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Keeping LGBT
youth alive

Keeping LGBT
youth alive


The Trevor Project runs the only national 365-days-a-year hotline for LGBT youth--or any adolescent--who's considering suicide. Logging 1,000 calls a month at 866-4-U-TREVOR, the help line is a vital resource at the holidays and all year long.

The year-end holidays bring joy to many--and depression and thoughts of suicide to others. When those at risk are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning youth, the Trevor Project is there to help every day of the year, including Christmas. The organization runs a toll-free national suicide hotline--(866) 4-U-TREVOR--as well as suicide-education programs for LGBT youth. Jorge Valencia, executive director of the Trevor Project, spoke with by telephone.

How is the Trevor Project different from other national suicide-prevention hotlines? The Trevor Project runs the only nationwide hotline for gay and lesbian teenagers. It is open 365 days of the year. The thing that makes us different than everyone else is our focus is the highest-risk group, LGBT youth--that is, 15-to-24-year-olds. Suicide is the number 1 killer of teens today, and every hour and 45 minutes, a gay teenager is lost to suicide. That's a Columbine every single day of the year. That definitely justifies why we're around.

How many young people do you help in a year? We get approximately 1,000 calls a month from teenagers all around the nation. However, when awareness of our help line is raised we get four times as many calls. For example, last year, after we were mentioned after an episode on the WB's One Tree Hill, calls increased fourfold. That's one reason why we're so adamant about raising awareness, because 95% of all youth suicides are preventable. That means more lives being saved if we can talk to them. That's a statistic that we can speak to.

Is the Trevor Project hotline just for gay teens?Forty percent of our callers are people who don't define their sexuality--and we don't advertise our hotline that way either. For instance, one of our posters advertising the hotline asks the question "Who?" as in, Who are you? Who can you turn to for help? The thing we're trying to avoid by having open-ended posters like this is a situation where a kid who's still confused about his sexuality [doesn't want] to stop and look at the poster because of fear of being harassed.

What other projects besides the national hotline does the Trevor Project run?We just opened the "Dear Trevor" section on our Web site []. It started because we would have teens asking our webmaster over the Internet, "I'm confused, I think I might be gay. Can you help me?" We created this section on our Web site so they can e-mail us, and we have our counselors respond to them. We keep those letters and their answers online so others can get comfort from the letters. Of course, if someone needs help immediately, we ask them to call the hotline so we can help them directly.

Where did the name "Trevor Project" come from?Trevor came out of James Lecesne's [play] Word of Mouth. The show had a segment about a 13-year-old boy who develops feelings for a friend of his, and he's ostracized. This segment was made into a short film and in 1994 it won the Oscar [for best live-action short]. It wasn't until '98 that HBO decided it wanted to air the film, and when HBO approached the film's creators, [the creators] thought that they should set up a hotline for any teens who saw the short and were going through the same thing. Since then over 35,000 youth have been helped by the hotline.

Why have you stayed with this project for four and half years?I personally have lost two friends to suicide. One of them I know was gay. So there's a personal connection there right off the bat. But it is in understanding the statistics, and the potential of a 95% chance of saving someone's life through interfacing with a suicidal teen--that's what keeps me here. I go home at the end of the day and know we've done our job if just one life is saved.

Where is the Trevor Project headed? What are some of the ways it can expand?We're hoping to launch a program which we will call "Trevor Lifeguards." Many teenagers are still not comfortable talking to their families or their teachers about their suicidal thoughts. At the end of the day, teenagers can feel especially alone when [their situation is] augmented with the fact that they're gay or questioning. What we're hoping to do is start mobilizing our youth to be lifeguards with one another. What we want to do is go to schools and train students to see the suicidal signs among their peers, and also how to help them to identify a counselor or teacher whom they can work with, so if they do see someone, they can be helped. It is our goal in 2006 to mobilize young people to start becoming lifeguards of one another's lives--that's where the name comes from.

What are you most hoping will happen in 2006 to improve the lives of LGBT youth?I sure hope the political climate changes. I worked in the Clinton administration, and every administration has its bumps--the "don't ask, don't tell" policy under the Clinton administration, for instance. Even so, I don't see the political climate getting any better. In fact, I think it's going in the opposite direction. When you have teens who don't feel safe about what they're going through, an unaccepting political environment only makes them more anxious and creates more of a depressive state. I can't help but hope that the political climate changes so it's acceptive of all types of people.

In addition to Trevor, where else can LGBT youths look for help and support? There are a number of organizations that do great work. If someone is looking for peers and for straight allies in their schools, nobody does it better than GLSEN [Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network;]. They [have helped create gay-straight alliances] in thousands of high schools across the nation. That offers support in the schools. There are also mentoring programs. There's one in Los Angeles, for instance, called Life Works. They do a wonderful job [training] out LGBT persons to mentor. For homeless youth [in Los Angeles], there's GLASS [Gay and Lesbian Adolescent Social Services, which provides housing and other programs for homeless or runaway adolescents]. All of us [LGBT youth help organizations] work together. Trevor's goal, though, is first and foremost to keep youth alive, and while many of them are not comfortable talking to anyone they know, 30% of our callers are repeat callers, which means we keep them alive day-to-day.

What strategies can you offer to isolated or depressed LGBT youth for getting through the holidays? There are always signs of depression during the holidays, but I think there are many ways that anyone can help. The most important is talking about suicide if you see the signs. Oftentimes people are scared to talk to someone directly about suicide because they're afraid of introducing ideas into their head, but that's completely the opposite [of what's true]. The more you talk about it, the more likely they are not to attempt suicide. Don't be afraid to talk about suicide. And of course, our hotline is open every single day of the year in case anyone needs to talk to us confidentially.

How can Advocate readers help? Donations on our Web site are always appreciated. Over 90% of our revenue is individual giving, and that speaks volumes about the work we're doing and the importance of keeping our teens alive. We also have numerous volunteer opportunities. We have over 400 volunteers that help us year-round, and we're always looking for more volunteers on our Web site.

Any final words?In our minds there is no greater gift than the gift of life, and, to us, directing someone who is considering suicide to our help line is the best gift anyone can give anyone. At the end of the day, one cannot measure the potential of a single life. And I hope readers understand that.

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