Free To Be -- Lambert House Offers Support, Role Models And Programs For Seattle's Gay Youth, A Refuge From The Sometimes Hostile Realms Of School And Family

They were at the tah-dah stage.

Jennifer Lantz suspended the light pink triangle over the center of a fading Chevy pickup bed to cheers. The Lambert House parade float, an entry in June's gay Pride Parade, was born.

From start to finish, the idea belonged to the 14- to 22-year-old kids who visit the house on Capitol Hill.

Six sponsoring agencies breathed life into the Lambert House idea giving reassurance, positive adult role models and programs for the younger generation of lesbians, gays and bisexuals. But the kids who come to Lambert House give as well - ideas, energy, spontaneity, time.

Seattle's haven for gay youth has become more popular than expected, straining a house originally thought to be too immense.

Christened after a July 1991 Pride event, Lambert House's third year marks its own coming out, of sorts. There's a listing in the White Pages. Bus and radio advertising began in late July. A more large-scale consciousness raising appears likely, once leaders decide whether to keep leasing the house - at close to $3,000 a month - or to buy.

At Lambert, some youths dip a toe in, smoking or stopping for chatter on the porch, vibrant with designs painted by youths. But many gay youth on the edge of discovery aren't that confident. It takes some many weeks or months of anonymous phone calls to the center's Gay/Lesbian/Bi Youth Infoline before an in-person visit.

Last year 18,753 people called the Infoline for emergency services, community event listings, Lambert House happenings and other information.

Brochures and handouts are strategically placed in the front hallway. Closeted kids can snatch a glimpse before fully identifying themselves as sexual minorities.

Inside is a pool table, kitchen, library. Downstairs, kids in need find free clothes. There's almost always food for homeless youths who come in hungry. Condoms and dental dams in a basket in the bathroom answer physical wants, though some complain that the latex protection is underused.

But more than a mix of agencies and programs, Lambert House has become a home. For many youths, school and family are hostile landscapes. At Lambert they can escape isolation, relax, gossip, flirt, dance, gather for monthly house birthdays, collect Christmas gifts, kiss, slug it out in softball games, laugh, cry.

Like a mirror, the home at 1818 15th Ave. reflects those who gather inside.

And like the youngsters it serves, the house has a few blemishes. About once a month there's a scuffle that needs breaking up. In early June, windows were broken, the first episode of violence against the house. Every so often a skinhead rolls through a nearby intersection, cursing.

The biggest problem, kids say, is that Lambert is the stage for turgid dramas that left one youth so outraged that he wrote that racism is alive and well at Lambert.

Some agreed with his charge that kids there mainly talk with people they're attracted to. Others differed.

As should be expected. The gay, lesbian and bisexual kids who hang out at Lambert House aren't all the same. Some lead, others still search for strength from within. Some plan for the future, others were disheartened enough to ponder suicide. Here are a few of their stories.

Safe to remain silent

As he spoke, the young man's hands hovered close to his lap, caged birds fluttering momentarily before again going still. Later he restrained them, fingers inter woven.

It's one of the tiny costs life in the closet extracts from this Seattle high school student, this attention to detail. If he uses his hands too much, other students accuse him of being gay.

His favorite lie: I grew up the only boy in a family of girls.

His silky, unobtrusively soft voice has caused problems as well. He tries to speak in a deeper, "guy's" voice. Fellow students have said he talks like a girl.

His eyes are densely brown, hooded, framed by thick lashes. His black hair is cropped in a trendy cut. His clothes droop, but with a 90s-style bag and sag of studied casualness.

Girls want to go out with him. He defers.

The girl he dated a few months in middle school noted other girls French-kissing. Comparing those lingering, passionate kisses to the dry pecks she got, she wondered: When would they French-kiss?

"I'd tell her we'd do it later on, but `later on' would be forgotten about," he said. "To me, I had thought of French-kissing her, but it made me feel uncomfortable."

Then the girl wanted sex.

After he broke off their relationship, the girl continued to call. At school she spread the false rumor the two actually slept together.

At 15, the incoming sophomore is faced with a potentially life-changing decision. Who to tell of these confusing emotions that leave him liking girls as friends but curious about boys? When to confide about his gray-zone sexuality?

