It often can be difficult for many who question their gender or orientation—or who worry about facing discrimination for their lifestyle. Finding comfort in the ever-shifting socio-political climate doesn’t come easy. Teens may face extra hardship in being deprived access to much-needed support. Wilmington Pride Youth Group steps in to help quell such fears. Helmed by T.R. Nunley and Susan Graffius, the group aims to provide a safe, all-inclusive environment to teens who may feel conflicted about themselves and/or like they don’t belong.
“The Wilmington Pride Youth Group invites kids ages 12 to 18 to a safe and accepting space to express themselves,” Nunley offers. “LGBTQIA stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersexed (born with both male and female sex characteristics), asexual, agender and ally. We especially welcome youth who are LGBTQIA members, youth of LGBTQIA parents, and those questioning their orientation or gender. We also would like to extend a warm welcome to queer youth of color. If you know a child who would benefit from this group, please, contact us.”
The youth group was formed after House Bill 2 was passed in 2016, which is a “Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, officially called An Act to Provide for Single-sex Multiple Occupancy Bathroom and Changing Facilities in schools and public agencies and to create statewide consistency in regulation of employment and public accommodations.” Nunley and Graffius decided to respond in the form of a youth group. Their primary concern was providing a venue for teenagers who felt defeated in the wake of HB2 and November 2016’s election.
“It’s time we teach our children, no matter where they fall on the gender spectrum or who they love, they have a community that accepts them the way they are,” Nunley asserts. “Many kids have trouble being fully accepted by teachers and parents. It’s important for our groups to exist because today’s kids are getting information from the Internet. It is much more informative to share each other’s experience, as well as those of the other facilitators in the group.”
Nunley has been an activist for and advocate of LGBTQIA rights for more than a decade in Wilmington. Although great strides have been made recently in the name of equal rights, he does not ignore lingering problems.
“With the marriage equality achievement, many folks in the LGBTQIA community might think today’s youth have it better,” Nunley explains. “However, according to the Human Rights Campaign, LGBTQIA youth are twice as likely as their peers to be physically assaulted at school, and 92 percent of them hear negative messages about their persuasion. The rate of suicide attempts is four times greater for LGBTQIA youth and two times greater for questioning youth than that of straight youth.”
The Wilmington Pride Youth Group tries to reduce troubling statistics by interacting with the community directly. Their safety and confidentiality is of utmost importance. Therefore the group’s location isn’t available to the public. Any interested citizens must make contact to get the address.
“All meetings are confidential and the children are reminded of that at the beginning of each meeting,” Nunley continues. “Our door is locked during meetings, and we have a safety plan in case of an emergency.”
Discussions within the group cover a wide range of topics. Some can be intense and empowering. “Topics have been about self-harm, how kids are treated at school, and how the LGBTQIA community is portrayed in the media,” Nunley describes.
The focus isn’t entirely on the troubling aspects of teenage life, either. Other topics can be lighthearted, whether discussing TV shows, anime, manga, or music. The open dialogue keeps inclusivity alive and ensures no one is left out of any conversation. With potentially alienating subjects like religion, the group reaches out to community members to help foster a sense of belonging.
“We had three different local faith leaders on a panel [during one meeting],” Nunley explains, “and they spoke about how welcoming and affirming their congregations are for the LGBTQIA community. [They] gave kids tips on how to approach religious family members who condemn this community.”
Nunley makes it clear the message for the group is not “us versus them”—rather “us.” They encourage allies to share perspectives and introduce teens to community organizations facing similar concerns. Their most recent outing was a showing of “The Laramie Project” at Big Dawg Productions’ Cape Fear Playhouse (see review here).
“The children didn’t know who Matthew Shepard was or the significance behind his life and death,” Nunley explains. By exposing teens to Shepard’s tragedy, as told by people who live in the same city as they do, the youth group ensures Shepard’s story lives on in the heart of the community.
The group is entirely self-funded, and as such is an intense labor of love. “Susan, myself and six other members volunteer our time and money to the group,” Nunley says. “We are hoping the Wilmington community will help us find and fund welcoming and accepting activities for the kids.”
Currently, the group has a Go Fund Me account to contribute to. All monies go toward the kids’ activities throughout the summer (www.gofundme.com/wp-youth-group-summer-adventures).
Although the group meets once a week, Nunley and Graffius are available to its members outside of meetups. They make themselves available for questions, emergencies or just to talk when needed. Being a cornerstone of safety and acceptance is creating a snowball effect as well. “Many of the children now count on each other for emotional support and when they are celebrating victories,” Nunley describes.
Wilmington Pride Youth Group meetings are held every Thursday night from 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. in an undisclosed location. Anyone interested can contact Susan Graffius at DRE@uufwilmington.org, or send a text message to TR Nunley at 910-538-0234 for more information.