By Gil Diaz
“I cried every time I went to school. I thought they would kill me one day.”
Since coming out as transgender in seventh grade, Nichole* was bullied and assaulted so frequently by classmates that she tried—twice—to end the pain by killing herself.
“I was punched. I was spit on,” she recalls. “Even my teachers were rude to me. They would throw me out of class just for wearing eyeliner or skinny jeans.”
Naturally, the painful experiences did more than hurt Nichole emotionally and spiritually: They began to affect her studies and grades. But then she learned from a substitute teacher about a public charter school program, operated in partnership with the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, just for LGBT students and their allies.
Known as Opportunities for Learning (OFL), the charter school program offers students the opportunity to learn in small groups and at their own pace. And, of course, none of the students enrolled in the program who meet at the Center’s Village at Ed Gould Plaza ever have to worry about bullying.
OFL, headquartered in Pasadena, was founded in 1999 with a mission of “academic and social recovery” and the motto “Mutual Trust, Mutual Respect, Compassion and Integrity.” It’s a fully accredited public school program for students ranging from 7th to 12th grade, and graduates earn a diploma equivalent to the diploma from any other public high school.
“This is a safe space for LGBT students to continue their learning,” says the Center’s Life-Works Program Director Michael Ferrera, who oversees the Center’s OFL program. “They come to us struggling in their lives and studies, but they leave here stabilized.”
Launched in January 2010 with one teacher and two students, the Center’s OFL program now has more than a dozen students who fill the classrooms when they’re on “campus,” twice each week, to check in with their teacher.
“This school has a special place in my heart,” says Molly Sirchur, the program’s first teacher who still works there. “I believe in its mission and the idea that everybody deserves to feel safe while pursuing their education. The students’ successes are momentous because a lot of them have been through quite a journey in their lives before getting here.”
Before enrolling at the Center, 17-year-old Thomas was attending school in Little Rock, Ark., where he was accompanied by two security guards every day. The Board of Education mandated the use of the guards after he got beaten up by a group of classmates when he came out.
“My classmates attacked me from the back, punching my skull and temple,” Thomas recalls. “After that, my thinking became slower, and my memory got worse.”
For six months, in order to protect Thomas from anymore violence, the guards made him enter the school five minutes before the first bell rang, and they picked him up five minutes before school ended.
Thomas’s brother persuaded him to travel 1,700 miles to learn at the Center’s school. The brother—who’s also gay—had graduated from the very same school.
“My brother knew this program was what I needed, because of its endless possibilities,” says Thomas. “So many people here see so much potential within me—things I didn’t see myself. I’m happy coming to school every day because I’m constantly around people who are just like me.”
RULES TO LEARN BY
As an added advantage of attending the Center’s school, students have the opportunity to participate in the after-school offerings of the Center’s LifeWorks program, including its mentoring program, Creative Expressions curriculum and the hugely popular OutSet filmmaking class.
OFL student Ceilidh (pronounced “Kaylee”), 17, participates in the Outside Voices choir and the Pen Pushers spoken word group—unpredictable choices for someone who once preferred to stay at home rather than attend school.
“Because of OFL, I’m doing better at school than I’ve ever done before,” says Ceilidh, who identifies as neither male nor female but rather as “agender.” “I’ve always had issues with motivation. Now, I’m able to work at my own pace.”
Ceilidh learned about the Center’s school purely by accident while attending an open house at The Village. “If I hadn’t found this school,” Ceilidh says, “I’d probably still be in regular school and struggling with all my classes.”
Although it was designed to meet the needs of LGBT students, any student under age 20 is accepted into the Center’s OFL program as long they’re committed to studying in an environment in which all people are welcome. A 19-year-old who enrolls in the program can stay as long as it takes him/her to graduate.
“Students won’t earn a grade lower than a C-minus because we don’t let them,” says Sircher. “If they fail a test, we work with them until they learn to master the materials.”
His teachers’ persistence is exactly what Austin wants from them. The 17-year-old, who identifies as bisexual, hated traditional high school so much that he began skipping classes during 10th grade and eventually failed nearly all of his classes. He thought his only educational options were traditional high school or homeschooling—two choices he detested—until he discovered OFL.