Safe to remain silent, since he's seen a friend threatened for being gay. Safer silent because kids at school talk badly about homosexuals. Safest, really, this silence he maintains among those peers and at home with his immigrant parents.

"I feel that I shouldn't come out. In a way, I should. I need to and want to," he said.

But the boy, who asked that his name, school and ethnic identity not be used, does feel comfortable talking to older gay kids. He sees older friends hanging out at Lambert House, though he's not passed over the threshold.

Not yet.

Entering Lambert House is a statement. "They might as well be branding a pink triangle on their forehead," says Arlis Stewart who runs the American Friends Service Committee gay/lesbian youth program.

The young man on the outside looks in, wondering whether proclaiming his sexuality publicly is worth the cost he'd pay privately.

For one thing, there's his family.

Old-fashioned and omnipresent, his father has carved a self-protective shell. Conservative, like other elders of his ethnic group, his father is enamored of strict rules. Stoic and unapproachable.

He figures his mom would be more understanding. "She tells us she cares for us. She shows her love," he said.

Stress already clouds his thoughts. Counselors suggest the young man talk through his problems. He has, even joining a support group.

But many times, he silently thinks.

When stress builds, he often lashes out at friends and family, criticizing others for not eating the right way, not washing dishes correctly.

To break the tension, he jumps on roller coasters; the scarier the ride, the better.

More frequently, he finds relief in the shower, the cold water cooling his temper. During these private times, he's occasionally taken hold of a razor, the seed of suicide growing in his mind.

"I would have the guts to get the blade, but I wouldn't" attempt suicide. "I've always wondered why wouldn't I do it? . . .

"I feel there is a future in my life," he answers. "I should believe more I have a future. There's so much more to accomplish."

Without reservation

The rosebud tattooed on Yoshiko Matsui's left forearm was unbelievably crisp with scorching reds, sharp lines, an unmuddied stem and leaves.

The next visit she sported an ankh, the Egyptian emblem of life, on the same previously "tattooed" arm. The designs, it turns out, are removable. Matsui is too uncertain to have a permanent tattoo.

But at love, Matsui is without reservation.

Within three months, she and love-interest Jennifer DiMarco had systematically hammered out life's essential details: They'd formalize their relationship in a ceremony after Matsui turned 21. DiMarco would have the babies - the two are "structurally" similar but as a science fiction writer, DiMarco can pursue her career at home.

A baby girl will carry DiMarco's name. A baby boy will have the Matsui surname. Yoshiko's great uncle years ago reminded the 10-year-old that, as the youngest Matsui, it was her obligation to carry on the Japanese family name.

They still argue over the ceremony. Jenny, 19, wants tons of people. Yoshiko, barely 18, consented to wear a dress. There will be two brides.

In July the couple moved to Ohio, tagging along with DiMarco's two moms, "mama" and "momo."

Sitting on their bed in the living room of a 600-square-foot home temporarily shared by five women, Matsui and DiMarco caught each other's gaze, eyes locked in an embrace.

The young women's relationship has been open from the start, a stark contrast to the older lesbian women heading the household. Despite eight years in a committed relationship, DiMarco's mom's partner can't be "out" because she fears she'd lose her job.

That means no family message on the recorder, no kisses goodbye between the pair if the front door is ajar. Matsui can tell at a glance if one of the women's co-workers is visiting: a photo of the older couple is hastily replaced with a poster.

It's not the lifestyle the young couple mimics.

Packed away were 28 boxes of books and much of the character of the room they shared the past year. They kept the bed, a computer DiMarco used for writing, a few stuffed animals, Matsui's caramel-colored bowling ball and toiletries, in the transition from an enormous home to an Ohio home.

So much investment in a first love.

But Matsui was certain she had met her soulmate. So positive that she took all the money she had to buy rings. The two bands sat in her room until DiMarco split from her partner. For nearly two years Matsui waited.

"I was in love with her. I knew she'd give up that other woman," Matsui said.

The cheap gold finish flecked away once they wore them. Matsui's replacement ring cracked. After four years, the couple is on their third set of rings. This final pair, sealed with kiss on the corner of Fourth and Stewart, is a long-term, semi-precious, real-gold investment.

Since late elementary school, Matsui suspected she was lesbian. A tomboy "really, really, really bad," she was treated like a boy and accepted by guys.

