When staff at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility first heard the administration was considering a group to help LGBT youths cope with their sexuality, most of them were concerned it might appear to be a “hook-up service.”
That is not what the Two Spirits group became, but no one could blame the staff for being unsure about a group to help incarcerated lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths. The program is the only one of its kind in Oregon and possibly in the United States. There was no model or precedent for comparison.
“There was a lot of nervousness in the beginning,” said Steve Llanes, the Native American coordinator at MacLaren, who helped organize and manage the group.
Nearly three years later, Two Spirits has developed into a partnership between gay youths and the straight youths who mentor, support and defend them. Staff has shaped its curriculum to help the boys develop healthy relationships, identities and coping mechanisms.
Michelle Mintun, a group life coordinator at MacLaren who is a lesbian, started pushing for the creation of the group years ago.
She and fellow staff member Kristina Ballow created a research project that showed high rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts among the gay boys at MacLaren. It focused on statistics, but Mintun said anecdotal evidence also existed. Gay boys were being “jumped” by groups of two or three other youths and brutalized.
It was a dangerous situation for them, both mentally and physically, she said.
Being gay at MacLaren remains precarious. It is both a prison and all-boys high school, two places where the vulnerable can become prey. However, the youths who participate in the program say it has helped them.
“I started liking myself a little bit more,” said Johnathon Anderson, 19.
The program has evolved over time, since there is no template for the curriculum. Staffers essentially have adapted it to fit the needs they see among the young men in the group, Mintun said.
Similar groups are commonplace on high school and college campuses in Oregon and nationwide. However, they’re almost unheard of in juvenile detention facilities and prisons.
Oregon Department of Corrections spokeswoman Liz Craig said the state’s adult prisons don’t have groups for lesbian or gay prisoners, and California Youth Authority spokesman Bill Cessa said there is no programming for gay youths at his agency.
Most youth offenders in California are housed in county facilities, he said, but he has never heard of one offering programs for gay youths.
Other states provide little to no information about gay youths in their juvenile corrections systems.
The Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana wrote a lengthy report on the state of gay youths in the Louisiana Juvenile Justice System in 2011, and offered several recommendations. However, it doesn’t recommend a group specifically designed for those youths.
In spite of going it alone, the Two Spirits group largely has proven to be a success. It has about eight members, some of whom call themselves “allies” who are there to support their gay and transgender peers.
Adan Salas-Andrade, 21, and Hector Robles-Canales, 24, are two of those allies. Robles-Canales is quiet, but he is known as a confidante to the youths in the group.
Both men talk about their empathy for their gay friends and about defending them when other youths bully them. They’re often called “faggots” even though they aren’t gay, and so are the staff who help with the program. They’ve learned to deal with the labeling, they said.
Salas-Andrade said he has seen how important it is for gay youths to have the opportunity to talk about the emotions that come with being gay at MacLaren. When it all has a chance to come out, “it’s like vomit sometimes,” he said.
Anderson said he has been less depressed since being involved with the group. He used to cut himself and act out in sexually aggressive ways, he said. The group has taught him to be more accepting of who he is and to understand how being gay and having relationships is about more than just sex.
Fellow group member Alejandro “Alex” Estrada, 22, said he has changed as well.
When he arrived at MacLaren, everyone knew he was gay. They couldn’t miss it. “I’m gay” constantly nipped at the heels of “My name is…,” to the point that staff tease him about it now, lightly calling it “his obsession.”
Being gay was the only way he defined himself, he said, but Two Spirits has taught him to see himself as a complete person for whom sexuality is just one piece.
He also learned to stand up for himself when other youths call him a “faggot,” he said. Most of them have stopped, he added.
Anderson and Estrada said they are still bullied, but said Two Spirits has inspired others to be more accepting and increased staff members’ awareness of how big a problem it can be.
Salas-Andrade said he can’t understand why other youths want to victimize gay young men, especially at a place like MacLaren, where everyone is dealing with personal demons and, sometimes, very long prison sentences.
There’s just no reason to make sexuality into a huge problem as well, he said.
“You already have so much on your shoulders to worry about.”
How the group got its name
“Two Spirits” comes from Native American culture, courtesy of Steve Llanes, the Native American coordinator at MacLaren. He helped organize and manage the group, and said Native Americans believe gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people have two spirits and hold them in high regard.
Two Spirits: Program helps gay youth serving time behind bars
Behind the fence, some are still paying with more than their time.
"I was bullied a lit bit more than most people," said Alejandro Estrada, who is gay.
For years, inmates like Estrada had little support.
"I have seen youth be assaulted, I have seen youth be taken advantage of. I have seen a lot of these things happen," said MacLaren staffer Missy Mintun.
"Basically, beaten by other guys because of my orientation," Estrada said.
"It's a very confusing time to come out and to be able to say to yourself let alone the rest of the world - 'hey, I am gay,' or 'I am transitioning, I want to be a transgender' or 'I am questioning my sexuality,'" Mintun said.
About 130 youth are serving time at MacLaren. About 10 of them take part in the Two Spirits group.
The name is derived from Native American culture, in which people who are gay are believed to have "two spirits."
"They tend to be medicine men and women," Mintun said. "They are held in very high regard."
The group includes both gay inmates and allies - youth who do not identify as being gay, but who support their fellow inmates who do.
"I hear them, I understand them, I feel the emotions that they have," said ally Adan Andrade-Salas. "Why make someone's time harder than it already is? We already have so much that we have to worry about."
MacLaren staffer Rebecca Yazzie said the inmates aren't the only people at the facility who are growing thanks to Two Spirits.
"We are still, I think, working on educating and bringing more awareness to the staff," she said.
The results are promising.
"Some of the young men who, in the past, have engaged in negative behaviors, harmful to themselves and others, are decreasing in those behaviors because there is an outlet," Mintun.
The program teaches them to cope with being targets.
"It's let me open my mind to more things than just my orientation," Estrada said. "That's just one piece of me. It's not everything."
Even the allies draw strength from the group.
"I feel better about myself," said ally Andrade-Salas, who said he has experienced discrimination for his ethnicity. "They will help you in the highest and lowest of times."
For their mentor Mintun, it's personal.
"It has special meaning to me personally because I myself was there. I totally get where these guys are coming from," she said. "We're different, but on the inside we all bleed. We all bleed red."