“Traditional school was too slow for me,” he explains. “I wouldn’t do the homework and ended up getting behind [in my studies]. I wasn’t trying.”
Since reenrolling in the Center’s OFL campus last year (he discontinued attending OFL for a moment to try another attempt at a traditional high school), Austin has grown into a responsible young man. He now has a part-time job at a fast-food restaurant.
“If it wasn’t for OFL, I probably would be a high school dropout by now,” he says.
Since its launch nearly four year ago, the staff of the Center’s OFL campus has expanded to five teachers—including math, English and special education teachers—and a school psychologist. More than 65 students have participated in the program and many have gone onto college.
Nichole, the transgender student who tried twice to end her life, is now determined to be one of the program’s success stories. After graduating, she plans to get a degree in business administration while pursuing a part-time modeling career. Dreaming big was never a viable option for her until the Center’s OFL entered her life.
“I can wear pretty clothes and be who I am,” she says with a big smile. “I feel really happy here. This is the best gift the substitute teacher who told me about the program gave me.”
*Names changed to protect minors
By Jake Finney
Like it or not, words have power.
That’s why the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network’s “Think Before You Speak” campaign decries using the word “gay” in a derogatory way.
Most of us acknowledge that the phrase “that’s so gay” is derogatory because it equates being gay with being stupid or strange. But what about the harm caused to trans* people—and especially trans youth—when people use the derogatory slur “tranny,” often equated with someone who’s a “mess” (as in the phrase “hot tranny mess” used by Project Runway star Christian Siriano).
There have been a few knockdown, drag-out fights within the LGBTQ community over the use of the word “tranny.” On one side, trans activists and their allies contend that the “T-word” is a slur used to dehumanize trans people. Others, frequently gay men (including drag queens), fire back with arguments like: “It’s just a joke.” “Don’t be so sensitive/P.C.”
Or my personal favorite: “It’s just a word.”
The T-word has a long history of being tossed around in both media and casual conversation.
Some wonder why it’s “suddenly” a slur, but the truth is that it has always been derogatory. A Google search of “tranny” brings up 169 million hits—the vast majority from online porn that is also tied with the equally derogatory term “she-male.” When someone says “tranny,” they’re
using a term frequently used to degrade women who happen to be trans.
And this hurtful word isn’t only being used to deride trans adults but also trans youth, as my colleague Sara Train, who has led workshops in schools all over California, can attest.
Train is the coordinator of Project SPIN, a multi-agency, Center-led collaboration with the L.A. Unified School District to make schools safer and more welcoming for LGBT youth. She says that students hear just as many put-downs related to gender identity as to sexual orientation. Trans
youth, or youth who otherwise don’t conform to social gender norms, are derided with terms such as “tranny” and “he-she.” They are even dehumanized by being called “it.”
While there is no proven direct link between bullying and suicide, it must be noted that trans youth face a tremendous risk. Half will attempt suicide at least once before their 20th birthday. We should strive to make these young people’s lives better and make sure they have access to the
support they need. And we shouldn’t excuse language that’s used to belittle and hurt them.
So what’s changed is not that “tranny” is suddenly a slur; what’s changed is that trans people are finally feeling empowered enough to stand up and demand that they be treated with human dignity.
It’s time to take “tranny” out of our lexicon.
Contact: Christopher Jones
Supreme Court Cases are Historic Milestone, but Judicial Review
of our Equality is Cause for Continued Fight
LOS ANGELES, Mar. 26, 2013– Today and tomorrow, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on two landmark marriage equality cases. One will decide the fate of the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act,” and the other will rule on California’s Proposition 8. In response, the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center’s Chief of Staff Darrel Cummings issued the following statement:
“No one knows how the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court will rule after hearing oral arguments in the marriage equality cases they’ll be reviewing today and tomorrow. There are more theories than are Justices, and the options range from a sweeping majority opinion that strikes down Prop 8 and DOMA as unconstitutional to one that could be very harmful to our long-term fight for full equality.
Of course, we won’t know before June, but what we know now is that as arguments are being made over the next two days, we’ve reached another historic milestone in our quest for equality and justice. Polls show 58% of Americans support our freedom to marry and there’s a national conversation about marriage equality that was unimaginable when I became an activist in the early ’80s.
