By Alissa Smith
Inside Out Youth Services
A few months ago, a young transgender woman found refuge in Library 21C, where Inside Out Youth Services hosts a satellite program. According to executive director Jessie Pocock, this young woman was undoubtedly “in crisis,” and in desperate need of an understanding adult. Thankfully, the satellite program exists to help youth just like her.
“Up in north Colorado Springs,” Pocock says, “it’s really important to create some visibility and support and awareness for the young folks who may be LGBTQ or questioning in that area.” Not every youth can access Inside Out’s downtown location, and the Northside (also the home of Focus on the Family) historically hasn’t offered much access to resources for LGBTQ youth — youth like this young woman.
She came from a very religious family who didn’t accept her for who she was, and she was on the verge of hurting herself, possibly even ending her own life. But because Inside Out had a presence in that library, they were able to connect her with crisis services. Now, she lives fully in her identity, and still comes to Inside Out regularly. “She has grown so tremendously,” Pocock says proudly.
She is one of many LGBTQ youth (200 last year, according to Pocock) who access Inside Out’s services, either at the satellite location or its headquarters downtown. And stories like hers have played out thousands of times at this nearly 30-year-old organization.
When Regina Dipadova founded Inside Out in 1990, it was in the heyday of Focus on the Family and Colorado Springs’ reputation as a city of hate. Though society has changed since then, the services Inside Out provides are no less valuable.
It’s the only organization of its kind in Colorado Springs, and one of the few LGBTQ organizations at all in the area, which means schools, counselors and families come to them for guidance on issues ranging from suicide prevention and housing for homeless kids, to anti-drug education and trauma recovery.
“Our work is really, really dynamic,” Pocock says. “Because we deal with youth who are facing just so many issues.” Homelessness, drug use and abuse, bullying and other issues affect LGBTQ youth at higher rates than their heterosexual and cisgender peers, and Pocock says that half of the young people who walked through their doors in 2017 had attempted or considered suicide.
Pocock, who has been executive director for about six months, says she’s still learning “a lot about who [these youth] are, and what they’re facing, and what it looks like, now that I’m on the inside of Inside Out.”
Formerly the Southern Colorado organizer for One Colorado (an LGBTQ advocacy organization) and currently vice chair of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, Pocock has worked with Inside Out closely over the years, and says that she has big plans for its future growth.
A facility of their own may be on the horizon, plus a larger staff, and a satellite program at Fountain Library, similar to the program they run at Library 21C.
Studies have shown that if a child has one trusted adult in their life, they are more likely to overcome suicidal thoughts long enough to get help. “If we can put one of those adults in Library 21C,” Pocock says, “or in the Fountain Library, and build relationships with youth where they might not have other trusted adults they can go to with their sexuality or their gender identity, then our work can literally be life-saving.”
Every morning when Shawna Kemppainen, executive director of Urban Peak, drives to work, she sees people experiencing homelessness walking near the adult shelters on and around Tejon Street. She says the sight can be heartbreaking.
Even so, it is this daily experience that reminds her of the importance of her work; the importance of ensuring that the kids who come to Urban Peak for help will have a different future.
“My drive comes from my drive [to work] every day, coincidentally,” she says.
Urban Peak, whose Colorado Springs chapter was established in 2000, isn’t just a shelter for homeless youth, but a place for them to access resources, mentorship and intervention, with the hope of getting them on track to establishing a successful future.
“There’s so much going on in your life from that age, 15 to 24,” Kemppainen says, “that you are trying to integrate all the different pieces of yourself, basically trying to include yourself in who you’re becoming. And then you’re trying to fit all of that into trying to be part of the community.”
That fight can be hard enough on its own, but factoring in difficult financial circumstances, familial rejection and other outside pressures, what happens during these formative years can drastically alter the course of a person’s life.
Though Kemppainen never set out to work primarily with young people, she has found herself drawn to youth causes, and spent three years as executive director of Inside Out Youth Services before moving on to Urban Peak five years ago.
In part, she says, her work with LGBTQ youth especially allows her to address her own traumas from her childhood, to figure out: “What do I need to heal in myself from back then?” But mostly she recognizes how important it is to intercept youth at this stage of their lives, and help them learn necessary skills to build their own future. Oftentimes, they can’t rely on the adults in their lives to help.
According to Kemppainen, one-third of the youth who visit Urban Peak are homeless because their family rejected them after they came out as LGBTQ — homeless because of another person’s prejudice.
