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ASPYN (A Safer Place Youth Network): LGBT Adolescence and the Creation of Safe Spaces

By Mary Koenig, 2012

Overview and Early History

ASPYN stands for A Safer Place Youth Network, a social meeting place and support group located in Raleigh for “gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender youth and other youth dealing with issues about their sexual identity who are 14 to 21 years of age” in the Triangle area[1].

Materials related to ASPYN in the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University date back to 1990 and include early administrative and board materials, meeting minutes, adult volunteer training manuals and policies, information for teenagers interested in joining ASPYN, evaluations by participants in meetings and programs, and ASPYN helpline call logs and group facilitator logs from the mid-1990s[2].

ASPYN is part of the larger movement to create safe spaces, encourage healthy formation of a sexual and gender identity, allow LGBT adolescents to socialize with one another and their allies, and facilitate productive conversation among queer youth.

ASPYN became a part of Triangle Community Works! (TCW) when the organization was founded in 1994. TCW was created as a coalition of groups to create and maintain programs to assist and benefit the Raleigh area LGBT population[2]. TCW included ASPYN, The Gay and Lesbian Helpline, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (P-FLAG), and the Raleigh Religious Network for Gay and Lesbian Equality (RRNGLE).

Mission Statement and Purpose

“The mission of ASPYN is to enable GLBT youth through support, affirmation, education, and role models to create and sustain an empowering environment for themselves[1].”

ASPYN arose from the need for a safe space for LGBT and questioning adolescents and their allies to meet within a larger environment of adversity. According to historian George Chauncey, due to prejudice and restrictive legislation in the 1930s, the gay scene was forced out of the visible world and into the seedy ‘underground.’ Since then, many of the only spaces for LGBT individuals to express their sexuality were found in gay bars and clubs, slums, or elsewhere a part of some sexually ‘deviant’ culture[3].

Early ASPYN training materials stress the importance of providing a safe space for LGBT and questioning adolescents and their allies to meet in a “non-exploitive, drug- and alcohol-free” social setting. ASPYN was created to provide the option of meeting others, discussing LGBT issues, and expressing sexuality in a less dangerous, “no-pressure” environment[4]. Training materials also focused heavily on ways to establish open lines of communication, facilitate discussion about difficult issues, and provide a non-threatening, non-discriminatory environment.

Adolescence and the Need for Safe Spaces in Schools and at Home

At the time of ASPYN’s formation in the early 1990s, organizations like Gay-Straight Alliances in high schools in the Triangle area were far less prevalent than they are today[5].

An article entitled “Homosexuals Experience Discrimination” in the Jordan High School student newspaper the Falcon’s Cry provides insight into the level of tolerance in Triangle-area high schools at this time. The article, published in November 1991, featured quotes from students who were asked how they would react if a friend of theirs told them he or she was a homosexual. Responses ranged from acceptance to outright discrimination. One student answered “I’d leave, I’d stay away from them.” Another answered, “It depends on who it was. If it was a girl, it wouldn’t matter; if it was a guy, I don’t know.” Several students answered that they did not know because they had not been in a situation like that and didn’t think any of their friends could be gay. Other responses expressed more mild disapproval or confusion: “I would try to help them out, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable with them or around them.” “They’d still be my friend and all, but I would ask – why?” Some students and faculty expressed acceptance: “I wouldn’t act any differently than I did before. Just because my friend has different sexual preferences I wouldn’t turn away from them.” When asked “Would you mind if a friend were gay?”, 65% of students interviewed answered yes, while 35% answered no[6].

In the years between 1991 and 1998, ASPYN’s call logs revealed that it was a place that adolescents could go for advice on homophobia, safe sex, coming out, gay relationships, identity formation, and housing and family situations, among other topics. Many called several times over the course of days or weeks, staying on the phone for up to 45 minutes discussing issues that they did not feel comfortable bringing up at home or at school. Some called just to have a supportive listener to talk to. It was clear that some of the youth who called in did not consider themselves able to find support anywhere else, and call notes like "Do not leave a message!" and "ONLY call discreetly between the hours of 7 and 9 P.M." suggest that many of the callers felt uncomfortable with their families knowing that they contacted ASPYN[7].