Recent milestones have been plenty. In just the last year we witnessed a sitting president’s evolution in support of marriage equality. Former President Clinton, who signed DOMA into law, endorsed its repeal. And former Secretary of State—and likely 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton—publicly endorsed full marriage rights for same-sex couples. Major corporations and powerful Republicans filed briefs to the Supreme Court to support our freedom to marry. Even a Republican Senator from Ohio, Sen. Rob Portman, has now endorsed marriage equality.
These milestones aren’t solely related, or in response, to the cases before the Supreme Court this week. They are the result of decades and decades of courage and commitment by LGBT activists. The fact that nine people will argue and decide whether the Constitution applies to us, and that a majority of voters in any state can deny us our rights, are stark reminders that there is more to be done.
Until the day comes that our full equality is no longer the subject of legal and political debates—whether in the courts, at the ballot box or from the pulpit—we should take this moment to celebrate our achievements, those of our predecessors and the historical nature of these court cases. But we must also keep fighting until the topic of whether LGBT people deserve full equality under the constitution is no longer considered to be a legitimate debate.”
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About the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center
For more than 40 years, the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center has been building the health, advocating for the rights and enriching the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Our wide array of services and programs includes: free HIV/AIDS care and medications for those most in need; housing, food, clothing and support for homeless LGBT youth; low-cost counseling and addiction-recovery services; essential services for LGBT-parented families and seniors; legal services; health education and HIV prevention programs; transgender services; cultural arts and much more. Visit us on the web at: lagaycenter.org.
By Christopher Jones
Mary Zeiser isn’t your typical 24-year-old. While most people her age are busy dating, hanging out with family and friends, or building a career, the spunky L.A. native is focused on just one thing: making a difference in the quality of life for LGBT people for years to come.
From volunteering and recruiting for AIDS/LifeCycle to becoming the Center’s youngest ever Circle of Life member (a group of persons who bequest a gift to the Center from their estate), Zeiser doesn’t think twice about giving back to her community.
“Seeing the amazing people and the incredible things that the Center was doing, kept me coming back,” Zeiser says. “I wanted to do everything I could to help.”
Zeiser was first inspired to support the Center at age 17. As a newly out-of-the-closet teen, she signed up for AIDS/LifeCycle¬— the 7-day, 545-mile bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles that raises money for the Center’s HIV/AIDS-related services.
“I had some preconceived ideas about people living with HIV,” Zeiser says. “I was fearful and misinformed. By riding in AIDS/LifeCycle, I knew I’d be able to connect with those in my community who were battling the disease and who could benefit from the money I’d raise for the Center’s HIV/AIDS services.”
She eventually joined the organizing committee for the Models of Pride youth conference, hoping it would provide an opportunity to connect with peers. Then she participated in ‘Change the Cycle’, raising more than $30,000 for anti-bullying initiatives in LAUSD schools and private schools across the county.
But two years later when gearing up for another AIDS/LifeCycle, it got very personal. Zeiser’s sister found out she was HIV-positive. “She inspires me, and I think of her during the most challenging parts of the ride,”
Zeiser says. “I think of all of the people I have met—people whose lives depend on the services of the Jeffrey Goodman Special Care Clinic. AIDS/LifeCycle is the largest fundraising effort to bring an end to HIV/AIDS in the world and I am so blessed to be a part of that. And I’m not done doing what I can.”
After hearing Nellie Sims, the Center’s Director of Planned Giving, speak at an AIDS/ LifeCycle event, Zeiser decided to take her giving a step further and made the Center the beneficiary of her life insurance policy, retirement plan, stock and even her car.
“There are no kids in my immediate family,” Zeiser says. “I consider the LGBT community and its youth to be my family. They need support from their elders. And while I may only be 23, I’m still an elder to some and I intend to do my part. “
That spirit of giving is what sets Zeiser apart, Sims says “Mary really is remarkable,” she says. “She’s passionate about supporting the community and has done so much for the Center. While most people in their 20s are not planning for retirement or considering who might benefit from their estate, Mary illustrates how easy it is to do this—and do it now.”
