Castro queer youth space off to slow start
by Matthew S. Bajko
Wearing a sleeveless black dress, the young drag queen contestant sat patiently as a woman applied his eyelashes and worked on his eye makeup. A sliver of nervousness could be detected in the 14-year-old's voice, as he was about to make his debut as a female impersonator.
"No, I have not done drag before," said the San Francisco resident, adding that he doesn't identify as gay. "I am more curious."
The teenager was part of a handful of youth who turned out in mid-June for a Pride party held at the Eureka Valley Recreation Center in the Castro. The event was a coming out of sorts for the facility's revived queer youth space program, which launched May 31.
Since then it has been a slow start for the recreation offerings, which range from weekly drag queen and cooking classes to arts and crafts sessions and karaoke nights. A Saturday program aimed at creating a queer zine for youth failed to attract participants.
Depending on the day and the program being offered, anywhere from zero to a few dozen youth may attend. The most popular session has been the Thursday night dinner and a movie, but even that can be hit or miss.
When a reporter and photographer from the Bay Area Reporter stopped by in late June, no one apart from rec and park staff assigned to the program was there.
"It is going to take a little bit of time," acknowledged Don Franklin, a recreation coordinator in charge of alternative recreation who works out of the Castro rec center.
While participation may not be at the levels rec staffers would like to see, they are committed to seeing the queer youth space become a safe haven for the city's LGBT and questioning youth, as well as their straight friends, under the age of 25.
They manned a booth at this year's Pride festival to spread word about the program and have been reaching out to local youth service providers and education officials. The youth space also has its own Facebook page, with 84 followers, to promote its offerings.
"My staff has been hitting every neighborhood we can and hitting community groups all over the city," said Karla Rosales, a Latina lesbian who is the agency's recreation supervisor for adult and alternative recreation. "Those are folks maybe don't come to the Castro often or need a different invitation to come in."
Hugo Lopez, a DJ and karate instructor at the rec center, has been helping with the outreach. He said most youth he speaks with hadn't heard the program was back.
"They are surprised it is open. Most people wouldn't know it is open unless I had told them," said Lopez, 27, who is bisexual. "We expect a bigger turnout during the school year. When they do come, they have a good time."
Part of the problem is the program launched when schools were already out on summer break. Another factor is lingering distrust among some LGBT youth and their advocates with the rec and park department's handling of the queer youth space over the last year.
As the B.A.R. has been reporting, LGBT youth and adult allies had pressed the Recreation and Park Department to reopen the dedicated youth space at the Castro facility since its closure last summer. An agency reorganization had led to a shuttering of the space.
Apart from a few fee-based classes, the room, built with its own separate entrance, went mostly unused for nine months. After an outcry about the loss of the program during an April town hall with Mayor Ed Lee and subsequent press coverage, rec and park officials announced several employees had been assigned to staff the youth space and provide free programming on a drop-in basis during set hours throughout the week.
While those advocates applaud the city agency for committing resources and staff to the program, they continue to question how they are advertising the offerings.
"I will say that I was both pleased by the schedule that came out for the youth space and was happy to hear from a few youth that they went to the space during the first week of its reopening as well as to see the Youth Commission received information about a scholarship workshop for youth. On the other hand, after checking with youth and a few area service providers, outreach for programming schedule and scholarship application was not being received by them," wrote Adele Carpenter, one of the advocates pressing for the program's return, in an email.
Carpenter, who is in Texas conducting research this summer, believes more collaboration needs to take place between the agency and the community in order to ensure the youth space's success.
"As ever, I think that having a well attended and well run space will entail direct collaboration with neighborhood youth and community partners and that anything short of that will create conditions in which the space is not well attended or attended by youth who most need it, leaving its future in jeopardy," wrote Carpenter, who will be returning to town in August. "Personally, I think I made the dept. angry enough at me that it is important that I step back from this and leave the issues of ongoing collaboration and oversight to youth and area outreach and service providers. I will be very interested to hear what folks experience of this has been when I return in August and to help facilitate any conversations to support those ends."
Seeing only a trickle of youth attend the queer youth space programs is no surprise to Mitchell "Mitcho" Thompson, the gay man who launched the teen program at the Castro rec center in 1996. He, too, struggled to attract participants, and recalled only 10 youth showed up for the first dance he held.
"I think it takes a long time for the young people to come," said Thompson, who returned last month for the Pride party. "They did drop the ball for a while. It is going to take a while. I think they are trying to offer those programs, and in time, the young people will start showing up."
Seeing the enthusiasm from his former colleagues and new hires for the program, Thompson said he believes the youth space is off to a nice start.
"This is a good, honest effort. The staff is really excited. They have assembled a nice crew," he said.
The staff has already retooled some of its offerings and the time the space is open in order to attract more youth. One lesson they learned early on was the importance of advertising that it is not just for queer teens and young adults.
"If they are younger it is harder for them to come by themselves. They want to come with their friends," said Paola Marinero, 25, a lesbian recreation leader assigned to the program.
The program offerings are being renamed to reflect that anyone can attend. In the fall schedule the term queer is being jettisoned for the phrase "LGBTQI and friends." The space has also been dubbed "Evys Club" to reflect its all-are-welcome sentiment.
They staff is also seeking input from the youth on what they would like to see scheduled as part of the program. Ideas range from planting a rooftop garden at the rec center to outdoor outings such as camping, fishing, and bike rides.
"We are constantly asking our community and youth what do you want to see here. The sky is the limit," said Adela Dominguez, 44, a lesbian recreation coordinator overseeing the youth space.
The teen rec space is currently open noon to 6 p.m. Mondays; 12:30 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; and 12:30 to 2 p.m. Saturdays. It is closed Sundays.
The program is in need of items such as a karaoke machine, non-perishable food supplies, LGBT books for a lending library, and financial donations to defray the cost for certain fee-based classes for those youth who may be homeless or unable to pay.
Donations can be made directly to the program through the San Francisco Parks Trust's Gear Up Fund. On the donation form, donors need to specify the EVRC youth space under the option to apply their donation to a certain recreation center.
To donate online, visit http://www.gearupfund.org.
For more information about the youth space program, call (415) 831-6815.