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We're tryin to get an idea of what's going on across North America. Does anyone have anything to say about being young and queer in Halifax, Canada, in particular? -- YoungGayAmerica.com
The year was 2001, and Benjie Nycum and Mike Glatze were taking a road trip. The two were boyfriends in their mid-twenties. Benjie grew up in Nova Scotia, so they had made the transcontinental trip from their home in San Francisco to visit Benjie's family in Halifax, Nova Scotia, maybe a dozen times. But this time they thought they'd do something different.
Halifax is always a friendly scene. I prefer to be open more in Hali than out where I live, a small community where everyone knows everybody. --Jason
Benjie and Mike met out in San Francisco, where they both interned at XY, a glossy magazine geared towards young gay men. They volunteered at the National Gay and Lesbian Hotline, and they even edited a book, "The XY Survival Guide: Everything You Need to Know About Being Young and Gay. As a result of these experiences, "We knew that we were living in an ivory tower in San Francisco," says Benjie. Not everyone was lucky enough to live in a big city where gay people were everywhere.
It's really open here. I moved here from Toronto, and I walk around like this (Keith is wearing supa-cute makeup), and I've never had anyone say anything to me here. Never any problems. --Keith
So the two made phone calls and sent emails to friends all over the country, and asked those friends to spread the word to their friends. They wanted to interview gay youth all over North America, and they wanted to post transcripts of those interviews on the web. Their friend, Teddee McGuire, set up a website, and Young Gay America (YGA) was born. They set out from Halifax with a bag lunch and cookies from Benjie's mom.
I started dating the second out gay man in my school. And since all my friends already knew him, when it became public, it wasn't like "OH MY GOD!" It was more like "OH, ISN'T THAT CUTE!" --Ken
They traveled down the east coast, stopping in Vermont, Massachusetts, D.C., Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and New Mexico before heading home to California. They stopped in big cities, small cities, college campuses and a handful of small towns. "Well, we made it. We've been all over the country," they wrote in the final entry of the online log from the trip. "If we missed you in your part of the country on our travels this time around, we definitely wanna see you, and we'll be back." And they did go back.
In all, YGA has been on 10 road trips, which altogether encompassed 44 U.S. states, three Canadian provinces and, in an unlikely turn, Croatia. And what they found surprised them. "They're doing their thing. They're doing alright," says Benjie of the gay youth they met on their travels. "They're not leaving their small towns to go to a big city. They're sticking it out where they are." Benjie acknowledges that "some of the interviews aren't even posted because they're so brutal," but says nevertheless, "I think we expected to find harsher environments as the main thing, and it was more the exception."
â€¦ I had a great group of friends who became even closer. I even brought a boyfriend to the prom. --Graham
After that first trip, YGA never had to publicize again. Word spread about the road trips and the website, and soon Benjie and Mike were inundated with emails from youth all over the country who wanted YGA to stop in their towns.
On YGA's second trip, Benjie and Mike stopped at Dalhousie University in Halifax. They did a group interview with DalOut, the school's queer student organization. A nervous 19-year-old named Scott MacPhee was there. It was one of the first times he had ever been to a DalOut meeting, and he almost didn't show up this time, either. "I remember walking home that night," he says. "I was halfway home, and I was like, 'well, I'm either going to have the guts to just go and be myself, or I'm going to be just half myself for the rest of my life.' So I just decided to turn around and go." Scott was so inspired by Benjie and Mike "just having the guts to be themselves, and also to go such large distances just to hear what the youth had to say" that he decided to join them on their next trip.
As they kicked off that trip, which covered Utah, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas, they reflected in their online log: "We are lucky indeed. We are lucky to be driving around America as a group of friends who love each other and who can be confident being gay and proud. We are lucky to have money enough to do this trip, thanks to Benjie's parents and to Equality Forum (which provided a grant). And I think most of all we realize that we -- and hopefully a lot of people who we're about to meet -- are incredibly lucky to have happy lives."
From the other side of the tape recorder, Scott recognized the relief in the faces of those he interviewed. He had experienced himself "the therapeutic aspect of having someone listening to what I had to say," he says. "You can see that when you're interviewing kids â€¦ They've been inside themselves for so long that they're almost ready to explode with information."
And every stop offered surprises. In Salt Lake City, Utah, for example, they had planned an interview with a gay Mormon youth group called GLYA: Gay Latter-Day Saints Young Adults ( www.glya.com). They were expecting 10 or 12 people. "Imagine our surprise," they wrote in their log, "when about 50 young guys all said "HEY!" as we walked in. It was huge, this group!" In Texas, they attended their first gay rodeo. "There were just gay line-dancing cowboys," recalls Scott, "and it was hilarious." Over and over again, says Scott, he was struck by young people's "resilience in the face of really being alone. They feel certain of who they are and their outlook is so positive, even in the face of family not accepting them."
Benjie is now 32 and Scott is 24 (Mike is no longer with YGA). Their many years of road trips have led them to unexpected places. For instance, they brought a video camera along on their third trip, and shot footage that would eventually become an award-winning documentary, "Jim in Bold" ( www.jiminbold.com/), about a closeted rural Pennsylvania youth who committed suicide in 1997. From the photographs they took on their travels, the guys created an installation called " Exuberance!" Comprised of 300 photographs of queer youth from all over North America, it was exhibited in galleries and cafes all over the country.
Finally, YGA road trips blossomed into YGA Magazine . With Benjie as publisher, Scott as assistant editor and Teddee as art director, YGA has published six glossy issues that include interviews, photographs, quizzes and how-tos. "Our goal," says the website, "is that YGA Magazine can stand aside Seventeen or YM on the mainstream newsstand to provide an alternative, and also something that affirms your sexuality rather than exploits it."
However, there are no more road trips on the horizon. "To be honest," says Benjie, another road trip is "not where I'd focus funding right now." Rather, he says, "if I had a lot of money to go on a trip, I'd take 20 kids to Africa, and help out there. We could take the power that gay youth have to do good things, and do good things and tell the world about it."
When YGA started, society was "on the crest of a change, directly on the lines of the popularization of the internet," says Benjie. Now, more than ever, gay youth are making connections with each other, finding their way, and doing just fine. In other words, YGA and other organizations like it have changed the landscape so much that they have made themselves obsolete. Well, almost. "I don't think we need to decrease our services," says Benjie, "but I do think we need to recognize that it's not like the generation that came before. We need to stop saying that we're a needy and desperate group of people." Rather, the message should be, "Hey, we're survivors, we're doing good. We're compassionate people, and we know who we are, and we're not going back in the closet, so let's go do something good."
Beth Schwartzapfel is a freelance writer based in Providence, R.I.