Deerfield High School senior Joe Tyler Gerber, who indentifies as being gay, said he would have benefitted from a pride youth group when he was in middle school. (Alexandra Chachkevitch, Chicago Tribune / September 22, 2013)

Joe Tyler Gerber said he realized he was gay in sixth grade but couldn't come out until he reached high school.
"I was feeling trapped," said Gerber, 17, a senior at Deerfield High School. "I didn't really have anybody to talk to."
If a support group had been available to him then, Gerber said, he might have gained more confidence in himself earlier. Such groups are now starting to appear in the Chicago area.
Links, a north suburban nonprofit, provides support to young people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or who are still questioning their sexuality. It has begun creating support groups for middle school students.
The Northfield-based organization has been around for 40 years. It launched its first weekly support group for middle school students in Evanston last year, and started one in Northbrook this month. The nonprofit also provides a reproductive health care clinic and health education programs for children and teenagers.
Executive Director Amy Skalinder said she noticed a need in the community after getting several phone calls over the last few years from parents wondering about resources for their younger children.
She said the nonprofit, which provides support to between 150 and 200 teens per year, has been offering pride youth groups for high school students for 20 years. In addition, most high schools offer some sort of gay and straight alliance group and other counseling services.
But the situation is different in middle schools, Skalinder said.
"For middle school kids who are thinking they may be gay, there are very few resources out there," she said.
Skalinder said she hopes the new groups fill that void.
"I was thrilled when I saw that Links started to do this," said Maureen Goldin, president of the Deerfield Chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbian and Gays, or PFLAG. "It has been something that I've been hoping for years now."
Goldin's son, now 16, came out when he was 11, she said.
Wanting her child to be as comfortable as he can be, Goldin searched for resources in the area her son could take advantage of. She said she quickly found out there wasn't much offered for younger gay children.
Goldin said her son tried attending a couple of high school pride youth meetings, but he stopped because the age gap between him and his peers was too significant.
As Goldin became more involved in her son's school and in the surrounding gay community, she found out she wasn't the only one in the same situation.
"Kids are coming out a lot younger these days," Goldin said.
The middle school group in Evanston started in October 2012, and it took a while to connect with students. But it eventually gained a couple of regular members, said Erschel De Leon, who runs the pride youth programs at Links. The confidential meetings offer the students a safe place to talk about their experiences and concerns, De Leon said.
"Middle school is a hard time for everyone and especially kids who are gay," De Leon said.
Gerber, who attends Links' high school pride youth group in Northfield, said he was verbally bullied when he was in middle school.
"People poked fun of the way I walked and the way I talked," he said. "At that age you just don't realize how much the language you use could hurt."
Gerber said he hopes the new groups help children learn about homosexuality and who they are earlier on.
Twitter @chachkevitch
Youth groups
Links operates the middle school pride youth groups during the school year in collaboration with Youth Organizations Umbrella Inc. in Evanston and the Northbrook United Methodist Church in Northbrook.
•Evanston: Every Monday from 5 to 6 p.m. at Grace Lutheran Church, 1430 South Blvd., Evanston
•Northbrook: Every Wednesday from 4:15 to 5:15 p.m. at Northbrook United Methodist Church, 1190 Western Ave., Northbrook.