This is one of many things Kemppainen wants to see change. “I would one day love to drive toward being able to do that wider upstream work of helping families understand how their behaviors impact a young person when they come out,” she says. “Because there’s a lot of good education work that can be done there.”
However, Urban Peak’s efforts typically go toward helping the youth already facing crises. Their overarching vision: To ensure that every youth that comes to them can get the care they need within 24 hours. It’s a lofty ambition, to be sure, but Kemppainen knows the community is capable of supporting them in that effort.
She says that partnerships, or at least potential partnerships, are everywhere.
“The thing that I’ve most learned, even just in the past few years,” she says, “is that word ‘partnership’ is not just a nice nonprofit business buzzword. … I’ve had the good fortune of actually meeting and getting to know people who [are] for real. They are in it with us.”
So in the ongoing fight for equality, Kemppainen says we should be asking ourselves one question: “How can we do this together?”
Mary Lou Makepeace
Former Colorado Springs Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace (who served in the office from 1997 to 2003) recognizes that a proclamation is just a piece of paper. But back when she signed Colorado Springs’ first-ever pride proclamation, acknowledging Pride Month, that piece of paper held far more significance.
“It was, I think, the first time that I really stood up publicly for gay rights in this community,” she says.
Makepeace admits that she “gulped” before signing the proclamation, because she knew it would cause tension in our conservative city, but still she did what she thought was right. “I firmly believe that elected officials are in place to serve the citizens of whatever entity they’re representing,” she says, and she has always included the LGBTQ community in that belief. That first year, protesters flocked to the pride celebration. The second year, she noticed fewer. By the third year, it was just a “little band of people on the corner, telling me I was going to hell, but that was it. Everybody else just kept on with their lives and it wasn’t earth-shaking anymore.”
Since then, Makepeace has contributed to our local LGBTQ community in myriad ways. Most notably, after she left office, she became executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Fund for Colorado, and helped that fund contribute millions of dollars to local nonprofits.
Just last year she served as Inside Out Youth Services’ interim executive director, before Jessie Pocock took over six months ago. Though Makepeace has been active within the LGBTQ community for decades, she says that working at Inside Out taught her a lot about the state of LGBTQ youth.
The experience, she says, reminded her how much she had to learn when she became an advocate for gay rights. “I was totally not knowledgeable about the depth of issues that gay people face in our community, and I think just as I learned — and people who got money from the Gay and Lesbian Fund learned once they agreed to participate — you change your mind. Ignorance is a terrible thing.”
Makepeace has seen Colorado Springs’ reputation shift and grow, and weathered those years during which we were known as the “hate state” — the country’s reaction to the passage of Amendment 2, which prevented any governmental body in Colorado from considering homosexuals a protected class. But after all this time, she says, that reputation seems to have faded away. Focus on the Family is no longer the voice of Colorado Springs, nor is its anti-LGBTQ stance the city’s defining quality.
Her tireless work has helped shape that new image.
“There was a lot more pressure back when I was mayor than there is now,” Makepeace says. “There’s more openness toward LGBT people, as well as people of color and other minorities in our community. We’re a more diverse community, and I think that’s a good thing.”
But, of course, it does not mean the work is over. Makepeace is currently most actively involved in Pikes Peak Women, a group that advocates for women’s rights, supports women in leadership positions, and offers speakers, networking events and more to promote
discussion and collaboration among area women.
She maintains her commitment to serving this community, and suggests all of us keep this ball rolling alongside her. “Keep on keeping on,” she says. “People are doing great, and I think as long as we are open, and embracing people who are not like us, I think we’re on the right path.”
In July of 2016, Silas Musick officially came out as transgender, marking a new era in his life. It was actually the second time he had come out of the closet. When he was younger, he came out as gay, and faced prejudice from within himself as much as from outside.
“My coming out as gay was horrifically challenging,” he says. “… My trans experience couldn’t have been more different, and that’s completely because of this community.”
Originally, Musick came to Colorado Springs to receive conversion therapy from Focus on the Family, but his life looks very different now. “I was able to recreate circles and groups of people around me in this community who love me and accept me,” he says, “and when it was time for me to venture on to the next evolution of myself, the support was resounding.”
Musick has openly shared his story — both his experiences with Focus on the Family and his experiences throughout his transition — and was even featured in an article in O, The Oprah Magazine in April 2018 (written by former Indy staffer Kirsten Akens). He speaks in classrooms and gives advice to young transgender or questioning people (and their parents) to the best of his ability.