The anonymous evaluation forms also provide insight into attendee's reasons to seek out a place like ASPYN. Many expressed sentiments similar to one anonymous attendee in June 1998 when asked what they liked about the group: "The feeling of just being included in a group and meeting other people who have feelings like me[8]."

Changes in 2008-2010

In a March 2009 interview with Rainbow Legal Talk, then-director of ASPYN Terah Crews discussed the effectiveness of the program after attendance had declined from 2005 to 2008. Crews saw several main issues with the current ASPYN program[5].

First of all, ASPYN did not successfully reach LGBT adolescents of color or those who lived on the outskirts outside of the core, increasingly progressive area of the Triangle. ASPYN meetings were often held in coffee shops that were out of reach for those who could not make it to a bus stop or pay for a bus ticket or whose parents would not or could not drive them.

Crews also noted that the organization found that Gay-Straight Alliances were becoming much more prevalent in the increasingly liberalizing Triangle area. Beyond just trying to exist as a queer-identified middle or high schooler, students were creating groups and finding ways to thrive and cultivate a sense of gay pride at their schools. Therefore, Crews said, ASPYN needed to be remodeled as no longer solely a safe haven for LGBT students to go but a place where they could learn the confidence and leadership skills to create more safe spaces for themselves within their schools and communities.

Another modern issue that ASPYN faced in 2008 was the increased use of the Internet by 13- to 19-year-olds. The feeling of anonymity and ease of access to specialized forums provided by the Internet makes it possible to discuss uncomfortable topics in a more comfortable way. Furthermore, most adolescents in the Triangle area have access to the Internet at some point in time throughout the day, either at home, at school, or at the library.

To account for these cultural changes and to reach a larger demographic, ASPYN launched “Instant ASPYN,” an online LGBT helpline. The ASPYRE (A Safer Place for Youth to Reach for Excellence) program was also launched in order to support what ASPYN saw as an emerging youth grassroots movement. ASPYRE is a youth leadership camp designed to motivate, inspire, and educate adolescents on leadership skills and ways to reach out to their communities and schools. The program is intended to give youth the resources and abilities to return to their communities and start organizations like GSAs at their own schools.

According to Crews, the changes in the ASPYN program reflected the new and future needs of the modern adolescent LGBT population in the Triangle during a time in which what it means to be a queer-identified adolescent was changing rapidly. In May 2010, TCW merged with the LGBT Center of Raleigh under the Center’s name. The ASPYRE leadership program continues today and is managed by the LGBT Center, in addition to a Triangle GSA Committee[9].

Conclusion

As the needs of the Triangle area adolescent LGBT community rapidly change, organizations like ASPYN and the LGBT Center of Raleigh grow and change to best provide youth with resources and a support system. “Obviously, the idea is that eventually we won’t need an ASPYN… eventually… this won’t be an issue, hopefully in the not-so-distant future. But until then, I think we’ve designed a program that can fit the needs of students today and over the next 5, 10, or 15 years[5].”

References

  1. ASPYN Mission Statement (1990), Triangle Community Works Records, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library
  2. "Inventory of the Triangle Community Works Records, 1974-2008." Duke University Libraries. Web. 19 Apr. 2012. <http://library.duke.edu/rubenstein/findingaids/trianglecommunityworks/>.
  3. Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Makings of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. New York: Basic, 1994. Print.
  4. Crews, Terah. "The ASPYN Program." Interview. Audio blog post. Rainbow Legal Talk. 26 Mar. 2009. Web. <http://rainbowlegaltalk.libsyn.com/the-aspyn-program>.
  5. Rao, and Whitaker. "Homosexuals Experience Discrimination." The Falcon's Cry [Jordan High School, Durham, NC] Nov. 1991. Print.
  6. ASPYN Call Logs (1991-1998), Triangle Community Works Records, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library
  7. ASPYN Evaluation Forms (1990s), Triangle Community Works Records, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library
  8. "LGBT Center of Raleigh." LGBT Center of Raleigh. Web. 19 Apr. 2012. <http://www.lgbtcenterofraleigh.com/site/>.