A question must be asked before it can be answered. And oneThe answers aren’t always easy or obvious, but nonprofit Queer Keys, which launched in August 2021, wants teens to have the courage to ask questions about themselves and the world around them. , in a safe and inclusive space.

Chris McNulty (who also writes Keys Weekly horoscopes) and Janiece Rodriguez created Queer Keys as a weekly evening drop-in center where kids of all identities, orientations and preferences — and those who haven’t yet answered those questions — can be themselves, said Rodriguez, a trans woman who wishes see more trans healthcare available in Key West.

“Our goal is not for them to find all the answers to huge questions,” Rodriguez said. “It’s about providing a place where they can come as they are and distract themselves from any concerns they might have.” Questions or doubts about gender identity and sexual orientation can become all-consuming, especially for teenagers, Rodriguez added.

“We really see this as the youth component of our overall goal, which is a fully resourced LBGTQ+ center in Key West,” McNulty said. “We started with kids ages 12 to 18 because it’s such an underserved population. We want to provide a safe and fun space for queer and questioning children.

But wait, you ask, isn’t the term “queer” pejorative? Not anymore, McNulty said.

“Young people are all drawn to the word ‘queer’, but obviously be aware of how you use it,” he said. “’Queer’ involves fluidity and has become a catch-all to include the entire LGBTQ+ community. Basically, that means you don’t identify as heteronormative. (Heteronormative is “the assumption that heterosexuality is the norm for defining normal sexual behavior,” according to the American Psychological Association.)

Health expert Elise Schuste said in a May 2022 Cosmopolitan magazine article that the LGBTQ community embraced the term “queer” in the late ’80s as a form of pride. “I like to think of my queer identity as me saying, ‘You thought you were insulting me, but that’s actually something I like about myself,'” she said.

McNulty and Rodriguez argue that despite its reputation as a gay tourist destination, Key West lacks resources for the local queer population, youth and others, Reda Wigle wrote in the Weekly keys in October 2021.

Janiece Rodriguez and Chris McNulty created Queer Keys in August 2021 for gay and questioning youth. CONTRIBUTED

“McNulty, who moved pre-pandemic from Cleveland, where he served as community engagement coordinator at the city’s LGBT community center, was surprised to learn that Key West didn’t offer similar programs. ‘I was shocked. Key West is gay friendly but it’s not LGBTQIA+ friendly’,” Wigle wrote. “Rodriguez, who moved to Key West from Miami in 2019, was also appalled by the island’s lack of services and support. “When I got here I got the LGBT resource book and started calling the list of health care providers. I was uninsured and was looking for mental health work and hormone therapy and no one provided me with that.

The group met weekly at the United Methodist Church in Key West, but takes the summer off because attendance dips during spring, winter, and summer break. “The church has been absolutely wonderful and so generous with us. But we want to find a more permanent meeting space,” McNulty said.

Queer Keys participants are encouraged to use whatever name and gender pronouns they prefer, regardless of what they use at home or at school, Rodriguez said, adding that a certified mental health counselor also attends meetings. “Due to the prevalence of mental health issues in the queer community,” Rodriguez said, we want someone who is trained and equipped to identify and deal with potential red flags in sensitive teens.

“The kids now feel like they know each other,” McNulty added. “Most of our attendees are teenagers who were assigned a female at birth, but are now having questions, but really all children are welcome.”

Queer Keys offers relevant group discussions and activities, including movie nights, tie-dying shirts, yoga classes, and art projects. “We also had the health department come over to talk about Youth HIV/AIDS Awareness Day because they’re not allowed to do anything about it in public schools,” Rodriguez said.

Youth outreach is just the beginning of what Rodriguez and McNulty envision,” Wigle wrote. “‘Our goal is to have a fully programmed LGBT center with senior programming, trans wellness programming, education, legal resources, business training, clothes closet, everything. But you gotta start somewhere.'”

The Queer Keys Coming-Out Party takes place from 5-8 p.m. on Sunday, June 26 at the Key West Theater, 512 Eaton St. will be hosted by drag queen Puddin’ Taine, with comedy by Gwen Filosa, music by Glass Cates & 3Sum, a silent auction and queer education “in a fun way,” McNulty said. Tickets are $40 at thekeywesttheatre.com or call 305-985-0433.

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