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Colorado Springs' Inside Out a haven for vulnerable youths

July 6, 2017 Updated: July 7, 2017 at 3:30 pm
photo - Paxton Neuger, 19, helps lead the group in activities at  Inside Out Youth Services on Wednesday May 17, 2017. Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette.
Paxton Neuger, 19, helps lead the group in activities at Inside Out Youth Services on Wednesday May 17, 2017. Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette. 

Editor's note: This story has been updated to note that Focus on the Family offers counseling and referrals for the LGBTIQ community.

Two young Colorado Springs men who were born female landed on opposite paths once each told his parents that their supposed daughters are transgender and plan to follow that course.

Paxton Neuger found friends at Inside Out Youth Services, the Colorado Springs support agency for LGBT youths as well as IQ - intersex and questioning or queer - young people.

Neuger, 19, had supportive parents too. Now he's completed his first year of college and is spending the summer volunteering with Inside Out.

"I was born a female; now I'm transitioning into being a male," Neuger says matter of factly. "I've been on testosterone about 1½ years. ... I'm lucky to be growing up in the time I am now. Because before, it wasn't easy."

Life still isn't easy for Aleister Smith, whose parents kicked him out. His mother "told me she no longer felt comfortable with me in her home," Smith says.

He lives on the streets, having aged out of Urban Peak Colorado Springs, which shelters homeless youths ages 15 to 20.

Smith is 21. He still finds support at Inside Out, which serves people ages 13 to 22. And he says he's on the list for one of Urban Peak's 15 independent apartments, provided in partnership with Greccio Housing to help young people transition out of homelessness.

A signup board with names of volunteers for Colorado Springs Pride at Inside Out Youth Services on Friday June 30, 2017 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Pride this year will be held on July 8 and 9. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette). 

Community support for LGBT and transgender and gender nonconforming people will be on full display this weekend when tens of thousands of festival-goers turn out for the Colorado Springs PrideFest and its colorful PrideFest Parade.

Smith, meanwhile, is focused on survival: Stay out of severe weather. Protect his camp so other homeless people don't steal from him. Accept meals and items such as clean underwear and toothbrushes from Inside Out when needed.

But is this slender young man safe on the streets? "Nobody gets violent with me," he says. "Some people refuse to see me as anything but female. Then you're not worth my time."

About 50 percent of parents are supportive when they learn that a child has a different gender identity, says Inside Out Executive Director Mary Malia.

That still mystifies Anton Schulzki, a 27-year teacher at Palmer High School affiliated with the school's Gay Straight Alliance and serving on Inside Out's board.

"The parents who drive me crazy, absolutely crazy, are the parents who kick them out. They say, 'Get out of my house.' I don't see how parents can do that. That kind of stuff just floors me," says Schulzki, who has two daughters. "Unless they have a place to land, a lot of these kids become homeless ."

Smith has goals nonetheless.

"Get off the streets and get a job so I can get my son back. Get a GED." He finished ninth grade at Mitchell High School. "Go to college. I want to be a forensic anthropologist.

"I was 16 when I had a son, Evan. He lives with my parents. I get to see him on rare occasions."

The people at Inside Out provide the understanding, acceptance and support that can be hard to find outside its walls, Neuger and Smith say.

'You've gotta give 'em hope'

"It may be a hard situation you're in now," Smith says, perched in the office at Inside Out. "But there are people out there who care and help. Just don't give up hope."

His advice is prescient. It's Wednesday, movie night at Inside Out, and he's about to see "Milk" for the first time - the award-winning film about slain San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in a major U.S. city.

"Without hope, not only gays - but those blacks, Asians, disabled, seniors, the 'us'es' - without hope, the 'us'es' give up," Milk said in a famous 1978 speech. "I know that you cannot live on hope alone. But without it, life is not worth living. And you - and you - and you, you've gotta give 'em hope."

Hope is dispensed generously at Inside Out, along with clothes, movies, hot meals, snacks, games, pool table time, glitter wars and strong, sincere friendships.

But for Malia, that's not enough.

She worries about state data that show suicide attempts are four times more likely among the 14 percent of Colorado youths who are LGBT. While only 4 percent are estimated to be transgender and gender nonconforming, those youngsters are eight times more likely to try suicide, she said.

