Posts Tagged ‘HIV’

Seventeen years ago on the first Saturday in October, I sat in a park in Naperville, shivering and uncomfortable, dressed too lightly for how the temps dropped after the sun went down. I was at a Take Back the Night rally for domestic violence awareness, one of the first assignments of my brand new job running an agency for LGBT youth. I was living in new state (one I wasn’t particularly fond of) and taking on my first executive director role which scared me down to my socks.

Much has changed in the seventeen years I’ve held this job. I’ve been here long enough to watch Gay Straight Student Alliance groups open in almost every high school in that first county where we worked, to watch Don’t Ask, Don’t tell take a nose dive and to watch the United States Supreme Court address same sex marriage rights. Yesterday, I handed off stacks of brochures and other materials to one of the agency interns who is covering that annual rally this evening. Yesterday, I led a training for a group of new volunteers, the thirty third group of volunteers whom I’ve trained to do what Youth Outlook ( does.

I came to this job from working in the HIV field in the days before drug cocktails were introduced, when HIV was still an almost immediate death sentence, when PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophyaxis for HIV prevention) could not even have been imagined and fear was the letter of the law when it came to unprotected sex. In my first year in that position in the HIV field, thirty two of the people I worked with, friends, co-workers, and clients, died. Many of them were alone, abandoned by their families, and some of them had AIDS dementia eating holes in their brains as they walked around the group home naked and urinating down heat registers, losing all sense of the people they were before they got sick. My graduate degree in social work did not prepare me for that. It did not prepare me to follow men around with towels to place gently across their laps in my efforts to afford them some privacy and some dignity. “Would you mind if I just set this here? Is that okay for you?”

It was a challenge to leave that position given what I saw of the opportunities to be of service to people who had rarely—and in some situations, never—experienced having support and it was even more a challenge to move halfway across the country to do it. I’m not sure I would have worked up the nerve on my own.  It was only after conversations with my closest friends that I realized taking the position running an agency for LGBT youth was the next logical step in my career.  As one friend observed, “What a privilege to go from helping people die with dignity to helping people live celebrating who they are!”

Since the days when the board of directors first hired me (despite the fact that at 32, I looked more like Harry Potter than Daniel Radcliffe ever did), this job has been about creating space that is safe, celebratory, and empowering. Surrounding myself with like-minded folks, the reach of that safe space has grown from one county to five counties, covering more than 2200 square miles, and pushing from the edge of Chicago into a rural IL farm community where I have to bet that LGBT issues are not often a topic at the dinner table.

Our growth as an agency is wonderful, no doubt. The number of our programs has grown from two in 1998 to seventeen at the end of this last school year, with a waiting list of programs we’d like to launch but need additional funding and people power to do well. All good. Who could complain? But I wouldn’t say that’s the best part. Maybe the best parts are things like what I saw happen this week when a thirteen year old boy joined me to do a community education program and spoke openly for the first time about being bullied to the point of not wanting to use his school’s bathrooms because they were not safe. As if it weren’t enough to hear his moving story, I also got to watch him receive a standing ovation for his presentation from the hundred or so professionals who were there to hear him.

Or maybe the best parts are the changes I’ve been here long enough to see in relation to parenting and parent acceptance of LGBT kids. Ten years ago, it was rare that I’d hear from a parent. If I did hear from one, it was likely to be along the lines of, “My kid cannot attend THOSE groups. My kid is not allowed to be gay.”  It’s entirely possible they said those things because I DID look like Harry Potter. It’s kind of hard to tell. But, I digress. So after hearing such comments back in the day, I would chuckle to myself and think, “Yeah, you let me know how that goes, okay?”  Now when I hear from parents, it’s one of two things. First, they want information about the drop-in centers. And second, they tell me things like, “I know my kid is gay. I’ve known for years. I love my kid. I want my kid to be happy. I just don’t know what to say or where the resources are!”  This, we can help them with!

It is an act of revolution to create space that allows youth to take hold of their futures in a positive way. It is an act of revolution to listen to them actively and work with them to affect change. I stand in awe of our revolutionaries and admire the people who effect change in non-violent ways—by holding hands, giving congratulatory thumps on the back, offering a shoulder to lean on. Such an approach allows people who struggle to regroup and then continue on with their cause, a natural and nurturing recharge process.

