When you enter LYRIC’s bright purple building, you’re thrust into an assortment of brightly-colored walls, furniture, and activity. Adults and young people are cheerfully collaborating on various projects from one room in the building to another.
LYRIC (Lavender Youth Recreation & Information Center) has been a safe haven for LGBTQ youth in the Castro for more than 20 years, providing a space to socialize with like-minded individuals for young people ages 10 to 24. They learn how to influence positive social change while discovering more about themselves at the same time.
Its necessity is easily recognizable. Recent surveys and reports have highlighted the changes in the Castro’s community, and I wanted to know if LYRIC felt a shift in the neighborhood’s social climate.
“My friends and I don’t really have safe places to hang out in the Castro outside of LYRIC,” Nick, a 16-year-old intern, said.
Nick came to LYRIC a year ago when she started to question her identity, craving a place to explore herself. Much to the delight of Nick and the others, paid internships are offered through the program.
“I get to be gay and paid!,” she squealed.
Nick owes her newfound self-comfort to the time spent collaborating with other LGBTQ youths and adults, though only within the confines of LYRIC.
“I’ve never felt like I’m equal or welcome by everyone who lives in the Castro,” Nick said. “I didn’t feel like that was even an option. It’s definitely a more aggressive place around the area nowadays.”
Nick confesses to carrying pepper spray when she visits the Castro because, for her, “It doesn’t feel like the friendly environment I saw when I was five years old.”
Safety is an increasingly important issue for the staff at LYRIC, and the change in neighborhood is the reason why.
“We talk about the realities of what the Castro is now, and we talk about how to come to and leave the building,” Jodi Schwartz, LYRIC’s executive director said. “It’s important for us to know how they are going to get to where they’re going next, so we actively talk about the safety of their lives.”
Schwartz pointed out that there could have been more spaces in the Castro for young people to feel safe and welcome, like the Harvey Milk and Jane Warner plazas, but stripping the benches and tables made hanging out more difficult.
“Open spaces with such high visibility can be some of the safest spots, particularly in a queer community, where so many of us were hidden for that part of our lives,” Schwartz continued. “To have a place out in in the sunshine, being who they want to be in a community that’s supposed to be there to cheer them on would seemingly be a great place, but our young people don’t have that. We tried telling the community that young people need places to hang out when they took the benches down at Harvey Milk Plaza. It’s Harvey Milk’s Plaza of all places!”
“The Castro is a facade,” Nick declared. “They put on this ‘We accept everybody!’ front, but they don’t.”
To her and Schwartz, the majority of the Castro’s gay community is seemingly white men.
“Where’s my role model in the Castro?” Nick asked. “Where’s the queer, trans woman of color telling me that you can be proud?”
This led Schwartz to surprise the room with a confession.
“The staff has definitely talked about relocating,” she began. “We wonder if whether it would be better for young people of color to be in a different neighborhood. Perhaps they’d feel safer and more welcome.”
But with young people historically flocking to the Castro to find themselves, the team wants to make sure they have at least one safe space to visit.
To combat this growing discomfort, LYRIC has launched outbound events to bridge the gap between young QTPOC (queer trans people of color) and the rest of the community.
“One of our most successful events is a Trans Youth & Elder brunch in Dolores Park,” Schwartz said. “It’s particularly important for trans and gender non-conforming young people to have connections with older folks who have had to navigate the world already.”
The Castro QUEER (Queers United Educating Equity and Rights) Tour is a another outbound event. Tailored by the LYRIC interns, it gives each individual an opportunity to showcase something in the Castro they have a personal relationship with. It’s a chance for neighbors to learn more about the youths, and simultaneously a chance for the youths to learn about their place within the LGBTQ community.
“I got to share my story as a QTPOC with my mom and other adults on the tour,” Nick said. “It’s a side of our history that people have never seen. It’s powerful when you can do that for others.”
Does Nick think the Castro has a future as an LGBTQ hub?
“Castro needs more recreational places for youth to feel accepted,” she began. “It’s a broad range of things that need to happen because when you talk about youth, you talk about 12 to 20, and a lot goes on throughout those years.”
Schwartz remains hopeful.
“I encourage the Castro to recognize that without embracing its youth, it can’t expect the next local generation to want to continue the legacy,” she said.
If you’re interested in learning more about LYRIC, visit lyric.org.