SPRING HILL — After at least five gay students around the country committed suicide last year in cases that drew widespread media attention, members of the Spring Hill United Church of Christ moved a long-standing agenda item to the front burner.
Next week, the church's members will launch a chapter of PFLAG, a national organization that takes its name from support of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.
The chapter will hold a monthly support group, distribute educational materials, provide a hotline and try to connect with school guidance counselors. The first meeting will be at 7 p.m. Monday at the Spring Hill United Church of Christ, 4244 Mariner Blvd. near Libby Road.
"We knew there was no PFLAG chapter in the county, but there are gay and lesbian kids (in Hernando)," said Carlan Helgelson, the church's pastor. "There has been no place for them to go and find support."
In addition to counseling, the support groups will provide booklets for youths who are struggling with their sexuality. The booklets address issues such as "How do I tell my parents?" and "Will I lose my straight friends?" Another booklet offers suggestions to parents on how to react if they learn their teenager is gay.
Helgelson, who has been a pastor for 30 years, said he'll be available for religious counseling if people request it, but the meetings will be secular.
"We want to set the chapter up and provide the space," he said. "This organization belongs to the community. People from all faiths and backgrounds are welcome."
Helgelson has counseled gay youths and their parents, an experience that has convinced him that people do not choose their sexual orientation. The challenge, he said, is helping parents accept their child's sexuality and understand that it's an inescapable part of who he or she is.
"Often the situations have to do with parents who suspect their child is gay," Helgelson said. "It's a difficult thing to adjust to. These parents know their kids will be ostracized. But there's also the nitty-gritty issues such as, 'I'm not going to have any grandchildren.' "
Virginia Burns, president-elect of the new PFLAG chapter, was previously involved with the PFLAG in Sarasota. She will be among roughly a dozen church members at the meeting on Monday to help get the group up and running.
Burns has also worked as a pastor for the gay community, a minister to people with AIDS and a psychiatric nurse, she said. She hopes the group can help educate teachers, counselors and parents in Hernando and alleviate the stigma attached to homosexuality.
She said she sees it as her mission to connect with school principals and guidance counselors so they can recommend PFLAG as a resource to students.
Jenny Ho, 16, who is president of the Gay-Straight Alliance at Central High School in Brooksville, said she doesn't think most gay people she knows are physically threatened, but verbal harassment is still an issue.
Central High principal Joe Clifford said there's a need for organizations like PFLAG, and he's open to his school forming a connection with the group.
"There is bullying going on in the schools and in the community and anyone who says differently has their head in the sand and is not looking at what the issues are," he said. "It's appropriate to have a supportive environment for people who are having a difficult time."
Helgelson explained his commitment to providing that support as he sat in his purple office Wednesday afternoon, next to a file cabinet decorated with a protolerance rainbow magnet.
In March 2009, he said, the church voted by 98 percent of the congregation to be open to all people, particularly gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. The congregation has 228 members.
It's not the kind of message people have come to expect from churches, he said. But he's held two seminars to try to dispel the idea many people have that the Bible forbids homosexuality.
In a room near Helgelson's office, four women crowed with laughter one day this week as they knitted sweaters and prayer shawls. When Helgelson entered, Jan Bastow took a break from the group's jokes to tell Helgelson that she was making a sweater for a lesbian who is having a baby.
Helgelson said members of some conservative churches may object to the Spring Hill United Church of Christ hosting a PFLAG chapter, but he doesn't see how anyone can object to tolerance and compassion.
Hernando County's previous PFLAG chapter, a group that began in 1994 and faded out in the late '90s, was organized by concerned parents with gay children. The group met at the West Hernando Branch Library and peaked at 22 members.
PFLAG has about 200,000 members and supporters nationwide, according to its website.
Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (352) 848-1432.