Youth and seniors. Besides turning to the Center for support, these two groups might rarely cross paths. However, each year participants from the two vastly different generations have an opportunity to work together and learn from each other during the Center’s Senior-Youth Photo Project.
Students of this multi-week photo project—LGBT youth who often feel rejected by their families or lack role models and LGBT seniors who frequently have no family—inevitably realize they have more in common than they would have guessed.
The project’s volunteer leader, accomplished photographer Mary Grace McKernan, draws on her extensive experience photographing everything from wildlife to rock bands to shape the experience of Senior-Youth Photo Project participants.
Vanguard sat down with McKernan to talk about the project.
Vanguard: How did you first connect with the Center?
MGK: I first came to the Center nine months ago when I had the opportunity to display some of my work in the art gallery at The Village. That’s when I learned the Center was looking for someone to lead the Senior-Youth Photo Project, a multi-week photo workshop for LGBT youth and seniors. I was thrilled to take it on.
Vanguard: What’s special about the Senior-Youth Photo Project?
MGK: You get to see students form connections that transcend generations. I saw one of the seniors bond with one of the youth over their mutual love of art and poetry—they became fast friends.
A lot of the youth who participate in the class don’t have supportive families—some are even homeless. They’ve been bullied, harassed, rejected… they haven’t had a lot of adults they could trust. The photo project creates a space where they can be creative and where teamwork helps to build trust with one another.
My students were all so creative, and I loved helping them uncover their potential!
Vanguard: What kind of work did your class produce?
MGK: We focused on self-portraits. I loved the results! After the class, we exhibited the students’ work in the gallery. It wasn’t all about the assignment though. We went on some outings to explore L.A. and students took photos in different parts of the city. And I encouraged the students to follow their instincts and explore. One young woman created art using her favorite pair of shoes. I told her Andy Warhol would be proud! The same student told me the class had inspired her to pursue her dreams of being an interior designer.
Hopefully, what the students take with them after the class is the desire to express themselves, to keep the creative juices flowing for the rest of their lives.
Vanguard: It sounds like your students left feeling inspired. What about you?
MGK: My students were so inspiring. That motivated me beyond anything imaginable to be there for them however I could. It was a great personal journey and it even informed some of the work I did in the course of my master’s degree program.
The rewards of volunteering with the Center are remarkable! More than 3,000 active volunteers give their time and energy to help make possible everything the Center does for the LGBT community.
The Senior-Youth Photo Project is an intensive, multi-week photography workshop that brings together LGBT youth and seniors each year. Students not only express themselves creatively, they form connections that span generational gaps.
The Center’s Advocate & Gochis Galleries feature art by emerging and well-known artists. Gallery admission is free! For information about upcoming exhibits, visit lagaycenter.org/art.
Not quite a year ago there was a meningitis scare among gay and bisexual men in Los Angeles and now we’re faced with a similar situation. I want to share with you the facts, as we know them, so you and/or your loved ones can make an informed decision about what to do.
Why did the L.A. County Department of Public Health issue an alert?
In the first three months of this year there have been 8 cases in Los Angeles of Invasive Meningococcal Disease (IMD) and 4 of them have been among gay or bisexual men, three of whom were HIV positive. Three of those four men died, two of whom were HIV-positive.
Every year Los Angeles has between 12 - 30 cases of this terrible infection. Though the number of total cases since January 1 aren’t outside the expected range, the number of gay men who have been infected is.
Looking back as far as October 2012, when the L.A. health department first began identifying the sexual orientation of those who were infected, there have been 32 cases, 11 of whom were gay and 4 of whom were HIV-positive. So overall, one-third of the cases have been among gay and bisexual men. Clearly, we do not make up one-third of the population of Los Angeles; it’s more like 3 or 4 percent. We also know that in recent years there have been disproportionate rates of infection among gay men in Chicago and New York.
Following last year’s cluster of cases in New York City among gay and bisexual men, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that gay and bisexual men are at higher risk for meningococcal disease and speculated that the reason is because a larger proportion of men in our community are HIV-positive. But at this point, that’s just speculation.
So is this an epidemic?
No. There are about a half million gay and bisexual men in Los Angeles and there have been 11 cases of IMD in the last 18 months. However, for those who are infected, the consequence can be death.
