Pizza Klatch: We had to make a tough call

… that’s why we get paid the big bucks, right?

So far I’ve co-facilitated two Pizza Klatch lunches at my alma mater and already, we’ve had some unexpected challenges.

For our inaugural week, we had great attendance for both lunches, we were off to a great start, even though one of our second lunch attendees struck us both as potentially challenging.  This young man was outspoken about the violence in his home and, rather than reject it, seemed to revel in it while telling us about various fights he’d been in and damage he’d caused.  Other kids chimed in about how tough their homes were and there was a definite vibe of one-upmanship.  At the same time, about half of the group remained silent and seemed very put off by that line of conversation.

While we cleaned up, J (co-facilitatory) and I talked about this young man and both of us worried that the negative mood of that group might negatively impact attendance in the future.  We discussed some redirection strategies and looked forward to the next round.

In the days between the first and second round of meetings, some interesting things happened around our Tough Guy.  He’d been loudly protesting that he didn’t really mean to be in the PK group and that once he’d gotten in there, he hadn’t been allowed to leave.  As you can imagine, this started all kinds of ripples with the high school staff and faculty.  No one really believed that we’d restrained him, and, in fact, the head counselor (who’d had a lot of contact with TG) really thought he had some identity issues and didn’t know how to handle them in a reasonable way.  The counselor was able to talk to him and TG admitted that he was a homophobe, but was trying to change his ways.  He said he wanted to continue going to PK.

J and I got all this info throughout the week and there were discussions back and forth.  When we came back together before this week’s meetings, we shared our concern that TG’s outspoken criticism and phobic ranting would have a chilling effect on the other attendees from that group.

This week the first group was fairly consistent:  kids who were fairly aware and interested in queer goings on in the world, articulate, confident, using their company manners for the most part.  Sadly, it turns out our concerns about the second lunch were legitimate.  The minutes ticked by as we sat in the room with way too much pizza.  Finally, a young man that J knew from last year came in and talked to us about stuff going on in his life. After about 10 minutes, he went out to get his best friend, a straight guy he plays video games with, and who was supportive and cool about the ‘gay thing’.  While we waited for them to return, Tough Guy came swaggering in with a friend of his, Wrestling Dummy (hey, I didn’t make that one up, TG called him that).   We were both open to him and his friend, and, for their part, they were being friendly enough.  The original kid and his friend came back in and we began our round of introductions and highs and lows.   During the midst of that, two girls came in, ones we hadn’t met before, and ones who looked way out of place.  I may be reading them wrong, but my gaydar was completely offline.

J and I continued with announcements on the gay things the queer gay lesbian people were doing around town (I say it this way because the blond girls were sitting near me and it seemed like they flinched every time we used words like that).  We let the group know about opportunities within queer and queer supportive organizations in town.  We told them about a group collecting warm clothing and other outdoor gear for homeless kids.  We told them about a group that would be displaying art by LGBTQQIA youth during the next Arts Walk.  The kids met most of this information with a somewhat bewildered silence and lots of looking around the room.  TG had an idea about how to help the homeless kids, however.

“We could ship them all to the Mohave Desert, then they wouldn’t freeze to death.”

“Ouch” I said. “That’s really unsupportive and unkind.”

“What?” He responded in feigned confusion. “I’m just trying to help.”

Wrestling Dummy had another idea,”We could give them all fishing poles and guns, then they could hunt and fish and feed themselves.”

I gave him an arched brow look, “Really?  Think that’s gonna work in downtown Olympia?”

This caused much laughter and shoulder chucking between them.  I looked at J and saw that she was equally as frustrated.  We moved on before the one-upmanship of intolerance could continue.

We finished the session by showing them the video trailer for a documentary by queer kids.  The entire group, to a one, was glued to the screen as each of the youth in the video — gender variants, sexual deviants, wonderfully articulate and confident, of all hues and styles — spoke up about who they were — and weren’t — and what kind of change they wanted to bring about in the world.

The bell rang and they grabbed slices of pizza on the way out, the blondies still looking like deer caught in the headlights.

J and I assessed the damage.  Yes, the sweet young gay man had come in with his supportive friend but a whole room full of kids had stayed away.  A few minutes later, Head Counselor came in and said he’d overheard TG say to WD, “See? I told you!” with leering looks and unkind laughter as they walked away from the room.  The three of us talked about the tone of this meeting, our concerns for the future success of second lunch.  We all worried about TG continuing to dominate with his less than supportive attitude and a potential growing number of equally homophobic friends.  We were concerned about homophobic kids coming to the meetings to find out who the queers were.  We were worried about losing all the kids who didn’t come back a second time, but who seemed to be exactly the kids this group was created for.

We felt strongly that we needed to take control again and set a precedent.  We looked at the whole picture of his actions since coming to PK the first week.  Clearly, he’s a conflicted young man, and accustomed to using violence as a means of expressing himself.   He’s got a record of sorts in the school for violent incidents.  HC offered to speak to him about not attending PK any longer, to discuss how his words and actions were at odds with the purpose of the group.  This was not an easy decision to make because we all think it’s pretty likely that TG is struggling with some identity issues around his sexuality.  In that way, PK is the group for him.  Unfortunately, he also showed a great potential to continue to make it unsafe for others and that was what helped us make the decision.  The safety of the larger group, the need for us to set a positive supportive tone — those needs outweighed his individual need to get help, in this situation.  That kind of help he needs right now is beyond what we can manage in a 25 minute group lunch once a week.

So, yeah, here we are at week two and we already had to kick someone out of group.  But we want to be a safe place for all the kids who fit our core mission.  That’s our bottom line.  Unfortunately, to do that, we had to turn him away.

A couple of days later, we heard a little more from HC.  TG hadn’t reacted well when spoken to about his conduct, responded with disrespect and anger and a distinct lack of remorse or recognition of wrong-doing.   On the plus side, a day after that, TG and HC had to meet about something else, and TG took that opportunity to take responsibility for his actions, to agree that he may have been off-putting to others.  He knows he can’t come back to PK at this point, but is considering attending a GSA meeting.

And that’s where we are right now.  Looking forward to one more set of meetings before holiday vacation, wondering if any kids will come to second lunch next week.  We’re hoping word gets out that we took a stand, that we won’t put up with homophobia and intolerance.  We hope we’ll start seeing some of the kids from the original meeting and more.

There are challenges you expect with a group like this, things we prepared for like kids who were expressing negative feelings about themselves, possibly posing a danger to themselves.  We didn’t look for student generated homophobia to throw a damper on our group so soon.  And so  I’m hoping for a bit of holiday magic next week, so we can set ourselves up for success in the new year.

This position is going to be challenging and rewarding.  My job is to be there, to keep representing a positive, responsible model of queerness.  I’m going to witness their courage in attending and reward it with as much positive feedback as possible, and bring them as much information about being LGBTQQIA out in the real world as I can in the time we have.  There’s so much they don’t know, can’t even imagine yet, and I think it’s going to be a lot of fun opening their eyes to the possibilities their lives offer.

 

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