HATCH, Houston’s premier queer youth group, is all grown up and going to the ball
by Nancy Ford • Photos by Dalton DeHart
In 1987, the first wave of AIDS-related deaths was rolling through Houston’s gay community like a tsunami, devastating not only the gay men it claimed in its wake, but also sucking the life out of gay organizations, gay businesses, and in general, the gay community.
That same year, as activists filed past the White House in the second national March on Washington clamoring for gay equality, Persons Living With AIDS served as the collective grand marshal of Houston’s Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade. They shuffled down Westheimer Road together in more of a death march than a celebration.
On television, a “CBS Schoolbreak Special” asked the loaded question, What If I’m Gay? and endured sharp criticism for dramatizing the plight of a teen questioning his sexuality.
It was a scary time to be a gay adult. It was a terrifying, seemingly hopeless time to be a gay youth.
Amid the darkness, an organization that would have lasting impact on Houston’s LGBT community and beyond was emerging. More appropriately, 25 years ago, one of gay Houston’s very best ideas was hatched.
It was first called Houston Area Teen Coalition of Homosexuals, a mouthful often shortened to the more user-friendly H.A.T.C.H.
Streamlined even further, its moniker is now the simple, sans-periods HATCH, Houston’s youth group for LGBTQSA teens. For the past 10 years, Deb Murphy has served as the group’s youth services specialist.
“We got smart 25 years ago,” Murphy says. “We realized that young people need community, and that our traditional community structures were breaking up.”
Murphy says she is “thrilled” that the group has not only survived, but has thrived.
“It just goes to show what a need there is,” she explains. “A small nonprofit was started up in a church and then for years run by volunteers, and continues to have great attendance today. All of these things illustrate that there is a need for this kind of programming. Although someone of our age and of our perspective sees how much easier things might look now, the core issues remain the same and these young people need us, and they need us to be there.”
One of those core issues—an indisputable piece of evidence that HATCH works—is the fact that in its 25-year history, not one of its members has been lost to suicide. “That’s not hard to understand,” Murphy says. “One thing that drives people to suicide is feeling like you don’t belong anywhere—that there’s not any group or anyone anywhere that’s happy to see you when you walk in the door.
“Well, HATCH youth belong. And when they walk in the door, they know that.”
The group, a program of Montrose Counseling Center, appeals not only to LGBT youth ages 13 through 20, but “QSA” youth, as well—lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, supportive, and allied youth alike are welcomed at the group’s meetings on Friday and Sunday nights. On Tuesday evenings, transgender issues are discussed.
A typical Friday night HATCH meeting finds 20 or so members playing Wii or board games in the comfortable, casually furnished “HATCH Room” at MCC. After a social period, an adult member of the community shares life lessons, LGBT history, and other valuable information with the teens.
“Every couple of months, LOAF [Lesbians Over Age Fifty] members come in,” Murphy says. “They share their stories and experiences and, in a very real way, their strength. The youth are not only connected to the history of this community and our struggles, but to that person. And it’s a two-way conversation. The conversation always ends up with the LOAF presenter asking the youth questions. It’s a very back-and-forth conversation, and it’s a wonderful thing.”
Murphy considers HATCH’s relationship with LOAF to be one of its most nurturing. “I think it’s about community,” she says. “We’ve so fragmented our communities with how hyper-mobile we are, and how insulated we are because of our technologies. Older adults who are family members but not living in the home, or the older adults who have always been in the neighborhood where everyone knows each other—that connection with older adults who aren’t your parents has become unavailable. And the youth need that. They get that at HATCH, by having our wonderful volunteers. But they also get it when people like our friends from LOAF come. They get to talk with and listen to adults who aren’t their parents.”
HATCH’s primary fundraiser, the annual HATCH Prom, is scheduled June 8.
“This is the year of the dragon, and so the youth are having a Year of the Dragon Ball,” Murphy says. She expects some of those dragons to be draggin’, as they have in previous years.
“We see a lot of people’s first drag,” she says. “It’s wonderful that they feel so free that they come out in public doing something that is a little risky and very exciting, if they’ve never done drag before. They realize that ‘Hey, this is okay.’”
But not every guest chooses to dress in drag for the event. “HATCH Prom is really ‘wear what you want’ as long as it’s street-legal. We’ve had people come in shorts, T-shirts, and flip-flops. We have people who dress formally.”
Beyond the diversity in fashion, what most surprises Murphy is the number of attendees who come solo, without dates. “It’s nice. No one’s left standing there on the sidelines, alone.”
Admission to the HATCH prom is free for youth, but a donation of $25 is sought from the many adults who attend.
“A lot of adults did not get to go to their own prom, and many who did certainly did not get to go with the person they wished to,” Murphy says. “For many of them, this is the chance to have that prom experience. A great many come to support us, because it is a fundraiser for us. They come because they’re donors and supporters, and they want to see where their money’s going. They see these fabulous young people who are literally having the time of their life, and they think, ‘Wow, that was worth the check I wrote!’”
One of the joys of working for HATCH is seeing how very well it is supported by the Houston community, “and not just financially,” Murphy says. “I have about a three-year waiting list of adults who want to volunteer. Without exception, whenever I have to put out the call that HATCH needs fill-in-the-blank, this community has stepped up and helped care for these kiddos.”
Everything in the HATCH Room—the furniture, the media items, the books—was donated by individuals wanting to contribute to HATCH’s comfort, amusement, and success.
“Our community is always stepping up. The community holds these kids to their heart in a very real, tangible way,” she says. “It’s a wonderful thing, because of all of us who know this group and who have interacted with these youth think, ‘Man, if this had been around when I was a kid, dot-dot-dot.’ And they make sure it’s around for youth in the future.”
Another piece of evidence that confirms HATCH’s success: HATCH youth are “returning to the nest,” as Murphy calls it. “Former HATCH youth, who are now adults, are volunteering. You have to be at least 25 years old to volunteer for HATCH, and currently three ex-HATCH youth are HATCH volunteers. That tells the story more than anything.”
Eying the next quarter-century and beyond, Murphy jokes that she’s currently hatching her own HATCH plan for world domination.
“Seriously though, let’s think of the 25 years of change we as adults have seen,” she reflects. “These youth will see a similar magnitude—actually, probably greater since we’ve got some momentum. But you’re still going to have youth who need community, who need connection with adults who aren’t their parents, who need to be told, ‘Not only are you not broken, but you’re great.’
“Who knows what HATCH will look like 25 years from now?” Murphy ponders. “But we’ll still be here and we’ll still be meeting the needs of queer youth.”
HATCH Prom: The Year of the Dragon Ball
June 8, 7 p.m.
GLBT Cultural Center, 401 Branard St.
hatchyouth.org • 713/529-3590.