Growing up in the Deep South is like a game of chess. Except you can’t win; you’re just trying not to lose. You have to learn how to play without asking questions or you risk either punishment or someone reprimanding you. Also, you’re thirteen and everything is confusing. Not only are the days hot and the mosquitoes terrible, but minorities like me also have to put up with more discrimination than they would in other parts of the United States. I grew up in a very conservative area of southern Louisiana where I was the only racially ambiguous person in the mix. But race wasn’t the biggest problem; I realized at a very young age that I was queer.
Growing up gay in the Bible Belt, in the Deep South, one of the most homophobic cultures in the United States, is not easy. Between conversion therapyand risk of complete social isolation, young people have to navigate an obstacle course to even realize that they are gay. Even more troubling is the lack of public resources for gay pre-teens and teens in the South, and even more so in rural areas.
My own coming-out story isn’t as dramatic as one might expect. I wasn’t shunned, beaten, or disowned. In fact, when I came out to my mom she was accepting, happy for me. I was so nervous about telling her that she thought it was much more serious, even telling me, “I thought you had killed someone or something!” However, my father was much less understanding. He grew up in a conservative, immigrant family. His reaction wasn’t immediately clearly unsupportive; he didn’t really say anything to me. Later on, he showed his lack of support through actions. He no longer let me have sleepovers because “well, I wouldn’t let you have boys sleep over before,” but among all of the varied coming-out stories, I think mine is pretty mild. The more pressing issue was the people around me. I grew up in a place where I was the only brown person. I was sure I had to be the only queer person. After coming out to someone I felt was caring, accepting, and my friend, she told me that if I ever told anyone else, no one in our group of friends would talk to me ever again. My first girlfriend’s school principal didn’t allow me to go to a school dance with her as her date. I saw it grate on my friends more than I felt it hurt me. One of my most vivid memories of my late childhood and middle school, is of my friend, Alaina–galaxy leggings, big round glasses, huge smile. At 14, she told me that she wasn’t sure if she would live long enough to go to college. She wasn’t sure that she wouldn’t kill herself before then. She is queer, and, back then, her family didn’t accept her. She wasn’t sure how much longer she would be able to take it. I, like her, wasn’t sure of my future. Sometimes when you isolate a middle schooler, a child, without someone to show them the way forward, they get lost on the way.
Alaina and I both survived middle school, and, at least for me, it got easier to protect myself in high school. I made it to a boarding school that was much more accepting. No longer was conversion therapy a fear for me. I made it to graduation; I survived. But not everyone is so lucky. In the summer of 2018, I worked at the high school I had just graduated from for a middle-school sleep-away camp. The camp was a feeder program for the school, and a lot of pressure was placed on the staff to give the kids a memorable experience. Having always loved children, I quickly fell into the groove of taking care of thirty-plus kids completely on my own. They were silly, rambunctious, and overall headaches, but I loved them. We would get a new batch of kids every week, so even if one child was particularly intolerable, we would soon be able to move on. However, not all of the kids left that easily. As a trained professional, and a mandatory reporter, I had been taught the basics of identifying distressed children. While it wasn’t child abuse or violence–things I had to report to the state–it was undeniable that something was troubling these kids who hadn’t even started high school.
I figured it out soon enough. One of the kids, Charlotte, told me that I was the first queer adult theyhad ever met. Upon hearing those words, I felt my chest get tight with anxiety. Charlotte was a sweet thirteen-year-old who loved science and got excited about perler beads. When I hugged them goodbye, they cried. They told me it was because I was the first person who knew they were gay, and still loved them. Barely an adult myself, the thought of becoming a role model for at least a dozen LGBTQ+ kids was terrifying. Kids from backgrounds where they are not accepted tend to flock to places which, like summer camps, they see as escapes from their previous lives. I had the same instincts. While not tailored for queer kids, my summer camp became one of these safe houses in the Underground Railroad of summer programs, internet communities, and comic conventions that shelter young LGBTQ+ kids from unaccepting backgrounds. I had no idea what to do to help. Like these kids, I hadn’t had a role model in the queer community until I was much older than they were. However, while working with these kids, I decided that I would try as hard as I could to become, at least partially, what I needed when I was their age. Looking back, I had no idea how I survived Louisiana, and was even more impressed with what these pre-teens–children–had to deal with on the daily. Some of them swore that they would be disowned if their parents found out. Others were scared of being shunned in their churches. Still more were convinced they would never find love because there were no other gay people in their areas.
