Confronting my straight privilege

“Mom, dad, I have something to say… I’m straight.”

Well, that was anti-climactic. It’s a statement. I didn’t have to announce it, because society assumes this.

I take being straight for granted, but those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and/or questioning/queer (LGBTQ) don’t. They continue to struggle to gain the respect they not only deserve but demand. This leads to marginalization–something that can have a detrimental impact on quality of life, ultimately leading those affected down a dark path.

LGBTQ youth contemplate suicide at three times the rate of their heterosexual peers, according to the Center for Disease Control and in 2017, the FBI released data showing that out of the 7,175 reported, hate crimes, 1,130 of them were based on sexual-orientation bias. This is a four percent increase from the 2016 statistics.

In an effort to confront my sexuality that is now perceived to be a privilege I was born with, I decided to volunteer as a suicide hotline operator for a non-profit initiative called The Trevor Project. Since being established in 1999, the organization provides immediate counselling and aid to thousands of troubled juveniles who identify as LGBTQ.

After signing a confidentiality agreement, undergoing a brief interview and a background check, I was booked for my training session.

“If you’re here, thinking that doing this job will save people, I’ve got news for you… think again,” said Leyton Cassidy, a crisis counsellor at the Trevor Project, a Sarah Lawrence graduate who spends the rest of her time writing screenplays and acting in New York City.

Despite only spending three months in her current role, Cassidy seemed knowledgeable about the ins and outs of operating a suicide prevention hotline.  

“It’s all about the person on the other end of that line and what you say, could tip them over the edge, regardless of your intention,” she said. “Nursing the idea that you can ‘save’ an individual may lead to you to eventually decide, who is worthy of living and who isn’t.”

Cassidy spent the next hour, preparing me. Then, as I placed the headset over my ears, I repeated the rules she taught me like a mantra.

Don’t over-analyze everything the caller says.

Don’t condescend.

Make the caller aware of mental health services that are available.

Phrases like “Maybe you’re just having a bad day” and “You should be grateful, since there are others who have it much worse,” are detrimental.

Police are rarely notified. An operator must do everything possible to gain permission from the caller to reach out for help.

Now it’s worth mentioning I spent most of my time at the Trevor Project listening in on calls that Cassidy answered, although she let me answer a few towards the end of the session. The terms of the agreement I signed forbade me from discussing the personal information callers shared. But I am able to describe some of the calls that came in.

I might add that the sheer grief that blasted over the phone line was hard to take. I could hear a hitch in a voice, the tell-tale sign of someone battling to maintain their composure as they bared their souls.

From the first caller’s gut-wrenching plight, involving a need to stay closeted for fear of being ostracized by a devout Catholic family, to a heart-breaking account of sexual assault by a family member driven by a sick bid to convert them, keeping a poker face and a calm disposition proved to be my biggest challenge.

According to associate clinician at Gay Therapy LA, Brandon Malde-Zoradi, the act of attempting to turn someone straight is a devastating reality that is causing a spike in the suicide rate. The practice is illegal in 15 states across the U.S., but this merely covers 30 percent of the country.

Professor of adult mental health, Kenneth Howard of the University of Southern California and founder of Gay Therapy LA adds that the practise can also take the form of gay-conversion therapy.

“The people are sent away to places where they might carry out manual labor and recite biblical passages,” says Howard “It’s reminiscent of a camp where you’re caged like a wild animal and taught extreme principals that do more harm than good.”

Howard went on to highlight that another issue that the LGBTQ community face including himself, is the struggle to normalize HIV. “I was diagnosed with HIV in 1990, and against all odds, I have successfully integrated this disease into my everyday life,” says Howard. “I have a partner and I can work without facing fear of discrimination, but others are not so lucky.” According to the Center for Disease and Control, gay and bisexual men accounted for 66 percent of all HIV diagnoses in 2017.

As Howard recounts his story, I recall a particular call from a distraught teenager who was grappling with a shocking HIV diagnosis, due to a lack of education on LGBTQ sex.

“Education begins at home,” says Zoradi, “Homophobia and transphobia are bred through parental influences and while we can’t control what goes on in a private space, we can implement relevant health classes in schools to prevent the vicious cycle of prejudice to take form.”  

My heart felt heavy upon listening to such heart-wrenching accounts and as tears stung my eyes, Cassidy nudged a wad of napkins my way.

“How do you do it?” I asked.

Surely, someone who does this day in and day out, has to feel traumatic stress.

“We’re all provided optional therapy sessions to help us digest everything,” Cassidy said. “It’s easy to develop a hero complex in this line of work. Once you get past the fact that you can’t realistically help every single person, it becomes easier.

All you can do is act as a support-system for callers. This is what the Trevor Project prides itself on accomplishing by setting the realistic goal of trying to make a difference.

Its three founders, James Lecesne, Peggy Rajski, and Randy Stone started out as screenwriters in West Hollywood. They produced the academy-award winning, ‘Trevor’ in 1994 and merged their respective talents to depict the turbulent life of a gay, eponymously named, teenage boy who, upon facing rejection from his family and friends, attempts suicide.

In 1998, as the film was set to air on HBO, they realized ‘Trevor’ contained sensitive material that could trigger younger viewers struggling with similar circumstances. Suicide contagion is a real problem. Cite stats or examples here.

Their solution? Search for a suicide-prevention hotline to include with a disclaimer—except at the time no such hotline existed. Detecting a gap that had yet to be filled, Lecesne, Rajski and Stone birthed The Trevor Project.

Currently, the organization reaches its audience, not only through the offerings of a crisis hotline but also through workshops that aim to teach adults about the unique needs of LGBTQ youth and suicide prevention techniques either in-person or via online workshops.

For me, the biggest take-away from my experience was while I can’t reach out and make a personal connection with every caller I can let them know they are not alone in this world.

Often, that’s enough.