Last night, my friend Maria invited me to attend a function at the Rainbow Room which is a resource center set up by Planned Parenthood Association of Bucks County for the benefit of teenagers who are either LGBTQA. (I knew that 'L' stood for Lesbian, 'G' for Gay, 'B' for Bisexual, 'T' for Transgender, but the 'Q' and the 'A' had me stumped. I asked and was informed the 'Q' stood for Queer or Questioning and the 'A' stood for allies, namely the straight youth.) The event was an opportunity for the adults supporting the venture either financially or as volunteers to meet and get to know the youth, and for them to get to know the adults. Prior to last night, I'd attended one other event called 'Sing Out Loud and Proud,' a musical presentation by the kids that was a fundraiser. That performance took place at Solebury High School near New Hope and was extremely well attended. Of course, it also raised the ire of a few bigots in the area who protested the fact that Solebury High School would lend its facilities to any kind of an organization supporting kids working out their sexuality and their allies. But hey, this is America and, because we cherish our First Amendment rights, they, too, should have a right to speak their hate under the pretext of honoring God.
As I entered the room where over 50 youth (ranging in age from 16 to 20) from throughout middle Bucks County were assembled, some with piercings, some with vegetable dyed hair, one sporting a black Charlie Chaplin hat, some fat, some thin, some conservative in their attire, some African-American, some straight, some gay, some bisexual, I was struck by their confidence, cohesion, and enthusiasm. Maria and I arrived a little late and people were already introducing themselves and stating why they liked the Rainbow Room, each person speaking only when they came into possession of a teddy bear that was being circulated from individual to individual. Thereafter, in an excellent device to get the teenagers and adults to interrelate, the entire room was invited to take a questionnaire and circulate around the room asking people to help complete the questions by writing their name across from a question they could answer. Questions began with 'Find someone who':
Has been married;
Got good sexual health info from family members
Can describe how to use a Reality/"Female"Condom. (To my amazement, afterwards, a young man who'd participated in a class to enable him to give sex education counseling to women gave a very informative description.)
Likes their body
Knows what the pregnancy rate for lesbian teenagers is in the US (25%, and nearly three times higher than their straight peers, probably due to their desire to prove they're normal and fit in, etc.)
Has been on a fun trip recently or has one planned, etc.
It was a fun exercise and one that really worked because the kids would approach adults and ask the questions, etc.
A second, singularly American interactive 'game' called the 'fishbowl' next occurred as the teenagers sat in a ring to answer questions while the adults listened and then vice versa. (As an aside, this is one of the things I love about Americans; I've been in enough situations to conclude that many are not frightened to think outside the box, to try something unusual, to risk making a fool of themselves, to do things that Irish or Brits might roll their eyes or shrink from and dismiss with a "how juvenile" or 'very American, that is.") Questions asked included, "What do you like about being a teenager?" and its obverse, and "What do you want people to know about you as a group?" Answers were universal, in that I imagine teenagers in Ireland or England would have similar opinions, and included the complaints about parents who don't understand them, 'not being allowed to buy cigarettes', being stereotyped, etc. A wit among them said, he didn't like having to pay off the US deficit we adults are running up when he and his peers gets older. Next came the adults--much creaking and cracking of joints as we tried to sit crosslegged and dignified on the floor under the watchful eyes of the teens--and we answered questions such as "What do you like about being an adult?, and what we didn't, what were our perceptions of teenagers? and what thoughts we wanted the teenagers to take from our words.
The evening wrapped up with an amusing slide show prepared by the kids which depicted them attending various Rainbow Room and other functions throughout the years it has been in operation.
All in all, I came away from the event with a definite sense of American youth and their confidence and sense of social responsibility, something I really didn't possess before I went in. (I don't often get a chance to connect with teenagers and kids, except during visits home to Ireland where I have a healthy and exuberant brood of nephews and nieces. But my nephews and nieces, though I love them dearly, are all pretty similar in their views and behavior due to the educational system in Northern Ireland and their upbringing, and thus are not fully representative of the entire range of today's youth. They are all highly educated and already motivated by money and status, and sadly I never hear them talk about giving back to society in any way. Rather, I hear them talk about being accountants, lawyers and doctors, and what cars they want to drive, etc. Unfortunately, the Northern Irish system of education--which is in effect British--is very deficient in that it puts a premium on uniformity and academic excellence at the expense of the arts. One is, in effect, encouraged to be an accountant or an engineer, but discouraged from aspiring to be an actor or writer. The system--especially in the Catholic schools--collects money for the 'black babies of Africa', but teaches the students nothing about racism, sexism, homophobia intolerance, hypocrisy, etc.) With regard to the United States, too often I've seen herds of teenagers trolling around the malls with blank expressions, heard them talking on TV, and it's been discouraging; it seemed as if the corporateers have won, that these kids have bought en masse into the menus of morose corporate hype and Hollywood crap they're being fed, that they can barely speak three syllable words and are unable to think, that all they crave are Gameboys, X-boxes, cell phones, and cigarettes.
The kids I met last night are refreshingly different: they're individuals but love cohesion and friendship, they're energetic, driven, love to question and challenge, will not swallow whole the biases and hypocrisy of their parents, religious institutions or government. Of course, I realize these Bucks County teens are extraordinary in that, at an early age, they are learning about and dealing with (or have dealt with) very adult and tricky issues such as sexuality and sexism, prejudice, racism and bigotry. They have already gone out on a limb and challenged the status quo. This bunch of straight, gay and questioning kids have taken the initiative to learn about and work towards making society tolerant. I feel confident about America's future because of these kids and others like them throughout the US. They will go on to college and then become leaders in society one day, of that I have no doubt, and we will be better off for it.
Congratulations to them, and to Bucks County Planned Parenthood and its dedicated staff for setting up the Rainbow Room.
[technorati: Planned Parenthood, Rainbow Room, Bucks County, Teenagers