"It was either change who I was, or leave," says Kory, now 20, in a quiet, even voice. He closes his eyes for a moment as if replaying the scene, then continues. "So I left."
Though he first came out as a lesbian, Kory now identifies himself as transsexual and has begun the process of becoming male. He takes hormone therapy in preparation for the operation he hopes will one day complete the process. And, while he's still legally female, his sensitive, dark eyes look out from the face of an attractive young man.
Kory had to leave, but it wasn't easy.
"Until I came out, my entire life revolved around my family and my church," he explains. "Now I don't think I'd be welcomed there."
Indeed, in virtually every city, but especially the conservative stronghold of Colorado Springs, there are places where young people like Kory aren't welcomed. But two years ago, he discovered a place with an open door. That place was Inside/Out Youth Services.
Ironically, Inside/Out fills the basement of a former church on Nevada Avenue (the same building that houses the Independent's offices). Though it's largely an underground space, it's colorful and comfortable. A circle of couches forms a giant conversation pit. Nearby, there are pool and foosball tables, a piano, a small library, computers, cable TV and a mini-fridge full of soft drinks. It could be mistaken for any church youth-group hangout if it weren't for the baskets of condoms, dental dams and safe-sex brochures placed on a table.
As teens gather outside the door, laughing and talking, the scent of popcorn wafts up the stairwell. A key jingles in the lock and Deborah Surat, the executive director, opens up to let them in.
"Hey, Deb," they greet her, with smiles and hugs, as they file in for an evening meeting.
The organization, founded in 1990, was originally created to address health issues among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth. Today, for the 300-plus young people who come here annually, it's a support network, a resource center, an educational forum, even a home away from home.
"We can't be everything they need," says Surat, "but if we can't provide it, we'll work to find someone in the community who can."
It's not an empty platitude. When a young person comes in the door for the first time, Inside/Out gives him or her a computerized assessment on major risk factors. If it reveals increased risks for depression, substance abuse, suicide or other issues, she connects the youth with a professional who can help.
On one table, there are free clothes and school supplies; on another, a sign-up sheet for the showing of a televised presidential debate, and volunteer forms for the upcoming Downtown Diversity Celebration.
"Deb is always asking for ways we can improve things," says Talia, a college student and young mother who comes to the center. "We all have a say."
One of center's most popular services, its food pantry, grew out of simple observation.
"At first we were only serving pizza on Fridays," says Surat. "But during the meetings on Wednesdays and Thursdays, I realized they were eating chips like it was their only meal of the day."
Now the kitchen shelves hold cereal boxes, trail mix, mac and cheese, tuna, peanut butter, applesauce and other foods that require little cooking.
"The kitchen is there for anyone who is hungry," says Surat. "They are welcome to take food with them or eat it here. No questions asked."
It's a policy that makes a difference to teens who aren't always comfortable using religious charities or those that collect data that might "out" them. Because approximately half the youth no longer live at home, and a quarter of those are homeless, according to Surat, it's an important service.
But the pantry is not at the top of any lists when teens are asked why they come to Inside/Out. The things they mention are the intangibles. Like the way the center has given 17-year-old Shane the confidence to come out to his friends and family.
"I like the support and the topics that we talk about," Shane says. "They're real-life issues."
Cassie, a 16-year-old, found the center after her father reacted violently to her coming out.
"At Inside/Out I get support, I get comfort, I get good friends and people I can call when I need them ... Basically everything except a shower and a place to sleep."
Bryan Simms, one of the center's 12 adult facilitators, understands how they feel.
"I came from a conservative home," he says. "And I'm here because I wish there was a place like this when I was young. It's a safe place where they don't have to be ashamed of who they are, and they learn that someone cares about them."
Talia smiles a big, easy smile when asked what she has found here. She names her friends and her fianc Kory at the top of her list.
"He's the best thing that ever happened to me," she says. "The time I've spent here has been some of the best in my life."
Kory has seen many changes in his life since he first came here two years ago, when he had nowhere else to go. With the encouragement of Inside/Out staff, he recently took the GED test and received the highest score the testing center has ever given. Last week he received an Inside/Out scholarship that will help him attend local college in the fall.
And, in addition to attending the center's groups himself, he now volunteers as a peer facilitator. He openly shares the most personal details of his life to help others.
"I want other kids to know that Inside/Out is a great place to go," he says, adding, "For the first time in my life, I found a place where I felt it was OK to be myself."
Located at 235 S. Nevada Ave., Inside/Out Youth Services offers support groups, recreation nights, leadership development and HIV education for LGBTQI youth ages 13-22.
Volunteers and contributions are always needed.
Please contact 328-1056 or visit insideoutys.org for more information.