Well, should I get vaccinated?
If you’re HIV-positive, yes. If you’re a gay or bisexual man in L.A. who’s not HIV-positive, we encourage you to consider getting vaccinated, especiallyespecially since meningitis can be fatal. Below I’ve listed common risk factors for exposure.
The vaccine is well tolerated and is covered by most insurance plans. And if you’re uninsured, we’ll vaccinate you for free at the Center and so will county health clinics. Call us at 323-993-7500 to schedule an appointment or visithttp://publichealth.lacounty.gov/ to find a county health clinic near you.
How do I know if I’m at increased risk of infection?
Gay and bisexual men in Los Angeles appear to be part of a higher risk group. But to estimate your personal risk, it’s important to understand more about the bacterium and how it’s spread.
Not all strains of the family of bacteria that causes IMD are dangerous, but even those strains that are dangerous may not cause disease in everyone. In fact, some people can carry either the bad or harmless strains in their nose and throat for prolonged periods with no symptoms at all. So the fact that someone doesn’t have symptoms, doesn’t mean they can’t spread it.
Of course, the more people who carry the organism, the greater the likelihood it will spread to others and infect susceptible individuals. This is also the reasoning behind the health department’s statement that those who seek partners through mobile phone apps are at increased risk. Studies show that individuals who use these apps generally have more sexual partners, so are more likely to have infections they can spread to their new partners. But technically, the bacteria that causes IMD isn’t a sexually transmitted infection.
These bacteria are spread through coughing, sneezing, kissing, sharing drink containers, cigarettes, marijuana joints, eating utensils or toothbrushes.Although these activities can occur anywhere, they are more likely to occur with greater frequency and have greater consequence in places like college dormitories, various residential facilities, or other spaces where many people congregate in close quarters for prolonged periods. This could also include large dance parties where people are sharing water bottles.
To put it bluntly, if you’re swapping spit with multiple people, you’re at increased risk. The more people with whom you share oral fluids the more likely it is that you will be exposed if any of those people have the bacteria in their nose or throat.
A person may also be at increased risk because they’re very young, they cannot produce antibodies to kill the infections, or because they’ve had their spleen removed, and probably—as we are learning—HIV infection.
Then there are non-specific things like exposure to cigarette and marijuana smoke, or even having a cold, any of which can affect the mucous membranes of the nose and throat. So, if a susceptible person is exposed to one of the bad strains, they may become sick. However, there are always cases of IMD where no apparent increased susceptibility is found.
What are symptoms of IMD?
Symptoms of meningitis include fever, severe headache and stiff neck. If the infection is only in the bloodstream there may not be meningitis symptoms but only high fever and a blotchy dark skin rash. If pneumonia is present there would be high fever and cough.
What should I do if I have symptoms?
If you believe you’ve been exposed, seek treatment immediately. Go to an emergency room if you have symptoms, including fever, severe headache and stiff neck, as well as nausea, vomiting, increased sensitivity to light and altered mental state.
Meningitis is treatable with antibiotics if it’s caught early. So know the signs and symptoms, and be aware.
Are there side effects to the vaccine?
Although the vaccine is generally well tolerated, within 7 days of vaccination:
Why don’t we know more about the reason gay and bisexual men seem to be at greater risk?
That’s a good question. In April, 2013 I wrote a letter to the CDC calling for a nationwide mandate that all local health departments henceforth be instructed on how to conduct culturally appropriate interviewing of cases, surviving family members and close personal contacts of cases of IMD so that more comprehensive and reliable epidemiological information could be collected. If an increased prevalence of IMD among gay and bisexual men were to be found, then the vaccine recommendations should be changed.
I believe it is biologically quite plausible that gay and bisexual men may indeed be at greater risk of exposure to—and transmission of this organism—than the general population. Anecdotally, our community is more physically demonstrative at all ages with one another (hugging, kissing, and even deep kissing) than heterosexual populations.
Learn more about meningitis by visiting: www.cdc.gov/meningicoccal/
Dr. Robert Bolan
This year, the Center partnered with State Farm to present the 1st Annual Good Neighbor Award to transgender community activist Bamby Salcedo in recognition of her work to make a difference for the trans community.
