(Editor’s note: I invited my friend Tina, who volunteers as a facilitator for an LGBT youth group, to submit this guest column about her personal story and about her experience volunteering with LGBT teens. -Stevie)
UPDATE: A previous version of this post indicated that Rainbow Connections would move to a new location. The group now plans to continue meeting on the campus of Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church.
By Tina Pasadena
I’m Tina Pasadena, and I’m a volunteer facilitator for Rainbow Connections (“RC”), a San Gabriel Valley group for LGBTQ youth and straight allies, ages 12-18.
Although Rainbow Connections is supported by Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church of Pasadena, and meets on their campus, there is no religious agenda. RC’s purpose it to provide a casual, safe environment for the youth to hang out in on the third Saturday of every month.
One thing I love about the group is the opportunities I get to share some of my favorite things. For example, I love to get crafty. I’ve helped the youth make things like beaded bracelets, and in December we’ll be making ornaments. We also have open conversations, watch movies that have LGBTQ themes like “Fried Green Tomatoes,” and play games like the fast-paced card game Spoons (my favorite), and Big Gay Trivia.
The group is a ton of fun, which is really important, both to the youth and to those of us who volunteer. But another reason why I volunteer is because this is something that I didn’t have as a teenager.
I come from Irish/Mexican Los Angeles Catholics, and other than DNA, I don’t have anything in common with them. I knew from an early age I was different, and I had also learned that being different was bad.
Not only was I not the “seen but not heard” little girl my parents wanted me to be, but I couldn’t even be heterosexual. I tried really hard to keep quiet, but my spirit had other ideas. I was headstrong and loud. I had my own ideas of the world I wanted to live in, and my family was going to hear them! I would get on my soapbox and shout about the environment, equality and feminist ideals. I was screaming in the middle of a crowd and the only response I could garner was, “Augh, you’re so weird.” I didn’t have a tribe; I didn’t even have a role model.
To make things worse, ever since puberty, I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression. On the anxiety spectrum, I’m on the more severe side. Teenage years are hard enough with hormones and high school, add to that being different from everyone I knew, my depression hit a low and I started to self-harm and make other really bad decisions. I did anything I could to fill the emptiness, the unsatisfied feeling in my chest. I tried religion, drugs, sex, alcohol and food. No one and nothing helped, not long-term anyway.
Again and again, I went back to my family hoping that they would accept me for who I was. At 16, I told my mother I was bisexual. She told me not to say things like that, especially because boys didn’t like it. A few years later, same-sex marriage debates started hitting the California ballots. I found out our political dots were in opposite boxes, and I took it personally. It started to form a wedge between us. My detachment from my family got worse when I told my grandmother I wasn’t Catholic; in fact, she disowned me.
I got pregnant at 19, and at 20 I was married to an emotionally abusive husband. I alienated my friends, and my mother told me to be thankful that I found someone who didn’t hit me and who put up with me. It was a bad time.
At 26, I broke free. How? I found someone worth believing in. Me.
Don’t ask me where the strength came from. I just knew that I couldn’t keep going down the same path. If I did, it would have one end: suicide. I got my kids and myself off that sinking ship. My doctor and I found a mix of medication and mental exercises that allowed me to function daily.
My relationship with my family deteriorated. Instead of loving me for who I was, my mother took my independence as a personal affront. Every decision that was not aligned to her beliefs was an injury. I know that my mother’s beliefs and actions are partly because of how she was raised and I’ve come to accept that I can’t fix her; but I can break the cycle. I can work on myself and try to give others the support that I wish I’d had.
Along my path of self-improvement, I found Neighborhood Church. I found a community that loved me exactly as I was. I found my tribe, and I found peace. Part of that peace is being able to give back. I once heard it said that “Service is the rent we pay for living on this Earth.” I dedicate a lot of my time to service, and Rainbow Connections is a part of that.
I help facilitate this group so these kids know they’re not alone. I want them to know that even though life can suck, there is a safe place for them to go and be heard. They do have a tribe. I want to show them that through all the crap, they can still come out the other side and be successful adults.
This group brings together like-minded people who have similar experiences. They can talk about their failures and successes. They can bring their problems knowing that they may walk away with real solutions. They can be themselves. What I want for the youth who come to Rainbow Connections is peace and strength. And whether they have supportive families, or come from a place where they feel they don’t belong, I have the same message – you can be yourself and still be happy.
Originally, I came to this group with the thought that these were kids that needed defending. That they would be just like how I was. What I didn’t expect, was seeing all the supportive families. Plenty of these kids have a family member that brings them to the meetings and drop them off with a hug and a smile. It’s amazing to see, and honestly, I’m a bit jealous. It gives me hope that there will be a day where a person won’t have to “come out of the closet,” they will just be who they are. There will be no more closet. Likewise, there will be no hate from their own community. LGBTQPF and whatever letters we come up with, at our core, we are all humans that deserve equal respect. We are all part of the interdependent web of all existence.
BIO: Tina Pasadena is a writer, artist, and above all, a student of the world. She shares her adventures at tinapasadena.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.