It’s a hot Sunday afternoon, and east Nob Hill feels drowsy and quiet—with one exception. The Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico, on Silver just south of Central, buzzes with energy. A speech therapist counsels male-to-female transgender youth on how to practice raising the tones of their voices. Two visitors stop by to browse free clothes available in the center’s brimming walk-in closet. A parent volunteer shows a guest around the rooms, pointing out the computer lab and the small lending library.
And lounging in the office shared by the organization’s two directors is 18-year-old Cris. He’s soft-spoken with cropped black hair and chunky-rimmed glasses. “I don’t have friends or people that I talk to,” he admits. He leans forward in his chair when he says he’s excited to be here for his first support group meeting. He’s looking forward to meeting others who, finally, understand what he’s going through.
Cris describes the anger that began welling up in him as a 5 year old—anger that he says shadows him to this day. In elementary school, wary of the questions and taunts of his classmates, he avoided using the restroom and suffered frequent urinary tract infections. By the time puberty hit, his exemplary grades started to slip. He ditched school and started using drugs, struggled with thoughts of suicide and eventually dropped out of high school altogether. Without close friends to confide in, his process of self-discovery has primarily been limited to the Internet. He pores over blogs detailing stories of other transgender men coming to terms with the fact that they don’t feel at home in the female bodies they were born into.
“This is my own life, and it’s not an experience that’s completely separate from the whole of human experience.”
Tenzin Beck, 20 years old
“Realizing that I liked girls was easier, and I’ve dealt with that for a few years,” says Cris. “Realizing that you’re a completely different person from who you’ve been—it’s a lot more difficult. It creates a lot of inner turmoil, and it’s very exhausting. But once you realize who you are, it’s also very relieving.”
The speech therapist winds up her session, and Cris joins the circle of other youth group members, who today range in age from 16 to 21. Their conversation moves energetically across a range of topics, from finding acceptance in Albuquerque (“I find it much more tolerant than the little farming village in Michigan where I’m from,” says 21-year-old Alex) to the complexities of coming out to family and peers, to their hopes for the future.
“Culture doesn’t change on its own,” says 20-year-old Tenzin Beck, a slim blonde with a shy but wide smile. “I don’t want to say that it’s each person’s responsibility to be an agent of change, because it is a burden, and it is difficult. In a lot of ways it really sucks to try to be an activist.” But challenges notwithstanding, says Beck, it’s imperative that as a society we figure out how to stop thinking of differences as dangerous defects. Having community members who are out and visible and willing to share their stories and answer questions plays a big part in getting there. “This is my own life,” she says, “and it’s not an experience that’s completely separate from the whole of human experience.”
Establishmentarians, media pundits and others who decry young people’s lack of ambition and civic participation obviously haven’t spent time with Albuquerque’s LGBTQ youth.
As Alyssa Hedrick, co-chair of UNM’s Queer-Straight Alliance, says of her peers’ political literacy, “We are all over that shit.”
“People forget what Pride actually is,” says Frankie Flores, a UNM student who works as a program assistant at the university’s LGBTQ Resource Center. “Now it’s become this big party full of celebrating—and while that’s really important, people also need to remember that Pride comes out of paying respect to those who have given their lives for us to be able to do these things.”
In the last year, “these things” included significant steps forward. Gay people can now serve openly in the military. President Obama came out in support of same-sex marriage. California’s Proposition 8 was struck down in federal court. Meanwhile, closer to home, voters in New Mexico District 26 elected Jacob Candelaria, who at age 25 will be the first openly gay man to serve in the Legislature. Albuquerque Pride moved its headquarters to a prominent location Downtown. The Transgender Resource Center established itself as one of the first safe spaces of its kind in the country, and UNM’s LGBTQ Resource Center celebrated its second year of providing trainings, free counseling and HIV screenings, among other services.
Building on that momentum, say young activists in Albuquerque, is essential to realizing their vision of a more accepting culture—especially because one step forward can sometimes result in two steps back. As more young people feel empowered to come out as gay or transgender, more are at risk for bullying and other forms of violence.
“People are starting to dismiss bullying as being hyped up or over-sensationalized,” says Flores, who’s spearheaded anti-bullying campaigns on the UNM campus. “I’ve encountered a lot of people who say that it’s just a part of life. To which I respond: 50 years ago, so was lynching. Some parts of life need to change.”
Adults as well as young people still don’t have the tools and confidence to stand up to bullying, says Flores, and normalized behavior such as degrading something by calling it “gay,” contributes to a larger culture of violence. And that culture, says Flores, is deadly for LGBTQ people.
Flores’ colleague Lilly Lawrence-Metzler was a junior in high school when she started attending Queer-Straight Alliance meetings at the university. Even though she wasn’t old enough to attend UNM, she volunteered to help students establish a university-supported center to serve the entire community. Today, she’s the youngest staff member at the LGBTQ Resource Center. The UNM sophomore coordinates “safe zone” trainings and certification for anyone who wants to serve as an LGBTQ ally. She describes her sense of the future as guardedly optimistic.
“People are starting to dismiss bullying as being hyped up or over-sensationalized. I’ve encountered a lot of people who say that it’s just a part of life. To which I respond: 50 years ago, so was lynching. Some parts of life need to change.”
Frankie Flores, UNM LGBTQ Resource Center
“Sure, we have all these great laws getting passed,” says Lawrence-Metzler. “But that also comes with some big backlash.” She’s personally witnessed a continual pattern of self-harm and risky decision-making among her peers. Worldwide, levels of suicide and substance abuse remain disproportionately high among gay and transgender people. That’s why she says creating accessible, high-profile safe zones is so important—even lifesaving.
