Being a teen, growing up can be difficult enough with peer pressure, changing hormones and a desire to be accepted. Add to that the realization of being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
The nonprofit organization Your Forefront hopes to help youth through these trying times by sponsoring educational programs focusing on prejudice, discrimination, low self-esteem, suicide and deteriorating community engagement. A group of concerned college students started the organization after noticing a gap in education and awareness for young people ages 14 to 24.
Your Forefront made its public debut Feb. 25 with "An Evening of Groundbreaking Vision," an event at the Aronoff Center.
Founder and Executive Director Jared Hall says his own life experience as a gay teen in high school helped shape the organization's vision for change. He says verbal attacks prompted low self-esteem in himself and others — so much so that one of his friends chose not to go to college for fear of being ostracized.
"The lack of youth self-esteem really just drove me to want to do something to help," Hall says. "A lot of people say, 'Well there's already a lot of organizations out there.' But when it comes down to it, we're different.
We all have the same big objective of trying to create a quality open-mindedness, but I think we all have a different way of going about it — and to me, there's no organization out there except for us that really works and try to help them grow as individuals and develop that self-awareness."
The organization acts as a gateway, bringing educational programs to the public in the form of lectures, discussion panels and community summits. While the group offers no individual counseling, it does refer those in need to qualified specialists and offers some financial assistance for youth who qualify. Questioning teens and their parents can also participate in online discussion boards as part of Your Forefront's Web site, www.yfnow.org.
Last fall, Your Forefront conducted six community summits to identify problems that needed to be addressed, including youth suicide, hate crimes, stereotypes, available resources, family relations and concerns, animosity among community members, discrimination, ignorance, apathy and self-esteem. Although sessions grew in attendance each week, Hall says the community still needs to become more active to shape its own future.
"I would say the response has been overwhelmingly positive, but there still seems to be this lack of community engagement across the board," Hall says. "It's not just the gay community; it's Americans in general. So one of the biggest things we're trying to promote with Your Forefront is that civic engagement, trying to get people back involved."
Starting May 1, Your Forefront will engage in a marketing campaign to announce its presence. The organization also plans to team up with other gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) groups on a number of initiatives throughout the year.
Barry Floore, HIV educator and GLBT specialist for AIDS Volunteers of Cincinnati, says Your Forefront is one of many groups participating this summer in "The Third Option," a set of social events designed to divert focus from alcohol, sex and drugs.
Floore says the ultimate goal of the program is to develop a third major access point into the GLBT community, beyond bars and the Internet. Your Forefront is one of several local organizations addressing issues facing gay youth in terms of HIV prevention, according to Floore.
"We look forward to seeing how Your Forefront plans to use its mission, energy and enthusiasm to change and better the GLBT community," he says. "In terms of gaps in support or services, the GLBT community has a wide range of opportunities that are under-utilized. However, the organization itself has great promise to expand existing services and offer them to more people than are currently involved."
While the concept of advising minors on homosexuality might seem somewhat polemic to conservative Cincinnatians, Hall says so far he's received only a single negative call on his voicemail. E-mails so far he says have been overwhelmingly positive from youth and parents, he says.
Hall says he expects there will be critics along the way who don't share the group's vision, but he plans to use that to reinforce the need for further education in the community.
"For us, it's not a matter of the recruiting or promoting of homosexuality," he says. "It's more of accepting the individual for who they are."
After meeting Hall in 2005, UC student Michael Sauer says he decided to become part of Your Forefront because he shared its vision. He points out the community needs such a group to help gay youth live to their full potential and not be penalized for their sexual orientation.
Sauer says he hopes to become part of a support system that didn't exist when he was growing up: mentors to help guide youth through the issues that come with being gay.
"So many young gay people out there are scared and lonely, simply because they don't realize that help is out there," Sauer says. "I think Your Forefront is headed in a great direction and has a very bright future ahead of it." ©