ditor's Note: "Stories from the Helpline" is a recurring feature on The Bilerico Project, bringing in the personal accounts of Helpline counselors from The Trevor Project. The Trevor Project is the leading national organization focused on crisis and suicide prevention efforts among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth. This installment comes from Kelli Peterman, a volunteer Helpline counselor on The Trevor Helpline.
Kelli is the East Coast Call Center Manager at The Trevor Project. She is also a volunteer Helpline counselor at the Randy Stone East Coast Call Center in New York City.]
Frightened, ashamed, guilty, angry, wrong.
These are all words I hear often on the Helpline, used by callers to describe newly discovered feelings concerning their sexual and gender orientations. As a Trevor Helpline Counselor, and an individual who has an ever evolving sexuality, I am rarely surprised when callers express these very familiar, yet raw, emotions. Even more unsurprising is the fear I hear in a young person's voice - fear of a proverbial familial, spiritual, and societal belief system that is guiding her down a path that is not her own. Our callers are at distinct and individual crossroads that all seem to post similar signs. Sadly, many of the signs blocking the paths they want to take all have the same message: "Wrong Way".
What continue to surprise me, however, are the calls from young people who do not have so many road blocks. Their families and friends have fought to halt construction on the Thruways in order to build up the Dead Ends. They have dismantled the individual Turn Around signs so their loved ones may walk freely in their own directions. When I hear about support systems such as these I can't help but smile and think how great it is for a young person to have an uncomplicated coming-out experience. What I have found, however, is that sometimes these calls are the most complex.
I recently took a call from MaryAnn in Kentucky. MaryAnn directly acknowledged the crossroads where she found herself and was looking for some answers. MaryAnn struggled to tell me that she has had feelings for other girls her entire life, but that these feelings unnerved and shamed her. She disclosed to me that the confusion she feels is so great, she is finding it difficult to have meaningful relationships. As we talked longer, I learned that MaryAnn has wonderful parents who have always been very loving and supportive. She has a few good friends and lives in what she describes as a very "open and gay-friendly" environment. A spiritual person, MaryAnn said that she is respectful of all religions and understands that individuals make their own rules according to their own faith. She does not believe that one goes to hell if one is gay.
Although MaryAnn said such profound statements with much conviction, I could still hear the frustration lingering in her voice. She couldn't understand why she felt such shame, despite the positive support around her. Together, we tried to deconstruct her guilt, to look for ways to feel good about her attractions. I commended MaryAnn on her bravery, for calling the Helpline and vocalizing her feelings. By the end of the call, MaryAnn had taken a few small steps forward, but was still feeling powerless. Before hanging up the phone she asked, "I know that it's ok to be gay in theory. So why do I feel so ashamed?"
MaryAnn is not the first young person I have spoken with who feels ashamed of being attracted to someone of the same gender. Even more, many callers are distressed to find themselves unable to reconcile being comfortable with the idea of being gay and being gay themselves. Identity and sexual orientation are so important to us as human beings, that they have become such powerful and pervasive ideologies. When young people exist outside both these ideologies and their own, they struggle with more than finding acceptance.
It is easy to feel relieved when hearing about parents who unconditionally support the identities of their children. The hard part is acknowledging that, at times, young people may not accept themselves. Like MaryAnn, we all feel things we simply cannot explain; like MaryAnn, our callers are looking for answers to their own "unexplainables." For now, the best we can do is move from theory to practice, and empower young people to feel comfortable with their own, or unknown, identities.
If you're interested in learning more about our programs such as "Dear Trevor" or how to be a Helpline counselor, please visit our Web site at TheTrevorProject.org.