Lemme take you back for a second: in the '80s and '90s it was hard to find a place for a young gay person to feel safe. It was hard enough to find other gay people, unless you went to the bars, which were either far from safe, or simply not accessible to gays under 18. Thankfully there are a lot more places where young gay people can go, but long before these places existed, and even after they did, there was a place few people to this day think of as a haven for the LGBTQ community.
Planned Parenthood is an institution so old that their name has lost all meaning (so like, you can go there to plan parenthood? I get it now). For most folks who do know what Planned Parenthood means, the general, under-informed viewpoint is that the words "gay" and "Planned Parenthood" go together like "trans Republican" or "gay Nazi"-- but just as those two terms are (unfathomably) nonetheless a thing, so is the relationship between Planned Parenthood and LGBTQ people.
I was raised in New Orleans, a city known for partying, not progressiveness. In terms of broad-mindedness, New Orleans is essentially Mississippi with 24-hour bars and pretty architecture. If you were gay, you went to "the bars." Luckily, and sadly, in New Orleans you could belly up to the bar and get a drink if you promised to bring your I.D. next time. In the '80s, there was nothing else -- nothing. The gay people I saw were falling apart, and suffering from the social ills that have claimed so many of us -- alcoholism, AIDS, depression, suicide, etc.
I escaped New Orleans and moved to Texas after high school (out of the frying pan...). I lived in south Texas for a couple of years; Corpus Christi. There was one gay bar, ironically named "Choices," and though I snuck into it many times, the public restroom at the rest stop just outside of town was a friendlier gay experience. I met a group of gays at the restaurant where I worked, and I found a great deal of respite in them. But they had nowhere to go either, save for the drag shows, so we spent our free time at each other's apartments taking turns cleverly insulting one another. We loved each other, but it didn't feel in our nature to think about how to support one another, and without this crucial element we fought, drank, and put ourselves at great risk.
I left Corpus and moved to Austin, an oasis smack in the center of a rattlesnake-boot infested desert of bigotry. People called it "the San Francisco of the South" because of its seemingly large gay population. And it did, in fact, have a whole row of gay bars downtown where you could go to find rooms full of white men with plaid shirts tucked into their high waisted, belted jeans. I was still technically too young to go into them, but just knowing they were there, and not hidden in a dark and unsafe part of town, made me feel hopeful and eager to turn 21.
Soon after arriving in Austin, I found the gay-youth drop-in-center, run by a single lesbian, right on "the drag" -- a nickname I came to discover had no relation to female impersonation. Outyouth was a safe haven, a run-down one, but a place where kids could go for help, and a much rarer commodity: positivity. I loved it, and I made friends with whom I stayed up many nights sharing stories and driving around town.
One night, after hours of being wind-whipped in the back of my new friend Mike's pick up truck, hoarse from laughing and screaming above the deafening airstream, Mike and his boyfriend got into a fight. The two boys were seeing each other and one of them decided to end it abruptly, which wasn't all that uncommon among 19 year olds, but Mike, a self-hating, Texas-born, closeted kid couldn't cope with the rejection. I got a call the next afternoon from one of the boys in the truck that night who told me that Mike had hung himself from the terrace outside his former lover's apartment.
Mike's death shook me, and I decided that I wanted to do more than just hang out on one of the donated couches in the drop-in-center; I wanted to help other kids who might find themselves in Mike's situation. Outyouth had a phone line that anyone could call into to ask questions or make a connection when they had no one else. It felt like a suicide hotline, because I suppose we always knew that was on the table, but it was simply called a "helpline." It was staffed by volunteers, some youth and some adults, but none trained. If we wanted to volunteer our time to the helpline effort we just showed up and sat at a folding table in the breaker closet waiting for someone to call.
My first time manning the line was frightening, but exhilarating, as I thought I could somehow atone for my unwarranted sense of partial responsibility for Mike's suicide. My first call was from a young gay man who needed help. He needed help masturbating. I decided that it wasn't enough to work a phone-sex line for free, and I went looking for another place where I felt I could really make a difference.
One day, a co-worker friend of mine mentioned she was a part of a group of young people who went around town performing in skits that educated younger kids about things like date rape and homophobia. Date rape and homophobia!!!??? Yes ma'am!
She told me that I was to go to a place called Planned Parenthood on a Saturday afternoon and prepare to take part in an ad-libbed scenario as part of my audition. I had no idea what Planned Parenthood was, but she told me it was a place that welcomed everyone, worked to help women and poor people, and had "centers" all over the country. It was the place I had been looking for my whole life.
I made it into the acting ensemble and was immediately scheduled to take part in a comprehensive training on sexual education, peer outreach, HIV prevention, sexual harassment, and inclusivity. Why doesn't everyone go here every fucking day, I thought. We spent our days off and many school-day mornings in middle and high-school auditoriums performing half-scripted, half-improvised skits about every imaginable social issue. Teen pregnancy, consent, bullying, suicide, and yes, homophobia were some of the topics we acted out in our half-baked matinees. I always played the homophobe.
The education department of Planned Parenthood in Austin was made up of people not just dedicated to what I learned Planned Parenthood was known for -- contraception and choice -- but to principles that transcended any one disenfranchised group of peoples' needs. They were smart, well-educated, well-spoken, open-minded, non-judgmental people who, in the very best way, didn't care if you were gay. They saw gays and women and teenagers and people of color as a singular group of people who needed education, support, and help with their sexualities. We were all sexual beings, after all, not just the ones who were best known for the kind of sex they had.
Nearly all Planned Parenthood affiliate education departments have a teen component embedded in their infrastructures. These programs welcome teenagers into the effort to help others by teaching them to provide education to their peers. In some places they're called "teen advocates," other affiliates refer to them as "youth health promoters," but what they are are places where young people are empowered to take control of their lives and to help others do the same.
I'm now a consultant that works with Planned Parenthoods around the country to help them transform their in-person teen outreach programs into digital film workshops where adolescents produce their own messages of support and inclusivity to broadcast online. I've helped young people produce rap-battle videos that address Planned Parenthood's detractors, and I've helped Planned Parenthoods assure LGBTQ people that they are, in fact, there for them too in ways that excoriate their conservative regions' icons.
KENNY NEAL SHULTS has been in public health since he was a teen in the '90s. Among the first of his peers to recognize the impact of digital media on social & health behaviors, Shults has shown how social media platforms can be used to reach at-risk populations for HIV, behavior change, and harm reduction messaging and services. As a long-time, staunch advocate, he currently focuses his efforts on helping Planned Parenthood develop digital messaging to navigate the headwinds they face under the Trump administration.