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Las Vegas education program helps parents, LGBTQ youth

On the wall in his bedroom, Ryan Lauer painted his name with a rainbow and the colors of a transgender flag.

He ran into his room with his dog, Cookie, in tow on a recent afternoon, eager to show off both his work and his name.

“It’s pride!” he said.

His cheery attitude never wavered as he talked about roadblocks along his journey to come out and to begin his transition.

For months leading up to his final placement in his father’s new apartment, Ryan, 15, moved frequently between family and family friends’ homes before spending time in a youth homeless shelter.

Ryan came out as transgender twice, once to his mother in 2017 and again to his father, Jack Lauer, in 2018.

Amid a custody battle between Ryan’s parents, a social worker encouraged the father and son to attend Pivot, a six-week program for LGBT children and their caregivers held at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada.

When Ryan came out to his father, who now has sole custody of Ryan, Jack Lauer was initially apprehensive. He recalled that he was concerned for his child’s health and safety but now realizes that his understanding was hindered by a lack of education in what it means to be transgender.

Through the program, Jack Lauer said he realized how difficult the transition was for his son, and became “enlightened.”

“I can’t believe how much of a hypocrite I was,” he said.

‘We want to provide community’

Holly Reese, engagement manager for the center, began developing the pilot program five years ago and has facilitated Pivot for its two-and-a-half years of practice.

Reese recalled when she was hired six years ago, the parents of children coming out would often show up at the center asking for help.

Reese started developing Pivot for the Las Vegas center, with hopes that it could expand elsewhere.

In the first week, youths and their caregivers, as the program classifies the two groups, come in together to discuss goals. For the next four weeks, youths are separated from caregivers as each group goes through sessions tailored to their concerns. The groups come together in the last week for a graduation ceremony to reflect on their growth.

Brenda Neavez discovered Pivot when her son, Percy, 20, came out as transgender two years ago.

Percy was in his first year at the University of Nevada, Reno, when he began exploring his gender identity with the way he dressed and using male pronouns, ultimately realizing he felt “at home with this” and came out to his parents.

Armed with little information about the LGBT community, Brenda said she wanted to learn as much as she could to help her son through his transition.

“It was really heartwarming that she wanted to learn about all of this,” her son said. “It’s one thing to be accepting, and another to say, ‘I’m going to be educated about this.’”

The program is open to children as young as 4 up to young adults in their early 20s, as long as they are still dependent on their caregivers.

“We want to be able to provide not only education and support,” Reese said, “but we want to provide community.”

Brenda Neavez has attended five Pivot sessions, bringing new members of her family each time.

People often ask her why she keeps attending, and she said she replies, “The learning never stops.”

With each new session, she gains a deeper understanding and learns from the new families that attend the classes, she said.

Albert Neavez, Percy’s father, went through Pivot twice. The program, he said, fostered a more open relationship between him and his son, giving him the language to feel “empowered” and better communicate with his son.

“I wanted them to get the full experience of me being there,” Percy said, “and after that I wanted to stay.”

Reese emphasized that the process of coming out is not easy for children or their families, and too often it can have detrimental effects on the youngsters if they are not supported.

‘It’s about saving lives’

Ryan, who has been living with his father for almost three months since his dad was awarded full custody, said he has settled into his new routine. But before that and before Pivot, the compounded stress of his struggle with his identity and a tense relationship with his mother led Ryan to engage in self-harm.

When a counselor at Ryan’s school noticed red marks on his arm that Ryan later revealed he had made using the back side of a pair of scissors, his father was called in. Jack Lauer knew then that it was “a cry for help” and he said he wanted to do anything he could to help his son transition safely.

LGB youth were nearly three times as likely to have seriously considered suicide than their heterosexual counterparts, according to a 2015 study from the Centers for Disease Control. A separate study conducted in 2012 by the Williams Institute in the UCLA law school found that LGBT youth comprised 40 percent of the clientele served by homeless agencies nationwide.

Jack Lauer said the statistics he learned in Pivot classes jarred him into reality, and his long-held beliefs about the LGBT community began to change.

As he learned more about the transition process and the safest way to help Ryan, Lauer said he was referred to a doctor through Pivot so Ryan could begin hormone treatments.

Despite hardships that followed him coming out, Ryan’s eyes lit up as his father described the next steps in his transition.

“I was happy to finally be who I wanted to be,” Ryan said. “It was a new me.”

Reese wiped tears from her eyes as she talked about Jack Lauer’s evolution over the course of the program.

“These families are finding each other,” Reese said. “They come in feeling very isolated and alone and afraid, and they go out knowing it’s not necessarily a fun path they will go on, but they will do it together.”

Though still only in practice at the Las Vegas center, Reese hopes to train facilitators at the OUR Center in Reno and spread the program beyond the state.

She also hopes the juvenile court system and counselors around the city will refer families to Pivot.

“It’s about saving lives,” Jack Lauer said. “That’s what Pivot is to me.”

Contact Amanda Bradford at abradford@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0279. Follow @amandabrad_uc on Twitter.

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