By Sarah Mieras
GRAND RAPIDS – Following two decades of weekly meetings in the basement of Fountain Street Church, the LGBT youth group Windfire disbanded on Dec. 23, 2004.
Although there are plans for a new youth group to form at the Network community center, the last meeting at Fountain Street Church served as a symbolic end of an era.
“When we started Windfire in 1984, homosexuality wasn’t a topic of conversation,” explained the group’s first facilitator Michael May.
May jump started the group following the request of a young man who had relocated from Portland where he attended a similar group. A youth group for gay teens was a shocking proposition in the 1980s, said May, during a time when the only mention of the gay community was in reference to AIDS.
“At the time there was no place for kids to ask questions about sexuality,” said May. “In the beginning, Windfire was the only education about AIDS for young gay men.”
Over the years Windfire’s attendance has remained fluid. Some meetings would draw more than 50 youth, some driving from as far as Traverse City before a spin off group was launched there. In recent months attendance at the Thursday night group had slumped to less than five teens. After leading the group for the past 12 years, its current facilitator, Kym Duursma, made the difficult decision to disband Windfire due to a lack of interest, not a lack of need.
In the last two decades a lot has changed for the LGBT community and gay youth especially. There are Gay/Straight Alliances in schools across the country, out role models in the media, and prime time television shows that feature out and proud characters. Just as society has changed, the needs of LGBT youth have changed. Once the only source for open discussions about sexuality and the only place many felt safe “coming out,” in recent years Duursma said Windfire has become a sounding board of sorts as teens strive to deal with the effects of being out at home and at school.
“It used to be that helping people come out was the biggest issue at meetings. Most people now are out, which presents other challenges,” said Duursma.
Aside from slipping attendance, Windfire has faced ongoing fina
ncial issues over the years.
“This group has never been funded,” explained May.
Operating without a 501(c)3 status and without the financial shelter of a parent organization, Windfire survived solely on volunteer energy from educators like Duursma, who spends her days working with Planned Parenthood of West Michigan.
Faced with losing what had become a stable circle of friends, more than 25 teens and all of the group’s former facilitators attended group’s last meeting.
“Windfire has been the place that you could go that was cool, no matter what. A place where no one would label you,” said Mandy, and 18-year-old who had been attending the group for only a few months. “I don’t know what I am going to do without this.”
Others, like Bobbi, also 18, noted that Windfire meetings gave her the support and courage she needed to come out.
In a tearful goodbye to the group, Duursma encouraged the youth, who ranged in age from 15 to 20, to take the reigns of the future and jump start a new group at the Network.
Ironically, said Jan Lunquist, vice president of education for Planned Parenthood, disbanding Windfire will most likely serve to increase interest in a new group. “When something is being taken away, then you really begin to value it.”
Regardless of the name of the group or the location of its meetings, those who have kept Windfire alive for the past 20 years agree there is still a need for youth group in the region.
Currently Windfire’s facilitators like Duursma and May are discussing the details of making sure some kind of youth group is started through the Network now that Windfire is gone.