Summer is a time of pride marches and Hotter than July parties, but as we transition to fall, the question is: What support exists for LGBTQ+ youth year-round in Detroit?
Queer youth can get the mental health, career, physical health and community they need through three of metro Detroit’s queer youth resource centers, but it still isn’t enough. Many LGBTQ+ youth still fall through the cracks, unable to find the community they need.
“The people we serve … are at risk of harm and danger because of who they are,” Ruth Ellis Center community engagement manager Krystina Edwards said. “That’s the very reason why I get up to do this work. I don’t want anyone else to experience (the grief) I’ve experienced.”
There were about 131,000 people in the metro Detroit area who self-identified as LGBTQ+ in 2021. How many of these are young people we don’t know, but some of them will need support and services to help them come to terms with this identity or weather the real world effects of being marginalized because of it.
Local solutions to mental health, homelessness, HIV prevention
About three quarters LGBTQ+ people under 18 recently surveyed in Michigan reported feeling symptoms of anxiety at high rates. More than half said they had symptoms of depression and just under half had considered suicide, four times more than their non-LGBTQ+ peers.
Detroit’s queer youth centers aim to provide much needed services and community given this reality. The Ruth Ellis Center in Highland Park, LGBT Detroit in Detroit and Affirmations in Ferndale, team up to support and uplift these young people.
What these three centers have in common is the sense of community they offer for LGBTQ+ youth. This sense of community is a vital part of the centers’ mental health services, as social isolation is connected to the higher rates of depression, anxiety and substance abuse.
Affirmations community engagement manager Justin Bettcher said he didn’t come out until he was 32 because he grew up in a conservative area. He didn’t see adult representation of gay people and wants to change that for today’s LGBTQ+ youth.
“It’s just seeing how the simplest things help them,” Bettcher said. “It’s just someone listening to them, someone taking them seriously, someone genuinely having a conversation with them … those simple gestures really help those kids.”
Affirmations offers a behavioral health program with licensed therapists. It also has almost two dozen options for virtual and in-person support and discussion groups, with specific communities for LGBTQ+ people of color, transgender people and those recovering from drug addictions. Outlier Media was not able to confirm the number of people served by Affirmations last year in time for publication.
The Ruth Ellis Center offers shelter for LGBTQ+ youth experiencing homelessness. More than a quarter (28%) of LGBTQ+ youth experience homelessness or unstable housing at some point in their lives nationally.
The center aims to honor the life and work of celebrated Black LGBTQ+ activist Ruth Ellis. Ellis was one of the oldest surviving out lesbian when she died at 101 years old in 2000. Her house was known as the “gay spot,” because it was a refuge for Black gays and lesbians and a central location for LGBTQ+ parties.
The Ruth Ellis Center serves approximately 1,200 young people each year. Edwards said the center has 43 units for LGBTQ+ youth facing homelessness and offers up to a year of rental support and employment assistance. For others who need a safe space for just a few hours or a little help, the center offers meals, laundry services, contraceptives, and computer access to people between ages 13 and 30 who drop in to the location.
LGBT Detroit primarily serves Black LGBTQ+ youth. It focuses on HIV/AIDS education and prevention, not direct service. Its goal is to reach as many people as possible through engagement on social media and in-person events. The HIV/AIDS focus is with good reason — in 2020, nearly 11,000 Detroiters were living with HIV and more than 68% of them were Black.
LGBT Detroit’s Jerron Totten grew up in rural North Carolina, and said HIV information is essential for Black queer youth. The intersection between being Black and LGBTQ+ means more possible social isolation for Black queer youth. LGBT Detroit hopes to provide that community for this demographic.
“There were not a lot of out Black gay males (in my hometown),” Totten said. “There was no one I can think of that I could look to as an example or share experiences with. So I do this work so that someone else won’t have the lack of community.”
Systemic change is needed
These centers can’t help the young people they serve alone — they need help on a systemic level to make meaningful change. Nazarina Mwakasege, director of development and advancement at the Ruth Ellis Center, said standardizing gender-affirming care and prioritizing LGBTQ+ health is needed.
“Why shouldn’t a transman/transwoman/nonbinary person have the exact same (medical) experience (as me)?” Mwakasege said. “All it takes is kindness and critical thinking, something that all healthcare providers should be capable of.”
A 2021 study from the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law found that transgender people had more poor physical health days per month (8 days) than cisgender people (4 days).
Attempting to bridge this gap locally, the Ruth Ellis Center has a partnership with Henry Ford Health to provide general medical visits, vision and hearing screenings, STI/HIV screening and care, contraceptives and transition care for transgender individuals.
Affirmations offers COVID-19 vaccine clinics and HIV/STI screenings in partnership with the Oakland County Health Division, while LGBT Detroit refers to local organizations that specialize in drug addiction and HIV screening/prevention.
Bettcher said it takes a collaborative approach to ensure that as many of Detroit’s queer youth are supported as possible.
“At the end of the day, the goal of all of these organizations are the same: Make sure the youth we work with get what they need,” Bettcher said.
Affirmations, Ruth Ellis Center and LGBT Detroit often refer out to each other based on the young person’s needs and location.
For more information on the three LGBTQ+ centers in Detroit, visit their websites below or stop in.
Ruth Ellis Center
77 Victor St.
Highland Park, MI
20025 Greenfield Road
290 W. Nine Mile
This story has been updated to correct the number of self-identified LGBTQ+ people are from the metro Detroit area, not just the city of Detroit.