Above All Compassion: Outward Bound Instructor Inspires LGBT Youth To Be Themselves

Teaching girls how to read a topographical map; we are on the rocky edge of a river which is why it's not on a flat space to make it easier to read. The outdoors is all about improvising.

LGBTQ kids
who come out have a right 
to aspire to a

monogamous marriage,

a family of their own,
and to go after their passions with support.
- Kaki Flynn

by Dan Woog
Seattle Gay News Contributing Writer
Edits by Kaki Flynn

Outward Bound courses are intense.

During nine days in the wilderness, teenagers can learn more about themselves and the world than in a decade of school. 

That's particularly true when the program includes leadership and diversity training, like those with Outward Bound instructor Kaki Flynn.

So the out lesbian - a former collegiate rower and high school track and cross country team captain - was surprised when, on the final day of a course in the summer of 2006, a "Take a Stand" exercise stirred up a welter of anti-gay feelings.

The course was a special one designed by the North Carolina Outward Bound School called The Unity Course, that brought together a diverse set of kids from one school to learn more about each other while also learning how to run a river, rock climb and backpack.

In this exercise, Flynn and other leaders offered a variety of statements. 

After each statement, participants placed themselves on a continuum, ranging from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree." 

Topics included women's rights, the military, and this: "Gay people should be married and have children."

Five of the 12 teenagers disagreed with that statement.

"These are kids who go back and become leaders in their schools, and on their teams," Flynn says. "I told them I was hurt. They said they liked me, but I was 'different' from other Gay people."

A few months ago, a boy who had strongly disagreed that Gays should marry e-mailed Flynn. 

This logo from the Ellen Degeneres Show

He said he missed her and everyone on the course. He mentioned his MySpace page, so she checked it out. It was festooned with rainbows and Gay references.

"He'd totally come out," Flynn recalls. "That sent a huge message to me about the importance of what we do. We have to trust these kids to do the right thing. Sometimes that takes time."

He is not the only Outward Bound participant to come out to Flynn. 

Many are athletes - not surprising, given the background she shares with them.

Flynn worked for the U.S. Olympic Committee for 4 Games, doing press relations for more than 50 sports as well as building websites for many of the sports.

During that time, for personal reasons, Flynn realized she was a lesbian.

"A very, very loud message I want to send to the LGBTQ community and those just coming out is that it's okay to want a healthy life and that you don't have to give that up just because you are gay," says Flynn.

"As the world changes my hope is that kids don't have to be so removed from their family circles to come out."

The result of you being true to who you are should be celebrated by your family; we aren't there yet as a planet but we are rapidly moving in that direction."

"Right now, when kids have to come out in a secretive way where they are joining groups that they are hiding from their parents, they may end up in a safe group but it can also put them in dangerous situations being around strangers and being so emotionally vulnerable."

"We really want a healthy place for those teenagers to be able to show up for and get initial emotional support and to build healthy relationships," said Flynn.

Flynn left the Olympics to be the Marketing & Membership Director of a start-up that built a multisport indoor sports complex, a venture that failed. 

Officially burnt-out after that failed start-up, she decided to take a one-week long Outward Bound course to do some goal setting and spend time in the wilderness.

Flynn never did take the course, and instead talked Outward Bound into hiring her as an instructor. That launched a ten-year career, and has included trips with Outward Bound bases in North Carolina, Thompson Island where she also lead diversity courses, and Hurricane Island Outward Bound, where she was recognized for her work with adjudicated youth in the juvenile justice system.

As far as letting kids know she's a safe person?

The common bond is often her Nalgene water bottle.

Gay or questioning teens spot its GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) "Safe Space" sticker, and realize she is someone they can talk to. 

It takes a while, but sooner or later many of them let Flynn know they're Gay. She may be the first person they've told.

Sometimes, Flynn finds a teachable moment to come out to the entire group. 

"Kids ask personal questions, like if I have a boyfriend," she says. "I'll say, 'No, but I'm gay, so that would be a girlfriend.'

"I want my coming-out to be a natural part of a conversation. Out in the wilderness, not seeing any other human beings, there's time for conversations. And there's time for kids to process things they might not think about in another environment."

One conversation, with a football and wrestling captain from a Catholic school, involved standing up for one's values. He commented on Flynn's sticker, and discussed the macho atmosphere in his school's locker room. Eventually, Flynn asked if he was Gay. "Yeah," he said.

"He wasn't out at school, but he did go to a Gay youth group in Boston. Like a lot of kids, he'd compartmentalized his life," she says. "But he also was talking - anonymously - to a teacher at his school about starting a Gay-straight alliance. That was so bold. I told him that's what standing up for your values means."

Some coming-out moments are more intense. One group understood that it's not okay to make racial or religious comments. But they did not see why they should be "forced" to accept homosexuality. In the middle of that discussion, one boy blurted out: "I'm Gay."

"Two other guys freaked out," Flynn recalls. "They'd been in a tent with him for a month. Nothing happened, but they couldn't deal with it." One left the discussion and never returned. But after 20 minutes the other did - and hugged the Gay youngster.

Flynn is surprised by how many gay youths test themselves on Outward Bound trips - and how many are not only athletes, but captains. She realizes it is not a coincidence.

"For Gay kids, sports can be a haven," she says. "The kids I see are burly athletes. They've pushed themselves to excel. I guess if they can't fully be themselves in school, they pour themselves into sports."

Thankfully, Flynn is there when they come out of the wilderness.

Dan Woog is a journalist, educator, soccer coach, Gay activist, and author of the "Jocks" series of books on Gay male athletes. Visit his website at www.danwoog.com. He can be reached at OutField@qsyndicate.com.

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