism — for now and for when they grow up and become alumni of the organization.

“Even when you’re feeling hopeless, there are things you can do to make change,” Joy said, “and there are things that you can do to lift yourself up and lift other people up.”

  • • •

Joy took a step toward the LYG mural painted in their main room — the room that has given LGBTQ youth a home for over three decades, the room they were able to work their dream job in, and the room in which they have seen other trans kids step into their true selves. As Joy stared into the mural with large, rainbow-colored block letters reading “LYG,” they smiled and hugged themself.

“Even when the laws are against us, we still have our community and we still have this space,” Joy said. “And LYG will always exist. We’re not going anywhere.”

 

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Sammie Haden, Assignment Editor
Sammie Haden is a junior assignment editor and writer for On The Record. This is Sammie’s second year on staff and she’s so excited to help others produce new content for the community to enjoy! Outside of OTR she loves playing lacrosse and spending time with her family and friends. A fun fact about Sammie is she’s performed on stage at a drag show!
Claire Dixon, Designer
Claire Dixon is a junior designer for On the Record. This is her second year on staff and she is excited to create creative and fun designs. She is on the varsity field hockey team and swim team along with being a member of best buddies. Claire loves art, traveling, and sewing.
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