You undoubtedly know Side By Side. However, you may know them under another name. The group originally known as ROSMY, Richmond Organization for Sexual Minority Youth, started back in 1991, and has been carrying on their mission to support and advocate for LGBTQ youth in the Central Virginia area ever since. Those of us grew up in the 90s surely remember their TV commercials, which sent positive messages out to “gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth,” and offered a phone number that those youth could call anytime and receive support.
ROSMY certainly established a strong record of support for young LGBTQ people over their first 25 years of operation. However, as the years went on, the name itself became less and less relevant to their overall mission. “We had been in Charlottesville since 2011, and we’d just started a pilot program in Petersburg, so the Richmond part of ROSMY didn’t really fit anymore,” says Side By Side executive director Ted Lewis (who uses they/their pronouns). “And the ‘sexual minority youth’ part… it’s somewhat of a dated term,” they continue. “2016 was the first year in which the majority of the youth we saw identified as transgender in some way. ‘Sexual minority’ doesn’t really encompass gender identity, so it was, for that reason, time to get a new name.”
However, the new name was not intended to signal any sort of new direction for the group. “I don’t think we are necessarily fundamentally changing what we do,” Lewis says. “We’re trying to get better at what we do.” All of the basic programs that ROSMY always offered are still available, and are if anything stronger than ever. You might expect that that old phone number from the TV commercials has long since gone the way of the pay phone and the land line. However, nothing could be further from the truth.
“We do still have our youth support line,” says Lewis. “It’s still an old-school phone number, and it’s available 24-7.” The line puts callers in direct contact with Side By Side during regular business hours, and the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance answers after hours. “[They] also run the LGBTQ partner abuse line, so their operators have been trained to work with the community,” Lewis says. “They’ve got crisis intervention counseling.” However, as you might expect from today’s modern internet-savvy youth, calling a phone support line isn’t typically the first response to a crisis. “Youth don’t usually call that line for crises, they usually call [because] they just want to talk to somebody,” Lewis explains. “We have a lot of questions about relationships on that line,” they add, laughing.
However, that’s not to say that today’s LGBTQ youth are facing any less serious issues than they have in the past. “2017 has been a particularly difficult year,” Lewis tells us. “We do a youth survey every six months. From October 2015 to April 2017, the number of youth that were actively suicidal increased by 11%. We’re already talking over 50%, so that’s pretty dramatic. The number of youth who said they always felt unsafe in school has doubled since the beginning of this year.”
There is a positive flip side to the struggles LGBTQ people of all ages are enduring, though. “Because there’s a so much more hostile political climate out there for LGBTQ folks in general and transgender people in particular, the folks who have somewhat been on the fence have now said, ‘We’ve gotta get off the fence and be more supportive to LGBTQ youth’,” Lewis says. “So that has been a bright side.”
Having originally worked with youth ages 14-20, the organization has recently expanded to working with middle school children ages 11-14. “Our middle school program just started in 2013 and it’s our fastest growing group,” says Lewis. “We average about 25 youth at that group now per week, which is actually even higher than some of our other youth programs.” Children under 14 require their parents’ permission to take part in any after-school activities, and therefore all of the middle school youth coming to Side By Side have parents who have approved in advance of their participation.
“We run a parent discussion group for our middle school parents,” Lewis says. “One of the things that we are fairly clear with parents about is that family support or rejection is the lynchpin to youth being happy and healthy. So even if you don’t get it, even if you don’t fully understand it, even if you’re not OK with it, there’s still ways to be supportive of those young folks. We try to find ways for parents to do that in whatever way is good for them.”
The very fact that so many parents are involved and supportive of their children’s participation in Side By Side activities shows a significant evolution in the average parent’s attitude towards LGBTQ issues since the group’s formation in 1991. “What we see here over the years is more and more parents being accepting, at least on a bare minimum level,” Lewis says. “I’d say the majority of families we work with, at least one parent or guardian is supportive. We often find parents who are at least in the space of ‘I’m gonna accept my kid no matter what.’ Sometimes when they’re faced with the reality of what that means, though, it takes a little time to catch up with their youth.”
Side By Side’s main focus, as it has been all along, is on youth support groups. The groups focus on unique problems LGBTQ youth face, using curriculum developed in-house to teach coping strategies and positive identity development. “The vast majority of our youth are actively suicidal, so we spend a lot of time talking about coping strategies,” Lewis says. With the aforementioned spike in suicidal ideation reflected in the group’s recent surveys, Side By Side have taken additional steps to ensure that youth in crisis have help available to them on site. “We have two in-house clinicians who see youth for free,” Lewis explains. “Youth get up to six sessions with a licensced counselor, so they get the chance to talk out whatever they need to, in a more in-depth therapeutic way. That counseling provides an extra layer of support and protection for our folks in Richmond.”