“We still have people not coming out because they’re terrified that they’ll be hurt. And that’s just not OK,” she says. “We need a society and a world where people can be themselves. You don’t have to agree with someone in order to respect them and be OK with them, and a lot of people are still missing that point.”
Lighting the way to that point begins on the playground more than in board rooms, says Jenn Jevertson—and that ground-level territory is where the New Mexico Gay-Straight Alliance Network (she’s the program manager) feels right at home. The Network is an offshoot of the Santa Fe Mountain Center, a nonprofit that serves multiple populations of marginalized young people through outdoor programs. In 2000, Mountain Center staff identified that a growing number of kids they worked with were suffering from mental health and social issues because of sexual orientation or gender identity stigmas.
Jevertson says national statistics show that LGBTQ youth attempt suicide four times more than their peers and are bullied two to three times more. “The reason we got started with the Gay-Straight Alliance Network was that we found that one of the best ways to access and support youth are through Gay-Straight Alliance clubs,” she adds. “Most kids have to go to school, and if there are more GSAs in schools, then more youth have access to a safe space.”
The clubs don’t just benefit gay or trans students, says Jevertson. They’re also sources of support to kids that have two dads or two moms, or the kid whose brother is gay and wants to be around people who won’t make mean remarks about it.
When the New Mexico Gay-Straight Alliance Network first started its work in 2005, Jevertson says it identified 12 GSA clubs across the state. This year, after hosting regular events and trainings for student leaders, she’s counted 57 active clubs. Middle and high school students on the state GSA Youth Council identify the networks’ priorities, such as the need for better confidentiality training in school health clinics. They also learn how to support other students who want to establish or strengthen GSA clubs at their own schools. It’s more effective than an adult-driven, top-down approach, says Jevertson.
She says her firsthand experiences with young people have taught her that the clichéd phrase, “young people are the leaders of tomorrow,” is wrong.
“We believe that youth are our leaders right now. They don’t have to wait to grow up to have an impact. They don’t have to wait until they’re 18 and registered to vote. They’re definitely capable and effective leaders right now.”
Back at the Transgender Resource Center, the youth group’s topic of conversation shifts again—this time to the challenge of confronting prejudices among members of LGBTQ community who are expected to be allies.
Tenzin Beck threads her fingers thoughtfully as she speaks. “My girlfriend is a much stronger activist than I, and she says what hurts the most is when people who are nominally on the same side of this fight ... say incredibly transphobic things. It’s much more hurtful than when people completely outside of the community say the same thing.”
Adrien Lawyer, executive director of the Transgender Resource Center, elaborates on the concept. He says there’s a need to improve support and understanding about all self-proclaimed members of the queer community—including among its own members.
“The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell didn’t help transgender people,” Lawyer points out. And marriage equality only directly affects transgender people who are also lesbian or gay, which many trans people are not, he adds. “LGBT rights and community—those are very real. But it’s also real that the transgender movement on its own, as a discrete thing, is easily 20 or 30 years behind the LGB movement,” he says. “Civil rights advances that get discussed are only tangentially related to the transgender experience.”
“You don’t have to agree with someone in order to respect them and be OK with them, and a lot of people are still missing that point.”
Lilly Lawrence-Metzler, UNM LGBTQ Resource Center
That wider view of the LGBTQ movement has begun to inform the work of young local activists. They vocally share a determination to build a more inclusive community under their own tent.
In addition to spearheading anti-bullying projects at UNM, Frankie Flores also heads up the school’s new Queer Voices Roundtable—a project that brings together all of the LGBTQ groups on campus for regular meetings, along with ally organizations. Flores says their combined efforts have already resulted in meaningful institutional changes, starting in the 2012 spring semester.
“We believe that youth are our leaders right now. They don’t have to wait to grow up to have an impact. They don’t have to wait until they’re 18 and registered to vote.”
Jenn Jevertson, New Mexico Gay-Straight Alliance Network
“We don’t have many universal restrooms, and it causes issues for our transgender community,” Flores explains. “Through the roundtable, people realized this was a bigger issue that needed to be addressed.”
The restrooms problem was presented to the undergrad and graduate governing student bodies. “They were interested and concerned, and a resolution was passed,” says Flores. Work is underway to modify single-stall bathrooms on campus so they can be used by anyone, regardless of gender orientation.
The roundtable members’ next project is to get Queer Studies declared an official minor, “which has to go through the state Legislature,” Flores says. “We don’t know if that will happen during our current governor’s term—but we’re working on it.”
Alyssa Hedrick and Austin Evans, co-chairs of UNM’s Queer-Straight Alliance, say their experiences in LGBTQ activism represent a sea change within their generation. The two have a warm, easy camaraderie when they talk, often finishing one another’s sentences.
“It’s interesting to see such a stark difference between the older generations and our generation,” Hedrick says.
“The work that I want to do in the future is connect to the people who are in-between on that polarized spectrum,” Evans says. “We need to continue with education and convince people on the fence that we’re not all that bad—that LGBTQ individuals are sons and daughters, doctors and lawyers, just like everybody else.”
Speaking of doctors, Cris, the young man at the Transgender Resource Center, says he wants to be one someday. “I have big dreams,” he says. They begin with hormone therapy and getting his GED. Then he’d like to embark on a career that helps people. And someday, he hopes to have a partner who appreciates the whole of who he is.
“For me to know what it’s like from a woman’s side, and then going over—it’d be cool to have more men who are for women’s causes,” he says. “I’ll know from firsthand experience what it’s like, and I’ll be a very good advocate and ally.”
He pauses to consider whether all these qualities will make him into a good boyfriend and husband in the future, and he smiles. “Hopefully—one day, if I get less awkward.”