Eric Juszyk, chief administrator of the Gay Nebraska Youth Network, guest blogs a rundown of the great work his group is doing in Omaha. Follow Eric on Twitter @ericjuszyk.
Growing up as LGBTQ in the Midwest can be difficult, especially in conservative states like Nebraska. The youth in rural and agricultural communities are often isolated and have few legitimate resources for forming new friendships and interacting with the larger LGBTQ community.
In May of 2010 I learned about the Gay Nebraska Youth Network when the founder, Drew Heckman, returned to Omaha after his freshman year at Brown University. Drew was astounded at the vibrant community in Providence and sought to create an environment back in his home state where youth can interact with each other in a safe and positive manner.
The Gay Nebraska Youth Network was formed as a youth-focused, peer-led organization that seeks to connect high school and college LGBTQ students statewide with social activities, opportunities to form new relationships, and connections to resources. A secret Facebook page is used to promote social interaction and the sharing of relevant issues while protecting the identity of its members and ideas while a public page is used to publicize our organization to the larger straight and ally communities. Additionally we match the virtual interactions with real life social events held at a variety of locations across the state.
Some members from the Queer Nebraska Youth Networks
at Nebraska AIDS Project’s Condom Fashion Show,
with the dress and accessories we designed!
As one of the initial members of this group, (there were 14 when I joined) the Gay Nebraska Youth Network has grown exponentially to nearly 300 members spanning the state, from Omaha to Alliance. The creation of the GNYN has also lead to the creation of two other organizations in Nebraska–the Lesbian Nebraska Youth Network and the Trans/Genderqueer Nebraska Youth Network–forming what is now the Queer Nebraska Youth Networks. Additionally, similar organization have been formed in both South Dakota as well as Iowa and in total serves nearly a thousand LGBTQ youth in the Midwest
Events sponsored by the Queer Nebraska Youth Networks vary in location and experience; previous outings have included picnics, swimming, trips to the zoo, ugly sweater soirees, visits to the pumpkin patch and haunted houses, participating in fundraisers for local charities, and running in marathons as a team. This summer the QNYNs were proud designs of a dress for Nebraska AIDS Project’s annual Condom Fashion Show and we also had a booth at Omaha’s Pride and registered over eighty new members! We also have a full team registered for the Color Me Rad 5k run for later this summer.
The leadership of the QNYNs lays with only a few members, responsible for moderating online posts, planning events, gathering input from members to make positive changes, and serving as ambassadors to the larger LGBTQ community. The current leaders for the groups are Anne Johnson, Drew Heckman, and myself. Though we are currently revamping the leadership structure, the development and identification of strong, capable leaders has and will continue to be a focus of the Queer Nebraska Youth Networks
Anne is the current ringleader for the Lesbian Nebraska Youth Network and will be a sophomore at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln where she is an international studies major with minors in spanish, human rights and humanitarian affairs, and LGBT studies. Drew will be starting his senior year at Brown University this fall where he is studying sociology. In addition to being the founder of the QNYNs and receiving a grant from Brown’s Starr Fellowship Program, Drew is developing a Queer Youth Networks kit to create replicable youth-focused, peer-led LGBTQ organizations in states from coast to coast. As for myself, I completed my studies at Creighton University in Omaha where I graduated with a degree in environmental science and minor in biology and am involved with a number of local organizations including PFLAG, Nebraska AIDS Project, Equal Nebraska, and the GLBT Sports League.