"See What Goes On Behind My Masks" is a book of poetry by sexual minority youth (including many homeless youth) and their straight allies. It is the product of a nine-month writing project by the nonprofit Pongo Publishing. Masks is Pongo's eighth book. Recent projects and poetry books by Pongo include writing by young people in a state psychiatric hospital, by incarcerated youth in grief therapy, and by teens in juvenile detention. A consistent theme in the young people's poetry is early childhood loss, often in the form of abuse and neglect. Through writing and publication, it is Pongo Publishing's goal to help young people express feelings, build self-esteem, and take better control of their lives.
The writing project that produced "Masks" took place at Lambert House, an activities and resource center for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth (LGBTQ youth), ages 14-22. Lambert House is in Seattle, and it is one of the first agencies of its type in the United States. It offers programs and services for young people, including a computer lab, social activities, Youth Leadership Council, crisis intervention, drug and alcohol evaluation, sexual health education, HIV testing, and mental health counseling. Its drop-in center is open every day from 4:00-10:00 PM. Here is one young person's de- scription of what Lambert House means to him:
"To me, Lambert House is where I go when I feel lonely, happy, worried, and optimistic. It is a place that I hold in high regard. When at Lambert House I feel safe and 'at home,' more than I do at my own house. Here I can talk with people who help me 'figure out my shit.' It's also a very comfortable place for me to just hang out and chill with friends. Lambert House has changed my life so much, I don't really think I would be alive right now, if I hadn't found Lambert House and the support it gives me."
As suggested by this young man's appreciation of Lambert House, and by the list of Lambert House services, many sexual minority youth face challenges to their safety and self-esteem. And other problems sometimes follow. For example, coming out in our society can result in homelessness and street involvement for LGBT young people. 26% of LGBT youth leave home because of conflict related to their sexual orientation. 42% of homeless youth identify themselves as LGBT. Sexual minority youth are also at higher risk for sexual harassment, physical abuse at school, and domestic violence. 97% of students in public high school report hearing homophobic remarks. 45% of gay male adults and 20% of lesbian adults report being physically assaulted in high school. And, sadly, sexual minority youth are also at higher risk for drug and alcohol abuse, depression, and suicide. 68% of gay male youth and 83% of lesbian youth use alcohol. 60% of gay youth report mental health issues, such as elevated anxiety.
Which brings us at last to a discussion of our authors. Yes, the poetry published in this book is often sad, especially the reflections on rejection, homelessness, drugs, and prostitution in the section called "I Dropped My Heart Into a Spoon." Some of the youth at Lambert House experience the problems discussed as statistics, above. On the other hand, there is a side of the Lambert House youth that is not well represented in the poetry published here. These young people have many joys and talents. They especially enjoy each other, and they are poets, musicians, artists, workers, and students. Relationships are very important at Lambert House, as conveyed in the final section of our book, "Pull Me Out From Inside, I Am Ready."
And finally, consider the first part of the book, the section that provides the book's title, "See What Goes On Behind My Masks." The youth at Lambert House understand that frequently they are not known - and that frequently they can't allow themselves to be known. They do not want to settle for this condition. The youth at Lambert House understand that there is a person of value inside each of them. They are proud. And they wish to be open. They have my respect and best wishes.
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