This expansion in services offered is only one of the ways Side By Side has recently increased their reach. In recent years, the group has become more and more involved in training school teachers and counselors, as well as other youth-focused agencies, including Richmond’s chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters. “[Big Brothers Big Sisters] are making sure that their programs are LGBTQ friendly, so we do training with not only their staff but also their bigs, which is what they call their mentors,” Lewis says. The group even has some surprising clients on their list. “At the end of this year we will have trained every sworn police officer in Richmond City,” Lewis adds. “We provide training at no cost to any youth-serving agency or school. If they are not a youth-serving group, we usually charge them, but it’s a pretty reasonable rate.”
As previously mentioned, Side By Side has also expanded in a geographic sense. Having begun to serve Charlottesville youth between 14 and 20 years of age in 2011, the group added a group for Charlottesville middle school kids at the end of 2016. They’ve also started a pilot program at Petersburg High School, which is thus far their only group that meets during the school day. The group may expand even beyond these cities at some point, but right now that’s up in the air. “Right now we’re focused on the Central Virginia area with our youth programs. We offer training, though, throughout the entire state,” Lewis says, mentioning training they and other Side By Side representatives have done in such widespread Virginia communities as Alexandria, Roanoke, and Norfolk. “We recognize that are not a ton of resources in the commonwealth for LGBTQ youth,” they say. “There are some volunteer-based youth organizations in Northern Virginia, in Norfolk, in Roanoke, so we try to connect with them when we can.”
Most importantly, though, Side By Side is making every effort to extend their support into as many different areas under the LGBTQ umbrella as possible. “Our youth of color group is brand new as of this year, because we realized that LGBTQ youth of color had very different experiences than their white peers, and they needed a space to talk that out,” Lewis says. “I think all of our youth in our LGBTQ youth of color group also come to other groups. It’s just an additional layer of support.”
Meanwhile, as the LGBTQ youth Side By Side sees have included greater numbers of trans-identified youth, their services have shifted to focus more and more on the specific problems trans and gender nonconforming youth face. One obvious change from decades past is the increase in youth who come out as transgender at younger ages. “80-90% of our middle schoolers are trans-identified,” Lewis says. This sort of identity can be controversial in some circles, but Lewis sees these concerns as somewhat unfounded. “Most research shows that we actually understand our gender identity as young as three. It’s whether or not we have the words to express that, and whether or not people believe us. One of the things I think has shifted is that parents are more open to listening to their youth at younger ages. Parents are at least open to the idea that my kid’s exploring gender, that maybe what they were assigned at birth isn’t how they identify.”
Lewis sees the current discussion around trans identities as focusing too strictly on issues related to medical transition, such as hormone replacement therapy and sexual reassignment surgery. “There’s also social transition. Using a preferred name, or using a pronoun that’s different than what you’re used to, is a form of transitioning in a way, but it’s not medical transition,” they explain. “Part of [the conversation] is trying to calm parents, to say, when your child says they’re transitioning or your child wants to affirm their gender publicly, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they want you to grant them surgery tomorrow.”
That said, medical interventions of various sorts do have their place. In discussing the needs of trans-identified youth with their parents, Side By Side focuses on age-appropriate medical interventions. “Hormone blockers simply delay puberty. For some of those youth, that could be really helpful for them,” Lewis explains. “A lot of it is finding ways for both youth and parents to feel comfortable if the youth chooses to transition socially or medically. We do think that honoring where youth are and letting them lead the charge, with appropriate boundaries in terms of their identity, is the best way to go. They know who they are, we’ve just gotta listen to them.”
There’s definitely a line of thinking around transgender children that says we shouldn’t let them transition too young, because it might just be a phase they’re going through, and they’ll change their mind later on. Lewis doesn’t consider this a significant concern in most cases, though. “We haven’t seen any youth who has transitioned medically or socially, who has gone back,” he says. “There are some times where we’ve had youth who understand they are not the gender with which they were assigned, and when they learn about the unlimited possibilities of gender and the different terminology, they may say, actually, I’m more of a non-binary identity. But they’re still very clear that ‘this is how I want my body to look.’ So that doesn’t change.”
“That’s more in the exploring phase,” they continue. “When a youth gets to a point where they want to transition, they’ve often had lots of conversations with lots of different people–including mental health professionals, in order to get letters [of approval], to medically transition. While some of our youth are on testosterone, or androgen blockers and estrogen, the majority of them who are on any sort of medical intervention are on blockers. The minute you remove the blockers, it starts puberty, so it’s really just delaying–it’s not necessarily doing irreversible medical intervention. If the concern is, ‘What if they change their mind?’ Well, hormone blockers allow them to change their mind.”
After over a quarter-century in continuous operation, Side By Side has definitely reached a point where their original name and mission statement can no longer encompass the breadth of their work. But if anything, they’re more vital to the LGBTQ community than ever, doing more to protect and advocate for LGBTQ youth than they have ever done before. At a time when the LGBTQ community is facing a lot of different challenges, many of which are particularly difficult to youth, their work is more essential than ever. And with the help of a supportive community, the group plans to take things even further in the coming years. “While we’re seeing this increase in youth in crisis, and we’re seeing a much more hostile environment, our friends and allies are coming out of the woodwork to be supportive,” Lewis says. “We’re grateful for the help.”
All photos by John Le except Ted Lewis photo, from sidebysideva.org