She spent one disastrous week dating a boy in sixth grade. Her disinterest in boys was cemented. She read in books about lesbians.

At 12, she could finally put a name on her feelings, for sure. But she decided there's a difference between being born a lesbian and choosing to be an active lesbian.

She decided to eschew slumber party girl-talk, oohing and aahing over boys. "It was like a game. I didn't want to put up any face I was a certain way," she said.

The next year, the schoolgirl fell for a woman teacher at Summit K-12. Words would fail her when the woman neared, the 13-year-old Matsui was so smitten.

"I wanted to be like her. I almost got my hair cut like her," Matsui said. "I thought she was cool. I started listening to music she suggested. It was terrible. Maybe she knew . . . It was a bad case of seventh-grade crush."

Years of lying are over

Reclining on the porch, stubborn sunlight dappling his white mock turtleneck, gently puffing a Marlboro Light, Jonathan Garner was keeping a secret. You could read it in his eyes, mystically playful.

Finally he offered it up: He had won. Garner was selected to receive one of the first Brian M. Day scholarships. Day, a community activist, banked his inheritance to form an endowment that gives college grants to local gay men of color.

The smile on Garner's face finally caught up to the gleam in his eyes.

Just a week earlier, sitting beneath the trees at Volunteer Park, there was darkness and grim uncertainty. The 20-year-old had been working as many as five jobs. That day he was down to four places of employment.

He had few cares till last October. The youngest of four, Garner had a brilliant future mapped out by his parents. True, his three older siblings had shared one bedroom while his German/Dutch mother and African-American father struggled, living in the Central District.

But life would be different for the baby, the prodigal child. The couple prospered; their belief in God grew. The family moved. Garner attended private schools in North Seattle, financed, in part, by an older sister.

He had a room to himself with TV, VCR and private phone, a credit card. He had a car at 15, a Volkswagen bug his older brother purchased. And the future included living at home for free while he attended the University of Washington, also at his parents' expense.

Then last fall, Garner's Mustang, which replaced the VW bug, broke down. He lost his job. He dashed off to British Columbia, just a weekend distraction. He'd come back with a clear head, pay for the car repair and find a new job.

Spying fingers, however, found his seven-month-old journal. Twenty to 30 entries left no doubt: Garner was bisexual, as his father, a 60-year-old professional window cleaner and ordained Southern Baptist minister, had long suspected.

Garner walked in the door; the ambush began. He was given half an hour to move.

Snippets of conversation over the years foretold this showdown. Since Garner was 8, his father had unleashed fire and brimstone rages against homosexuals.

"He had a very warped perspective of homosexuality. We have sex 100 times a day. He linked it with pedophilia," Garner said. "For a long time, I actually thought, `That couldn't be me. I don't have sex 100 times a day.' . . . I didn't fit the image my father had."

From seventh to ninth grade, he dated a girl he was strongly attracted to. Yet, Garner would find an eyebrow rising in curiosity when he saw men walking hand-in-hand on Broadway. His sophomore year, he began dating an older man he met shopping, a buff Seattle Prep senior.

He began tucking away a few dollars in a savings account, just in case. And he began to lie.

He was off to a girl's house, he fibbed, when he was meeting his male love interest. He even misled his parents about the number of credits he was taking at Seattle Central Community College because he said the only way his parents would allow him to live at home, for free, was as a student.

It needn't have been so hard. Attractive, lithe, personable and young, Garner could have hooked up with a sugar daddy.

"I don't think I'd ever sink that low. I'd borrow tooth and nail," he said. Yet he acknowledges it has been a struggle to come up with $1,000 he needs each month. It comes from 60 hours of work per week; some of the time is unpaid volunteer hours.

He helped to plan the June 19 Hands Off Washington state conference. He's a volunteer for the Seattle Bar Association. For the American Friends Service Committee, he has talked to young people about sexual diversity. And two days a week he answered calls at Youth Infoline.

His mom, who had maintained contact, in June invited Garner to come home for a month. The stay partially thawed the frozen communications with his father, but Garner believes the family has suffered a permanent loss.

"I feel it will never be comfortable anymore with my parents. But God, the years of lying and saving face and conniving and scheming are over," he said. "They know who I am. How they react is how they react."