If you’ve read any draft of Urban Tidepool, you know that one of the questions I raise is how we, as adults, come to find room in our hearts and lives to give, to support, when little or none was provided to us. When I think about that question in terms of my professional roles and the relationships formed therein, I know such space was created for me in multiple settings, through multiple professional mentors and supervisors. I look at what Youth Outlook does today…at the young man speaking with dignity, wit, and great insight of the efforts made to wear him down, wear him out, make him less than, and his refusal to be made less than…and every day, I thank the people who created safe space for me, so that I, in turn, may help create safe space for him. For his friends. For the people he hasn’t met experiencing similar situations.

Seventeen years ago, a gentle revolution started in a park in Naperville and I brought to it all of the tools and all of the arms of my mentors and supervisors who taught me about interconnectedness and respect. They would never have dreamed of allowing me (or Harry Potter) to experience those jobs, those roles, and those worlds as if in vacuum. Tonight, the revolution continues, and gentle warriors in the form of soft-spoken 13 year old boys change the course of schools and communities. There’s no fife player. There’s no drummer. We are blessed that there has been little blood shed. What there is, is a lot of hand holding. A lot of back thumping. And a hell of a lot of shoulder leaning. This is how our revolution progresses.

“What a privilege to go from helping people die with dignity to helping people live celebrating who they are.”

Until you’ve led your own revolution, you have no idea.

And just for chuckles, since it IS LGBT History month, the Harry Potter look-alike photo from the summer I was hired as Executive Director:

Harry Potter

Taken in part from my address to the 200 attendees at Dare to Dream, October 18, 2013.

Last week I joined one of our volunteers to help with the GSA group at the middle school.  It was their open house day and the students had invited other people to come get know them and get involved in their GSA. I got to meet seven amazing 8th graders and one amazing 7th grader, including one guy who had dyed his hair pink for breast cancer awareness month.

Afterward, I had some time to think about those kids and the shifting world in which they are starting to find their adult footing. I do a lot of presentations on developmental issues, so I love this kind of compare and contrast exploration. I don’t mind admitting–it was a little depressing to realize that those students were mostly born in the year 2000—they’re Y2K babies. When I considered the many things that have changed in the past few years and how old they would have been when those changes happened, it was mind-bending.

Think about the enormous milestones we’ve passed. Y2K kids were 4 years old when Massachusetts defied conservative groups across the country and passed their same sex marriage bill. They were 8 when we elected our first black president and if they remember any president before him, there is only one other guy to remember. Imagine how different the political landscape might look having only seen two presidents in action—one white and the other black where women have always been front-running candidates. They were 10 when Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed, 11 when IL passed its civil union bill, 13 when parts of DOMA were struck down and they have gone through middle school watching the debate about same sex marriage in IL play out. They were born after we lost Matthew Shepard, and HIV has always been a chronic, long-term, treatable disease. Can you picture this?

They have a different world than we did, and their world is shifting-still—a lot. But there’s one thing that has not shifted as much as we need to see. While I was there last week, we did a short survey with the attendees to find out what they’d like to use their time for during their GSA meetings.  On nearly every page, they asked for help with how to deal with bullying.

I cannot tell you how many conversations we have had with gay adults in the last two years where we are asked why this agency even still exists. I can’t tell you because I’ve lost track. The impression held by so many adults, adults who themselves endured year after year of trauma in schools and in homes, that our world has shifted SO much that the kids are fine now and why even do we need a Youth Outlook ( …let me tell you, those folks have never been more off base and the lack of awareness is frightening.

Y2K kids need LGBT adults more than ever before. As they come out younger and younger, it is imperative that we create a safety net to support them. The problems that my agency came together to address in 1998 have not disappeared—they have merely migrated to a younger group of kids with fewer resources. The fact that nearly every survey we got back asked us how to handle being bullied—questions coming from kids in the most progressive, LGBT-friendly school in our 5 county service area, where the entire district received training on the issues faced by LGBT kids tells you –it isn’t over yet and our kids are not safe.