The gravity of what I had agreed to become didn’t strike me until months later. Some of the kids who were particularly heartbroken to go received my phone number with a promise that they could text me whenever they needed advice or someone to talk to. Many of the kids had quick questions: “What is it called when you like all genders?” “When did you come out?” “Where do you buy a binder?”
One kid asked more questions than all the others. “Is it okay to not be sure of your gender?” “What is college like if you’re gay?” “How did you get out of the South?” It was Charlotte, now Quinn. After several weeks of trying to figure himself out, Quinn figured out just that; that he was a he. And that he was bisexual. Probably. Being queer is very confusing when you’re thirteen. Unexpectedly, I received a call in the middle of the night several months after camp had ended. Quinn told me in a very scared, trembling voice that he had swallowed a bottle of pills and was scared to tell his parents because they would be mad. He didn’t know what the pills were or what to do. All he could think of doing was reaching out to me, his only ally even when surrounded by his own family. A thirteen-year-old had just attempted suicide and was still more scared of his parents than dying. My first instinct was to go to Quinn, to do something, anything. But I was thousands of miles away, and my only tangible connection to this child was my cell phone. My second instinct was to run away from the situation, but that was also out of the question. Do I tell his parents and risk some kind of punishment for him, maybe even conversion therapy, or do I wait it out with this kid? In the end, I opted for a mix of the two. I called everyone I could: his parents, 911, and poison control. I stayed awake late into the night to make sure he was okay.
Even after I knew that he had gotten to the hospital and was going to be okay, I couldn’t sleep. Barely handling adulthood as it was, I couldn’t come to terms with the fact that a child’s life had been thrust into my hands. I knew I wasn’t in any way qualified to be a mother, let alone the sole emotional support column for a distressed child. Even as the stress of the situation sat like a brick on my chest, I couldn’t just push it away. The burden of saving Quinn wasn’t something I had ever sought out, but I couldn’t leave him to fend for himself. I had always put others before myself, even to the point of self-destruction, but I couldn’t do that with Quinn. I realized that this thirteen-year-old meant the world to me, and I needed to be there for him until he escaped the prison of bigotry, and maybe even beyond that. I couldn’t abandon him, but I also couldn’t destroy my own mental health by helping him. The only solution was to become the person that I needed when I was his age. A shoulder for him to cry on. A wall to shield him from the hate. And a reaffirming voice to tell him that he mattered.
The rate of attempted suicide is eight times higher for transgender youth than it is for cisgender, straight kids of the same age. Cisgender, queer youth attempt suicide four times as often as straight people (Hassanein). My hope is that, years later, Quinn will have the same clarity when remembering these events as I do when remembering what Alaina told me. He is safe, and in the process of getting mental health care, but still I do not feel that my duty as a friend, mentor, and role model is over. It probably will never be over, and I doubt that I will ever feel prepared to fill all of these roles. Even so, I knew I was lucky; not every queer kid makes it to college–Quinn might not have if he hadn’t reached out to someone–and I think it is my duty as a survivor to bring someone else with me.
 A pseudo-medical process often involving talk therapy with the goal of “curing” queer youth. Many health organizations, including the World Health Organization, consider this practice both ineffective and harmful.
Hassanein, Rokia. “Study Shows Shocking Rates of Attempted Suicide Among Trans Teens.” Human Rights Campaign, 12 Sept. 2018, www.hrc.org/blog/new-study-reveals-shocking-rates-of-attempted-suicide-among-trans-adolescent.