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Decatur high school student creates online community for LGBTQ teens

COVID-19 Decatur

Decatur high school student creates online community for LGBTQ teens

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Eli Rubenstein and his mom, Ali, visited the Reddit office in San Francisco in early March 2020, days before the world shut down due to the pandemic. Image provided to Decaturish


By Logan C. Ritchie, contributor 

Decatur, GA — Eli Rubenstein, a sophomore at Ben Franklin Academy in Decatur, spent the spring and summer playing video games, reading books, recording bass guitar on SoundCloud, and livestreaming on Twitch when he wasn’t in a virtual class.

Typical stuff for 16-year-olds, except Rubenstein also made history by programming the only online community in Georgia for LGBTQ teens, created by a teen.

Rubenstein is an energetic kid in perpetual motion. His idea for a safe space where LGBTQ teens could socialize twice weekly was something new. Other groups, including the Atlanta chapter of Parents, Families, and Friends of the Lesbian, Gay, Bi and Trans Community (PFLAG), have a monthly online component but Rubenstein felt it was too infrequent.

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The Closet, which launched in July, is for teens ages 14 to 18. Every Friday and Saturday night The Closet hosts a Zoom chat with themes including a talent show, movie night, anime, and e-sports.

Participants are required to sign up in advance to protect their privacy. The online chat events are moderated by an LGBTQ adult to ensure the space is safe, appropriate, and fun.

The Closet website reads, “The Covid-19 pandemic has greatly affected the amount of communication available to those looking for interpersonal relationships, whether it be casual friendships, or something more. Those who didn’t have many friends before this pandemic have been greatly affected.”

Rubenstein said an online support group is ideal because some people just don’t like face to face interactions.

“Talking in person is uncomfortable. People don’t want to be ‘out’ in public. But everybody is really lonely, and they still need someone to talk to,” he said.

In a recent essay for JumpSpark ATL, (jumpsparkatl.org) Rubenstein wrote many teens are afraid to tell family members about their sexuality.

“There are so many teens in the State of Georgia who can’t come out to anyone because they are afraid of how their life will change, or who have no friends because nobody can accept the fact that they are different,” he wrote. “There are some people who are too shy to make friends and stay hidden in the background. The pandemic has greatly magnified the effect of this issue, causing widespread depression and loneliness in the LGBTQ+ community, which is sending teens to toxic parts of the internet for positive attention, only to get the opposite.”

According to a study by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the average age of a youth who is transgender to recognize they’re not cisgender is 8.5 years old. The median age to recognize sexual orientation is 12 years old.

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The Closet has set rules, including no hate speech; information can be exchanged if both parties consent; camera and microphones must be on; participants may not be under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

School started this month, and Rubenstein said he was ready to go back to campus to talk to people, “even if it’s from six feet apart. I haven’t socially interacted with my peers for months.”

The pride in his mom’s voice is reflected in the way she speaks about her son.

“The Closet is an amazing way to give back to community,” Ali Rubenstein said, adding social justice is a vital part of their family. She’s been attending the Atlanta Pride Parade with Eli since he was in a stroller.

“We are really supportive and accepting of Eli, but I want to be sensitive to the fact that not all families are in the same position,” she said.

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