Y2K kids are not typically in a position to decide to go to another school or to demand to move to a more supportive community. They don’t have choices. But we do.

We have the choice to acknowledge that we are still needed. We have the choice to believe that we can make a difference by showing up to help run a drop in center or supporting a GSA. We have the choice to open our minds to the risks they face- –not so different from those that many of us faced, and given the cyber attacks that some of our kids have described, in some ways worse. When you get right down to it, we have the choice to believe that those risks still exist and let it determine our behavior. We all have the choice to be supportive of LGBT kids, to be their safety net. Our collective world is shifting and they need us to get through this shift. If I could ask you anything, I’d ask you not to kid yourself that things are all better and take this message into YOUR world. I dare you –I double dog dare you–to be the ally our kids need.


Coming Full Circle

Posted: September 29, 2013 in Blog
Tags: , , , ,

I spent yesterday morning walking the AIDS Walk in Chicago. It was a wonderful morning to walk the lakefront with thousands of other like-minded souls out there giving their time and money to a cause about which they feel strongly. I bear in mind that there are no such things as coincidences when I can see so clearly, yesterday and every other day, how stepping off the trajectory of being a mental health therapist to step into the trajectory of working in HIV prevention brought me to this amazing place where I work with LGBT kids.

In the early 90s, I served as the program manager for housing programs in upstate NY for people living with HIV and AIDS. While hardly new, the disease was still impacting significantly on the gay men’s community and beginning its double duty of impacting heavily on communities of color. The cocktail drugs were just getting positioned to hit the market. The guys in the house got sick. Very sick. Very quickly.

There was nothing in my training to become a therapist that prepared me for what we did in that program. I was accustomed to people confronting inner demons around abuse, sexual assault, divorcing parents, and other issues of loss. I was accustomed to sitting quietly while people blotted tears and tried to put puzzle pieces together. But nothing got me ready for running a residential program with men who were so sick, some who were actively dying. This was not about confronting inner demons and healing. This was about kangaroo feeding pumps for guys who could no longer swallow. It was about bringing food to people who couldn’t get out of bed because of the neuropathy in their feet. It was about following naked men around the house with a towel, asking them not to urinate down the heat registers, offering to cover them, to afford them some dignity and some privacy, when AIDS dementia was eating holes in their brains and it no longer occurred to them that they weren’t wearing clothes. It was about physically picking up a body experiencing wasting syndrome out of a wheelchair so someone could sit on couch cushions and be in somewhat less agony. It was about cleaning bathrooms and wiping bloody, fecal covered handprints off the walls when bodies eroded from the inside out. It was about bleach and AZT and tears in the office when no one was looking.

I learned a lot in that job. I learned how to respectfully navigate a conversation with someone who was actively considering physician assisted suicide. I learned about race relations when one of the guys who greeted me at the door with coffee every morning and would sit with me in the office to tell me about his evening eventually told me that he thought of me as an honorary black woman. And when he grew sicker, I learned about joy when I would watch the Oh Happy Day scene from Sister Act 2 with him over and over again when he could no longer walk and his days were spent on the couch in the living room. It was the only thing that made him smile. He was beautiful when he smiled. I learned how to sit death watch with men who had no families, who were utterly alone in the world. And I learned that our grief, as a staff team, was as real as any family’s when we went to memorial service after memorial service and were forced to lay some of those men to rest in Potter’s Field because no one could afford to bury them.

It was a difficult job to leave, even when it was clear to me that I needed to go. I wrestled with the option to move to the Midwest to take a job running an agency for LGBT kids. Could I really let go and move away?

“What a wonderful way to come full circle,” one of my friends said over dinner. “Instead of helping people die with dignity, you will be able to help people live celebrating who they are.”

I like to think that I did that a little bit too, for the NY guys. For some of them, moments of acceptance and respect had come few and far between. Living that with them for several years…seeing it so clearly when they were laid to rest alone with only my staff team and their medical providers there to say goodbye was the perfect springboard to create a whole new agency where that was always the underlying principle.

I believe this—there are no coincidences.