Growing up for any kid is hard, but there is often a special kind of hell for those growing up gay or lesbian in Arkansas. This is the Bible Belt. We’re slow to change, and for all our Southern politeness, the prejudices of older folks tend to percolate through the generational strata whether we want them or not.
There is a place, however, that can bring hope and help to young people struggling with gender and sexual identity issues: Little Rock’s Center for Artistic Revolution, and its Lucille Marie Hamilton Youth Center. Headquartered at First Presbyterian Church at 800 Scott St., the center is home to the Diverse Youth for Social Change (DYSC) program, which holds weekly meetings to offer young LGBT people and their friends — ages 13 to 22 — a safe place to socialize, create, talk about their victories and setbacks, and simply feel comfortable in their own skin.
Rain Calabotta, 20, who identifies as “queer” and prefers to be referred to by neutral pronouns such as “they” or “them,” is an intern with CAR, and has been attending DYSC meetings for two years. In high school, Rain says, they can remember a lot of homophobia among classmates, including slurs being shouted in the hallway and threats of violence against those who were thought to be gay. As Calabotta came to the realization that they were different than others, growing up in that environment fostered “a deep-rooted, internalized homophobia in my mind.” That confusion soon evolved into depression, and a kind of self-hatred. “I didn’t want to tell people because they would think it was a joke, or they would think I was seeking attention,” Calabotta said. “I really didn’t want to draw attention to myself and get bullied for other things. … I didn’t want add that axis of frustration to my life.”
During their first semester in college, Calabotta learned about the DYSC program at CAR from a friend. By then, Calabotta’s depression had worsened. “At that point, I didn’t have a job and I wasn’t in college anymore because I couldn’t handle it,” Calabotta said. “I felt like I had nothing.” Eventually, near their end of their first semester as a college freshman, the feelings of loneliness and frustration got bad enough that Calabotta tried to commit suicide.
“I tried to kill myself because I didn’t understand my life and who I was,” Calabotta said. “Once I got out of the hospital, after a week, I started to go to DYSC more frequently. It provided me an outlet that wasn’t harmful. It gave me an opportunity to do something where I could acknowledge my own being as worthy: Going to a group of 30 people every Friday who can lift you up and hug you and make you feel loved. … They just cared. They’ve spent the past two years lifting me up and showing me that I’m a good person and that I can help other people.”
The DYSC meetings, Calabotta said, are always laid back and fun, full of movies, improv games, creativity, and education about how to deal with day-to-day frustrations. Most importantly, the meetings are an opportunity to talk to other young people who know what it is to be different and know what an LGBT kid is going through. “Sometimes we’ll talk about, what was the best thing that happened to you that week and what was the worst thing?” Calabotta said. “Then we have the space to talk about what bothers us. Not always do youth have a place to talk about their emotions.”
As an intern for CAR, Calabotta said they see many young people coming into the DYSC program who are in the same place they were two years ago: depressed, alone, feeling worthless and suicidal. For Calabotta, surviving that time in their own life was a game of minutes. DYSC, Calabotta said, does nothing less than save young lives.
“I took it by the minutes,” Calabotta said. “If I can take it 10 minutes, I can make it 10 more minutes. Eventually, it got to a place where I could take it a few hours. Then a few days. Then I got to where I could make it a week. And when it got to where I could make it a week, DYSC was what I was looking forward to. Being able to go to a safe place, with people who I have adopted as my family, whose faces I look forward to seeing, whose hugs I look forward to having — just that human need for reassurance and touch and support, through people who have found a way to impact my life — they were the people I was looking forward to seeing. … They were my light. They were my light at the end of the tunnel.”
Randi M. Romo founded CAR in 2003 and is its executive director. The DYSC youth program meets at First Presbyterian every Friday night from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Meetings usually host 30-35 young people per week. CAR is also the sponsor of the Little Rock chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), the Arkansas affiliate of the National Gay Straight Alliance Network, hosts Gender Equality Arkansas, which offers support for transgendered people, and stages protest actions against LGBT prejudice and homophobia all over the state as the need arises. For more information or to make a donation, visit its website at artisticrevolution.org, call 501-244-9690, or email to email@example.com.