A political decision

"I'm really queer right now. I was coming out before. I'm out loud and proud. In my life (sexual orientation) is a lot more than other queers. I choose to make it part of my life because I'm political."

Andy Slaght's politics even extend to the use of the word "queer," a term hotly hated by many homosexuals. Others feel empowered, taking ownership of the derisive term.

Nearly 21-year-old Slaght led the way down Broadway, striding down the avenue with a particular cafe in mind. He divides his life into quadrants - the University District, where he lives; downtown, where he works. This morning he's in Capitol Hill - "Queer Central" - where he socializes.

He's given to leisurely journal-writing sessions in cafes where the coffee is good, but cheap, and the sometimes surly help doesn't mind someone occupying a table after the cup runs dry.

A black beret draws his raven hair away from his face, strengthening the line of his nose and chin, exposing a nearly unblemished face. (He avoids chocolate to keep it clear.) A single earring pierces his left ear. The black turtleneck he wears is his; the plaid shirt with the stapled cuffs belongs to his roommate, also tall, also Andy. He draws a filtered cigarette from a Camel box, smoking it to the filter. After a couple of jabs, the filter is vanquished, its fuzzy neck twisted and broken.

This spring, he had been among a group of young lesbians, homosexuals and bisexuals who had gathered at Lambert House and then had flown to the March on Washington.

"It was incredible," Slaght said of the D.C. scene. "Pretty much from when we got on the plane from Washington to Cleveland, we were surrounded by queers. That was a great feeling." Imagine the Metro's Westlake Center bus tunnel from end to end, he gushes, but two times as long, "filled with people, filled with queers. Everyone would cheer when a train came because everyone who got off was queer."

Slaght's vocabulary has evolved as he's come to feel more comfortable with himself. Sometimes he lapses, saying gay. Queer is still a term that he's slipping on and trying for size.

It took a move from Montana to New York for him to realize he's a likable person.

He knew he was gay at age 14, but deferred doing anything about it until he felt the time right.

He didn't have sex with women in high school and deftly maneuvered out of guy talk about it.

The home-town Slaght, born and raised in Missoula was, in his words, a closed-minded snob. He dressed well, looking richer than he actually was, and snubbed most kids in his 1,200-student high school.

The mountains of Big Sky Country seemed like walls; he wanted a door out.

He left at 18, a few months after his spring 1990 graduation. His strongest memory of the place of his childhood was that departing day, throwing arms in air like kids do on a roller coaster, waiting for the ride of their lives.

A nanny job waited in New York. In this new home he could imagine a history. But, he said, he remained the same person, just growing. More comfortable with who he was.

"I was a student of life in New York. That sounds kind of cheesy," he admits. "I learned that I had the power - the whole time. I just had to tap the Doc Martens."

Slaght now feels at the peak of his coming out. He's tying up loose ends, like learning to depend on others rather than trying to be totally, cooly self-sufficient. He's trying to give back to the gay community as much as he took back east.

He's a member of the Seattle Youth Advisory Council, the mayor and city council's way to tap the voice of young people. He represents Lambert House and lesbian, gay and bisexual youth. He's consciously expanded being homosexual to fill a larger section of his life and is working for gays to have equal rights in housing and employment.

"I don't want our community to be tolerated. I want our community to be recognized as a different culture. Because it is an entirely different culture. I want people to know that different isn't wrong," he said.

------------------------------------ SOME FACTS ABOUT GAY YOUTH ------------------------------------ -- 1 percent to 10 percent of the youth population is gay or lesbian.

-- Seventy to 540 students in a 1,000-student high school are themselves gay or lesbian, have a gay or lesbian sibling, have a gay or lesbian parent or will be parents to a gay son or lesbian daughter.

-- Twenty-five percent of gay and lesbian youth have serious substance abuse problems.

-- Twenty to 30 percent of suicides are committed by gay or lesbian kids.

-- Nearly 40 percent of self-identified gay, lesbian and bisexual youth have run away from home at least once.

-- Forty percent of Seattle's street kids are sexual minorities.

Sources: Beth Reis, King County Public Health educator; Seattle Commission on Children and Youth; Pediatrics; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Secretary's report on youth suicide.