Photo by Steve Shay
Jennifer Gess, left, is co-director of POW!, a Burien based advocacy group for the lesbian, gay, and questioning community that meets every Wednesday afternoon. They welcome 13 to 21 year-old members. The other three pictured are quoted but asked to remain anonymous.

Burien's POW! a "safe place" for youth who may identify as gay or lesbian

The new release of the controversial, award-winning documentary "Bully", which explores our attitudes toward violence associated with kids getting bullied by peers, places the issue of gay and "questioning" teens on the front burner. In some communities things may be boiling over for youth who feel out of the mainstream with their sexual identity and vulnerable to attack and confrontation.

Through West Seattle-based Navos Mental Health Solutions, a new organization in Burien assists 13 to 21 year-olds who may identify with being gay or lesbian called "POW!", or Proud Out And Wonderful. The organization states it welcomes "all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, and allies". According to Intersex Society of North America, " Intersex is a socially constructed category that reflects real biological variation.

POW! meets at an anonymous location in Burien every Wednesday from 4:00 pm to 6:00 p.m. Those who attend are also promised anonymity. According to the POW! Facebook Page, "We are a Queer Youth Group providing support and activism in South King County." It's mission, "To provide a safe space for LGBTQ youth to support each other, access resources and wellness tools, and gain the leadership skills to create positive change in their communities."

The term "LGBTQ" stands for "lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, & queer". The POW! site explains that, "We join with others in reclaiming the use of the word 'queer'. This word, which was used as a weapon against LGBTQ folks for years, is now being used by us and others as an inclusive term. Many people who do not feel that they fit in traditional categories (of gender and sexual orientation) or do not feel that these categories are useful, can come together under a shared identity."

Jennifer Gess co-founded POW! with Meg Winston. Gess is a child and family therapist at Navos Mental Health, and heads the group. She and three, 17 year-old high school students, members of POW!, wanted to discuss the organization with the Highline Times and we honored the members' requests for anonymity.

"We want to decrease homophobia in South King County," said Gess. "There are a lot of LGBTQ resources in Seattle, but very few here, in South King County. Homophobia is in the media, in our language, integrated in our society. Look at the (negative) expression, 'That's so gay'. For myself, this is a very personal matter.

"I grew up in a conservative area and I wasn't able to come out (as lesbian) because, I think, there were a lot of different aspects like religion, and lack of resources, the kind that POW! offers," she continued. "We didn't have a GSA, a 'Gay-Straight Alliance Network'. I knew nobody queer-identified in high school."

The Highline School District offers a GSA.

POW! features public speakers, and holds community events, sometimes in partnership with other organizations. In February. they held the "Valentine's LGBTQ and Allies relationship and sex health workshop" with the motto being "Same sex sex is safe sex", at the Burien Library and 40 attended. They partnered with Northwest Network, which fights abuse directed toward the gay community, and did a relationship skills workshop.

"I think sexuality is fluid, especially at this age," said Gess. "I identified as an ally before I was comfortable coming out. I have a lot of straight friends now who want to advocate for gay marriage, especially now that it is legal in Washington.
Now we're able to explore the spectrum of our gender, not as black and white. It is important to explore that. This is a safe space to discuss this."

POW! member "George" attends the alternative Burien High School, Highline Big Picture.

"I identify myself as a 'native two spirit,'" he said. "This is a very old form of people from different tribes before the settlers came."

According to the website Androgyne, "Two-spirits were highly regarded and respected as artisans, craftspeople, child rearers, couples counselors and tribal arbiters (...) There were male two-spirits in more than 150 different Native American tribes, but there were female two-spirits, as well. Two-spirits were considered to be a 'third gender'."

"My partner preference is male identified," said George, who acknowledges some degree of fluidity in his sexual identity. "I probably would not gravitate toward a woman partner (over time). If you go right up to somebody and ask, 'Are you Jewish? Christian? Black? White? It wouldn't be OK if you were asked by random people you did not know. But curiosity isn't always a bad thing."

He said he wants to pursue a career in black and white film photography.

He explained, "There are certain moments, landscapes, abstract things that should be captured in black and white and sometimes it can draw more emotion, thinking, and depth into what you're actually looking at."

"Susan" is a POW! member and also attends Big Picture High School. She identifies as bisexual, and said she is troubled how those perceived as different by peers are sometimes ostracized in the media. She pointed to the TV show, "Glee".

"In Glee, the character Kurt Hummel was bullied out of his school (William McKinley High School)," she said. "He was pushed up against lockers. Nobody wanted him to perform sports because of the way he was.

"My parents know I'm here at this meeting now," she said. "My parents are supportive, but my mom and stepmom say it's 'just a phase', and that I am going to go back to only liking guys. I don't think I am going through a phase."

"Charles" attends Aviation High School, and is interested in chemical engineering and journalism. He said he does not get bullied, perhaps because he has a sturdy build, and is well over six feet tall. Regarding this issue of "fluidity" in sexual and gender identity, he said, "There isn't a 'set position'. It is more like a dimmer switch.

"My parents know I'm here," he added. "I just told them I wanted to go to this meeting, a support group for LGBTQ, and they said, 'OK'. I told my mom I was bisexual. I told my dad later. He took it better than I expected him too. I expected it to be more like the scenes on TV, when someone comes out and their parents freak out."

Charlene Strong is a high-profile LGBT activist in Seattle and the subject of the award-winning documentary "for my wife". She is co-editor with Sarah Toce of the LGBT online magazine "The Seattle Lesbian" which reaches over one million readers globally.

"I think sexuality has some fluidity to it," she told the Highline Times. "However, not everyone can be bisexual, and not everyone can be straight. I talk about this when I speak (in public) that we need to let up a bit on our rigid titles. Yes, the churches do try to paint a brush that if we just stopped having sex with same-sex partners we cold be 'cured of being gay'. I was married to a man for nine years. Was it just sexually the relationship? No. It was the emotional and physical connection that I was (also) looking for when I came out. It is a subject that is concerning these days, but it needs to be addressed with real care and with real understanding that, 'No, it is not something that makes us broken, and perhaps the churched should pay attention to something else besides what we are doing in the bedroom."

In addition to GSA's, other resources available to area students include the public-private partnership organization Safe Schools Coalition, the Seattle-based Northwest Network, which strives to end abuse in the lesbian and gay community, and GLSEN, which states that "the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) strives to assure that each member of every school community is valued and respected regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression." Also, PFLAG- Parents, Family & Friends of Lesbians & Gays.

Jennifer Gess invites those interested in attending a POW! meeting to email her at Jenniferg@navos.org, or phone her at (206) 933-7236.

Also, check out their Facebook Page for more information.

A few typos have been corrected. Thank you.

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