"We've had six suicide attempts by our kids since September. Fortunately, they're still with us," Malia said. "We've literally saved a 20-year-old woman's life multiple times. Now she takes the bus, has a job interview and is trying to get out of her house. She came to Inside Out a little over a year ago. To see this progression is just phenomenal."

Evening meeting and check in at the Inside Out Youth Services new location on Friday June 30, 2017 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette). 

On Monday nights, Inside Out has a support group called SAME, for Stress Anxiety Managing Emotions. It focuses on post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse and developing coping skills, and it's run by Amy Kobylinski, a psychologist at the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo.

Malia is working to start a support group for parents of transgender and gender nonconforming children and another for youths with depression and bipolar disorder.

And she is concerned about the "very high rates of dating violence among LGBT. They have a strong sense of self-hatred. They may be in a church or have parents who are really homophobic.

"We're not doing religion here. We're doing mental health, physical well-being. They're in here to not be in church. We have our own kind of church. It's very gay."

Malia's work at Inside Out wins kudos from Schulzki and Shawna Kemppainen, who ran Inside Out before taking over Urban Peak Colorado Springs four years ago.

"Mary's done a tremendous amount of work - head work and heart work," Kemppainen said. "In a very thoughtful way, she's a person who'll say: 'All right, let's go. We're not going to sit here and complain about stuff.'

"You can't be what you can't see. That's one of the great opportunities Inside Out provides. You realize you can be OK, and you can be great. Without Inside Out in our community, there would be so many more youth who are LGBT and questioning who would not know where to go, where to start the conversation, who would not understand that discrimination against them was not OK."

Self-discovery and an evolving culture

Schulzki said youths naturally question their identity. "Kids don't know who they are. So they spend a lot of time questioning, and they're trying things out. You try out an identity and feel comfortable with yourself and find out that's who you are."

But, he added, such a discovery doesn't always prove permanent.

"I had a student a few years ago who came out to me as a lesbian in her senior year. She went off to college, graduated and came back a year later and was talking about her boyfriend. She realized she was actually bisexual, but in the end it didn't matter. You fall in love with a person. In the end, they're going to feel comfortable with who they fall in love with."

Her story underscores the wisdom of the biblical edict "judge not." Yet Colorado Springs itself has been judged - and harshly - as extremely homophobic. That reputation no longer rings true, observers say.

"Most people I know are very quick - if anyone brings that up - to correct them. Enough rose up to counter it that I believe there's a strong, sturdy progressive community here around issues of equality," Kemppainen says.

She points to the Citizens Project, its mission to defend and promote equality, the separation of church and state, and respect for diversity, born in July 1992, four months before Coloradans passed Amendment 2. That amendment, launched in Colorado Springs, would have made it illegal for governments to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the would-be law in 1996 as unconstitutional. But between Amendment 2's passage and elimination, Colorado became known as "the hate state," and the boycott that ensued cost it at least $120 million in canceled conventions and tourism.

The city also is home to Focus on the Family, an evangelical group that  offers counseling and referrals for gays and has emphasized a "judge not" approach since founder James Dobson left the organization in 2010.

And the Citizens Project lives on in Colorado Springs.

Colorado Springs School District 11 also reflects that contemporary respect for diversity, Schulzki notes. A legal battle ensued 17 years ago to allow a Gay Straight Alliance at the school, he says.

But then, "We became the first school district to update policies to protect not just sexual orientation, but to specifically lay out: We'll protect gender identification, transgender status. I think District 11 became a leader in that."

Other indications of Colorado Springs' evolving cultural landscape: The April 28 Queer Prom drew 250 students. Inside Out's annual breakfast last October netted 550 reservations. And tens of thousands attend the annual Colorado Springs PrideFest, set for this weekend in America the Beautiful Park.

Inside Out still serves a critical role, though, for teens and young adults caught in the crosshairs of parental and peer criticism.

"The community around you might fluctuate," Kemppainen said. "But to have a core home for youth who are vulnerable, who want a place where they feel safe and can connect to people and have fun, Inside Out is critical."

That's Neuger's point precisely.

"If anybody needs anything, there'll be a listening ear. (The adults) are always here and always helpful," he says.

High school students tend to be inundated with concerns about body shaming and fashion trends, Neuger says.

"But here, it's a whole new world. They're here, they put on a little drag show, they're just shining. Outside, they have a totally different face."

Says Schulzki: "It's been important that Inside Out has found some stability (through Malia). If we can get a couple of people to support us and open their wallet, that would be great."

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