Steamboat Springs High School staff working to bring LGBTQ+ support group to Northwest Colorado
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Chris Ruff always felt like Steamboat Springs High School and the Yampa Valley as a whole lacked a support space for LGBTQ students and residents.
As a teacher at the high school, Ruff has worked to build a Gay-Straight Alliance chapter, which sees an increase in students each year, but Ruff and high school librarian Nicole DeCrette wanted to expand support for the LGBTQ community beyond the schools.
“In all my experiences in Steamboat, there was never a place where queer representation was a thing,” Ruff said. “Aspen has a gay ski week, Vail does gay ski week, Breckenridge does a pride parade, and Steamboat does nothing.”
To combat this, Ruff and DeCrette are working to bring a Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, also known as PFLAG, chapter to Northwest Colorado.
According to data from Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, LGBTQ people in Colorado face higher levels of discrimination and harassment than their heterosexual counterparts.
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“In Colorado, almost 70% of LGBTQ students suffer from harassment as a result of their sexual orientation, while nearly one in 10 Coloradan LGBTQ students was the victim of physical assault because of their sexual orientation,” the network said.
Ruff said he believes many of the issues facing LGBTQ residents in Northwest Colorado stem from a lack of representation, which can make LGBTQ community members feel alienated and alone.
“It’s really hard for our students to see themselves as belonging to a community in which they have no representation and zero visibility,” Ruff said. “We want to combat harassment, assault and suicide of our queer youth by strengthening our community.”
Ruff said the high school has become an accepting place for its LGBTQ students, but most students tell them they plan to leave Steamboat after graduation, in large part because of its lack of LGBTQ support.
“Students are going from a fairly accepting, supportive community at Steamboat Springs High School into a larger community culture that has very little representation,” Ruff said. “Steamboat does not celebrate its queer community at all, and I think one of the first steps in becoming more visible is to celebrate the varied and diverse people in our community.”
Once Ruff and DeCrette get the PFLAG chapter on its feet, they hope to hold community events, such as film screenings, LGBTQ pride events, panel discussions and book clubs.
“Where we want to start is just around connecting family and communities,” DeCrette said. “Our message is not only that we know you’re here, and we support and love you, but it’s taking it steps past that.”
While the chapter is being spearheaded by Ruff and DeCrette, others at Steamboat Springs High School signed on to help.
“I think any time there’s a marginalized population that has historically been underserved or in some way faces systematic prejudice, it’s really important to help them,” said Allison Wither, Steamboat Springs Middle School restorative practices coordinator. “Especially when they’re first discovering that identity, which often happens in middle school or high school.”
Wither said a PFLAG chapter would be particularly important to LGBTQ people in Routt County, as it is geographically isolated and community members may not have access to programs like those offered in larger cities on the Front Range.
“‘Hopefully, if we can get these kind of community-based supports more built up, then we ideally prevent some of the need for access to mental health resources,” Wither said.
Those interested in participating in the group are encouraged to fill out a Google Form at docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSeo15fvrfOTTIaNGKKPy5K43lQaGzhpll6yeAFDZWX3Tmi_KA/alreadyresponded
To reach Alison Berg, call 970-871-4229 or email aberg@SteamboatPilot.com.
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