DURANGO, Colo. — Staff at the Four Corners Rainbow Youth Center in Durango always liked the idea of scouts.
A program teaching kids to build fires, tie knots and socialize seemed like a net positive. The only downside? The Girl Scouts of the USA and Boy Scouts of America wouldn’t work for kids whose gender identity doesn’t fit the boy/girl binary.
With the unique needs of LGBTQ+ children in mind, Durango’s Four Corners Rainbow Youth Center launched Queer Scouts, a program meant to mimic traditional scouts, just without genders and labels.
“Imagine a Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts type thing where you go, learn a skill, socialize and have snacks,” said Shaka, a mental health outreach coordinator at the center. “It was meant to take the gender out of these social groups in the community and say ‘It’s OK if you’re a girl, it’s OK if you’re a boy, it’s OK if you’re neither.”
The program accepts kids from eight to 17 years old, and young adults from 18 to 24 years old. Staff plan to host support groups for participants older than 12 years old and playgroups for younger kids. Ultimately, the goal is for kids and young adults to feel safe and have fun in the way cisgender, heterosexual kids would in a traditional scouting program.
Shaka said they currently have about 30 children signed up to participate but hope to recruit more in the summer.
“We know through research and practice that the number one protective factor for trans youth to make it to adulthood is having support, especially having safe adults around,” Shaka said. “It’s creating a space where they know that there is at least hope for the future.”
Center staff members first came up with the idea in 2022, but got busy in the winter, so they hope to have the program running by summer 2023. The program is brand new, so activity ideas are still in the works, but those involved envision everything from hiking and camping trips, to learning new skills, to open conversations about healthy sexuality and gender identity exploration.
“The goal is to incentivize it in the same kind of way scouts does, with badges and pins that kids can earn as they do different activities and workshops,” Shaka said. “We’re just trying to take away this pressure to gender your activities or your knowledge.”
Besides learning new skills and making friends, Shaka said the program’s aim is to help kids who may not fit in at home or school find a place of acceptance, around other LGBTQ+ kids and adults facing similar experiences.
“You can have a different name and pronouns to explore every time and you’re safe to explore your identity here,” Shaka said. “If they can’t be out at home, they know they can come in and be a part of this community.”
While creators of the program appreciated the principles behind traditional scouting programs, they noted that such programs have not traditionally accepted LGBTQ+ kids.
The Boy Scouts of America began allowing openly gay boys into its troops in 2013 and transgender boys in 2017, after pushback and lawsuits from LGBTQ+ activist groups. Gay men are still banned from Boy Scouts after they turn 18.
Shaka said Durango’s acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community is a mixed bag. The city is small and rural, but La Plata County — which houses Durango — tends to vote for state and federal candidates who support LGBTQ+ rights.
Still, Shaka said LGBTQ+ kids of color — which make up much of the center’s demographic — face added marginalization due to their race and sexuality or gender identity. Though Durango is an accepting city on paper, Shaka said the reality often looks different for those in town.
“For people of color here, we don’t want to leave home. We would rather go grab whatever we need from the store with our head down than deal with the microaggressions that we do in this town,” Shaka said. “All of us who are not privileged are just exhausted, but for the people who are here in this space, it is wonderful.”
Staff from the center took kids to march with the American Civil Liberties Union at Denver PrideFest in 2022. Shaka said kids admired the rows of houses waving rainbow flags and experienced, for the first time in their lives, what true acceptance feels like.
“They’ve never seen that many people in a space that was so inclusive and not being attacked from the outside,” Shaka recalled. “They were seeing Pride Flags in apartments and saying ‘Oh, they actually want us here.’”
November Bokeman, a parent of three LGBTQ+ kids in the Durango area and a volunteer with the Rainbow Youth Center, said most LGBTQ+ activities in Durango are held in bars, which makes it difficult for those under 21 years old to feel part of a community.
Having a community of people who also don’t fit the gender binary has also dramatically helped their children's development, Bokeman said.
“I think it’s really easy when you’re just going to school and sports and seeing day-to-day stuff, if you don’t have queer adult representations somewhere, you might not even realize what you are or you might not realize or understand how you can grow up into an adult,” Bokeman said. “I know how different my life would’ve been if I’d had that as a kid.”
Alison Berg is a multimedia journalist at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach her at email@example.com.