INDIANAPOLIS — When community organizer Chris Gonzalez wasn’t leading a handful of people down Massachusetts Avenue during the city’s first Pride march, or lobbying against hate crime at the statehouse, he worked as a volunteer counselor at the Gay and Lesbian Switchboard in Indianapolis.
Without the benefit of internet in the late '80s, queer teens throughout Indiana began using the switchboard as a lifeline to resources and support.
The many calls Gonzalez took volunteering at that hotline had a chilling effect on him. Some were as young as 14, calling in for advice on how to navigate their sexuality in the face of brutal ostracization from family or friends. Many struggled with the isolation that accompanied growing up queer.
Although the hotline was initially created to service LGBTQ+ youth in Indiana, kids started calling from across the country.
“People were calling in from all kinds of other states, including California, New York, et cetera, here to Indiana to get help get support, get advice from peer counselors that were also teens that were trained to do that,” said Raan DeStefano, who attended Indiana Youth Group activities in the early 1990s and is now the organization's senior director of human resources and operations.
Recognizing the need for a community organization built specifically to supporting LGBTQ+ youth in the community, Gonzalez, his life partner, Jeff Werner, and a handful of other Hoosiers from across Indianapolis came together to launch the Indiana Youth Group.
They envisioned a space where queer youth from across Indiana could convene in-person to build community and share resources. Thirty-five years later, Indiana Youth Group remains one of the longest-running organizations that services queer youth in the country.
“Back then, the needs were educational, mostly, and also due to the AIDS epidemic, you know, safe sex information, and just very educational. But, also social. Because, back then, it was really hard to meet someone else who was gay, or lesbian, or bisexual, or anything,” DeStefano said.
DeStefano remembers the impact the organization had on him as a young person in his mid-20s, when he attended a skating party organized by IYG.
“When I went, I had only met one other gay person and spent some time with them as a friend. And, when I went to IYG, I suddenly was in a room — or in this case, a rink — with at least 40 people,” DeStefano said.
Through the years, Indiana Youth Group said they adjusted their services based on what the actual needs of queer kids were in the community.
By 1991, they had launched the Street Outreach program to combat the problem of homelessness among kids in the community. They also chaperoned 50 youth to the 1993 March On Washington. In the early aughts, the organization increased the age of who they serviced, creating a specialized program for queer youth aged 19-24 in the city.
In October 2020, the organization had expanded services for people who are unhomed or experiencing temporary homelessness. Project Prism, an organization that services LGBTQ+ youth, is now the city’s latest provider of housing for young people in the city.
IYG said they are continuing to advance the livelihood of queer kids through four main areas. Their basic needs vertically help connect LGBTQ+ youth with hot meals, showers or even a place to do laundry.
The organization's programming vertically organizes specialized classes or social support groups throughout Indianapolis.
Case management helps connect LGBTQ+ youth to a specific mentor who can help them navigate their specific needs. A new program launched at the start of this month focuses on improving mental health.
"It definitely has evolved over the years. At some point, we are hoping to expand to other areas of the state, so that would be another way that we can help in the future," DeStefano said.
Chris Gonzalez died in 1995 from AIDS complications and never lived to see the impact his organization would have on queer kids in the community. A portrait of his likeness still remains on walls that have now become refuge for thousands of kids in Indiana.
“Chris was a born leader, a true leader," DeStefano said. "I think if Chris had lived, he would have still been a leader. He was truly someone who built for the future of the LGBTQ community here in Indianapolis and the greater Indianapolis area."