While Pittsburgh does receive high marks overall from groups like Human Rights Campaign for its inclusionary LGBTQ laws, compared to other large metro areas like Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., there is a lack of youth drop-in spaces in Pittsburgh, and gay-straight alliances are not as robust as they are in other cities. Hugh Lane’s Youth AFFIRM program is a virtual group built to fill in some of those gaps, providing mental and sexual health support to local LGBTQ youth ages 14-21.
The Hugh Lane Wellness Foundation launched in Pittsburgh with the purpose of providing health equity for LGBTQ folks and people who are HIV positive. The staff provides education and training to service systems that were lacking in their knowledge of issues that affect LGBTQ individuals.
“We found gaps in direct programming and services to address some of the social support needs of our clients, as well as connectedness needs programming to improve mental health outcomes and physical health outcomes,” says Hugh Lane executive director Sarah Rosso. “So we really tried to find ways to fill those gaps with new and innovative programs like AFFIRM.”
Though AFFIRM has multiple options for people of any age, Hugh Lane really wanted to focus on strengthening their youth programming.
“Because so many organizations kind of shuttered and just decided to discontinue youth services, it was very important for us to keep young people connected,” says Hugh Lane program director Coley Alston.
There are different programs within AFFIRM. The program AFFIRM for Providers focuses on health and service providers, while Caregiver AFFIRM equips foster parents and caregivers of LGBTQ youth with the tools they need to properly care for children and teens. AFFIRM for adults is launching on March 22 to kick off LGBTQ Health Disparities Week.
“We're especially conscious of groups that tend to be isolated: thinking about young people, thinking about seniors, thinking about young adults who may not have family connections, and also people who are at other areas of marginalization,” says Alston.
“Especially people who have survived intimate partner violence and sexual violence, understanding that there's going to be a lot of different pockets of isolation. We want to make sure we keep people connected despite there being a pandemic.”
Recently, the Western Pennsylvania LGBTQ community has been in mourning over the loss of trans woman Chyna Carrillo, and 16-year old trans man Jeffrey “JJ” Bright and his older nonbinary sister, Jasmine Cannady, who were all killed within one week of each other in February. The recent increase in the killings of trans persons has many calling into question what is being done to protect trans people on a local, national, and global scale. The Equality Act recently passed the U.S. House, and would update an already existing federal law in regards to nondiscrimination protections for people based on their gender identity and sexual orientation if signed into law.
But while federal intervention is important, there is still a lot that can be done on a grassroots level to protect LGBTQ people, especially because these protections aren’t an end all to bigotry and transphobia. Each of the AFFIRM programs seek to fill gaps in care for LGBTQ people living in Western Pennsylvania.
Although the start of the pandemic changed the landscape of programming that Hugh Lane provides, the group was able to adapt to changing tides. They launched Hugh’s Kitchen, which provides items like weekly groceries, hygiene products, and safe sex kits to community members. They average about 55 weekly deliveries and were able to provide 3,599 food resources to community members last year. For the holidays, they did special-themed dinners and cookie kits with dietary restrictions in mind.
Youth AFFIRM is unique in that it is rooted in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a form of psychological treatment used to help diminish the negative effects of many mental-health disorders, including alcohol and drug use problems. One of the central tenets of this therapy is that psychological problems are based, in part, on unhelpful ways of thinking. AFFIRM operates with that in mind when working with the youth they serve.
“[CBT] has proven to decrease unhelpful thoughts. So they're really being able to interrupt negative thoughts, switching your own self-talk in a way that's positive, in a way that's helpful to yourself,” says Alston.
“You can't just tell people, ‘Oh yeah, it gets better,’ you actually have to sit down with someone and say, ‘What are some things that I can think about, that I can practice, that I can look forward to because right now from where I'm sitting, I can't see a way out of this,’” says Alston, adding that having positive, helpful social connections is another benefit of the program.
Many LGBTQ youth in Western Pennsylvania are currently dealing with stress, on top of struggling with the pandemic. With school going online, low-income students have the stress of having to acquire a computer and a stable internet connection in order to attend school and complete assignments. Some students might not have supportive adults or parental figures in their lives. With this in mind, AFFIRM has to be careful about confidentiality to make sure they aren’t putting a young person in danger.
“The care packages that youth receive come in this rainbow bag, and they're stuffed to the gills. But the thing is, I always have to check with young people first,” says Alston. “One, can this bag show up outside of your house? Is that OK that a rainbow bag shows up there? Otherwise, I use paper bags or other boxes, but also, can it have your name on it?”
Hugh Lane Wellness Foundation
To learn more about Hugh Lane’s Youth AFFIRM group, interested participants are invited to join a virtual meet and greet on Wed., March 31 at 4 p.m. Visit hughlane.org for more info.