Most people recollect that flutter for a special someone as early as elementary school. Yet when it comes to addressing the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth, many people feel these children are too young to know what they want. People say, “How can you be sure?” or, “You have so much time ahead of you for that stuff.” The difference, of course, is that for heterosexual youth the surrounding society inherently reinforces their crushes. Beyond sexual identity, there is the issue of gender. We are socialized into our genders from birth — think pink onesies or blue, cars or dolls. It doesn’t take long for children to sense what doesn’t fit social expectations.
In early 2010, a mother whose son came out as gay at age 12 turned to the JCC in Manhattan when she tried unsuccessfully to find a support group for her son. Most programs start at age 14, but 11-13 year olds are also processing their gender and sexual identities, and so Cometfire was born — a free discussion group that meets twice monthly for LGBTQ middle schoolers (11-to-14 year olds). Cometfire is an informal gathering, usually involving an imaginative project — frosting Lady Gaga cookies, drawing “queer superheroes” — and talking about their lives and queer culture. “What should I do about a kid that teases me at school for being gay?” asked one 12-year-old boy. “I bet I can walk better in stilettos then you can!” announced another. An 11-year-old girl asked, “What is ‘queer family’?” And a 13-year-old girl decided she likes the group “because I get to express my feeling about what it feels like to be gay,” and added, “I am glad that every woman does not have to get pregnant.”
While not completely developed emotionally or physically, these youth do know enough about themselves to know they’re different. The young people, and their parents, marvel at how they’ve never had anyone to talk to about this “stuff” before. The gay teen suicide tragedies of the past few months highlight the urgency and value of Cometfire.
The significance of Cometfire is not just in the meetings. The existence of such a group is also a reminder to caregivers and educators that we have an obligation to support young LGBTQ people in understanding and embracing their differences.