“You’ll calmly get the question of ‘what would you tell your younger self?’ And suddenly I’ll find myself across the coffee table from my younger self,” he says. “It’s a crazy experience.”
But this is precisely why he has been open and vulnerable with his story, because that vulnerability may help others come to terms with their own identities, and to be prepared for wherever their own stories happen to take them.
In addition to being outspoken about his own past and present self, Musick has done concrete work for our local community of equality-minded individuals and organizations.
He joined the Pikes Peak Equality Coalition in 2012 as a community organizer, and now holds the title of program manager. Working with the coalition, he says, is the greatest and most fitting role he has played in his life. When he was young, he wanted to be a preacher like his father, and couldn’t because of his perceived gender. But he says that his work with PPEC reflects elements of what once appealed to him about ministry. “It’s about helping people, and it’s about an equal voice for everyone,” he says. “It’s about reaching into places that maybe mainstream things don’t normally make it. There’s meaningfulness to the role, to the job, to the organizations that are hard at work.”
The coalition doesn’t just deal with equality for LGBTQ folks, but for everyone, which means that the fight for equality is a total group effort. This is how Musick lives his life, as well, constantly learning, growing and challenging himself with help from the community he’s had a hand in building.
Currently finishing up a master’s degree at UCCS, studying androgynous leadership, Musick has been considering the possibility of teaching in the future, another role that reflects his commitment to helping others. But whether he decides to take up that mantle officially, he has served as teacher, mentor and organizer for Colorado Springs for years.
“I hope that our family can stay in this community,” he says. “I know whether we do or not that this stretch of my life has changed the way I look and see and experience the world. It’s allowed me to evolve in ways I might not have.”
Rev. Dr. Nori Rost, minister at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, does more than preach inclusion. She lives it. This lifelong activist, advocate and local lesbian icon has been fighting the good fight since she came out at the age of 16, in 1978.
Her very first act of activism was a Take Back the Night rally when she was 17. “And I never looked back,” she says.
While Rost recognizes our culture has become more inclusive since she became involved in progressive causes, she also acknowledges that there has always been resistance to change, especially locally.
“We live in a place where there’s a lot of conservative Christian organizations,” Rost says, “and there are still kids who feel like, because of the faith that their family espouses, that they’re going to go to hell or there’s something wrong with them.” She says churches like Pikes Peak Metropolitan Community Church (a predominantly queer-Christian church where she once served as minister) and her own All Souls, as well as affirming spaces like Inside Out Youth Services, have eased the way for LGBTQ youth in this community, even as the LGBTQ and religious ideologies continue to butt heads.
“There’s certainly a growing tension [between religion and LGBTQ issues],” she says “just because there always is when a marginalized group is close to finding its true equal footing in society. This was true in the Civil Rights Movement when we saw lots of violence toward people of color and their white accomplices seeking equality, and it’s true now.”
The recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of a baker who discriminated against a gay couple, and similar issues playing out nationwide, are reactionary, Rost says, because gay people can serve in the military, because same-sex weddings are now the law of the land.
“It’s really just a swan song for them,” Rost says of the traditionalist religious holdouts. “There will always be prejudice and bigotry against queer folk, people of color, or women, or refugees or immigrants, but what will continue to change will be that the laws will not uphold that bigotry any longer.”
Of all people, she should know. Over the course of her life, Rost has advocated for causes running the gamut from LGBTQ issues to women’s issues and matters of immigration, and has worked closely with the NAACP and other local groups. With her at the helm, All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church became a sanctuary church last year.
She describes the state of American culture as an “intersectionality of oppression” and a “web of marginalization,” which is why collaboration across causes is vital to progress. Integrating that spirit of collaboration into her own practices, Rost has stopped using the word “ally.”
“Because when you use ‘ally,’” she says, “it means that it’s somebody else’s problem you’re just helping with.” Instead, she likes to consider herself an accomplice to people of color, people with disabilities, and others in groups to which she doesn’t belong.
“The way I see it is that anywhere there’s a need is where I need to be,” she says. “And I don’t have to be the leader. I don’t have to be the one banging the drum. I can just be a cheerleader, someone in the crowd at a rally. It’s not about me being the leader, but it is about me showing up. And if we can all, each of us, just show up as much as we can, then we will make a difference.”