Salcedo has shown extraordinary commitment to helping trans women and men thrive; for example, she’s given her time to raise money for trans people who otherwise would not be able to afford medical care. She’s also the founder and president of The Trans-Latin@ Coalition, an organization of Latino and Latina leaders in the U.S. who advocate for the needs of trans Latino/Latina immigrants.
A nationally recognized speaker and trans advocate, Salcedo serves on the board Unid@s, The National LGBT Human Rights Organization, and she has been involved in numerous LGBT groups. Salcedo is the HIV Prevention Services Project Coordinator with Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
By Catherine Davie
The Center’s “An Evening with Women” has become the premiere event for L.A.’s lesbians, bisexual women and their supporters. Where else can women who love women enjoy a chic cocktail reception, an elegant dinner and a heart-thumping show featuring performances by the likes of Christina Aguilera, Heart, Pink, Cyndi Lauper and of course, Linda Perry?
This year’s event, May 19, will be songwriter/producer Linda Perry’s fourth time co-chairing the event. Vanguard sat down with Perry to ask her about why “An Evening with Women,” and the Center, are so important to her.
How has “An Evening with Women” evolved since you joined the team?
Perry: It seems like the community is getting more involved with the Center and more people are coming. I always go around to the tables and say hi to people and they’re always like, “We can’t wait to come back next year!” Everybody has such a great time and to see that is really awesome, especially because so much work goes into producing the event. Their responses really get me pumped.
Traditionally, this has been a music-based event. Do you see that continuing?
Perry: I don’t see how it can be anything else. Music brings people together and people want that, especially when we have such great talent.
One thing I love about “An Evening with Women” is that people get an intimate experience that they can’t get anywhere else. Last year, Cyndi Lauper spontaneously got up on a table to sing one of her songs. You’re not going to get that at one of her concerts. And one year I was performing and Pink surprised everyone by getting on stage and singing “What’s Up?” with me. Things like that only happen at “An Evening with Women.”
Speaking of Cyndi and Pink, you’ve recruited such incredible performers for this event! What is your dream team of artists for “An Evening with Women?”
Perry: I’ve thought about that, but honestly, every year is like a dream team. To me, the dream team is one that has artists with the most enthusiasm, and those who want to come and perform and support the Center.
When you approach artists, how do you pitch them on supporting the Center’s work?
Perry: It’s simple. It’s “Hey, you’re saving the life of a kid who got thrown out onto the streets for being gay. You’re supporting the equality of gay women and men. And you’re supporting a community that comes together to help the sick and needy. You’re supporting the fight against domestic violence and every other thing that the Center does.”
A big part of it for me personally is helping LGBT youth. They’re thrown out on the streets simply for being who they are. They get the courage to sit their parents down and tell them they’re gay, and then they get thrown out of the house because their parents think they’re sick—that gets me every time. That’s really why I got involved.
You’ve always been very open about your sexuality. For the many youth or anyone else who struggle with being out, what do you say to them?
Perry: It’s a hard one because what do you say? Do you say to a teenage kid “just be yourself” and then they do and get beat up or killed? Unfortunately, there is no right thing to say. All you can do is be as supportive as you can. And remember that most bullies are bullied themselves.
I wish I had the right answer. I’ve always been who I am from Day One, and I’ve been fortunate enough to not have any issues with anyone. But I know I’m blessed. I know people who have gone through a lot, and that’s why it’s so important that the Center is there.
Every year, this event raises a lot of money to support Center services. In this issue we’re focusing on crystal meth addiction and how the Center helps those in need. You’ve mentioned in the past that crystal meth has impacted your life. What would you want people to know about meth?
Perry: Well, I did crystal meth. And it was the cheapest and easiest drug to get. It’s a hard drug because it really wears on your body more than any other drug, I think. I’ve witnessed friends lose everything from it, and I mean right down to their teeth. Not just losing finances, but friends and family, down to physically losing themselves. It’s a monster.
I know people who struggle with heroin, but I think crystal is even worse. I understand the fight, and I understand the support that’s needed to quit. It’s not easy and to know the Center has people who can help is amazing because this addiction can be kicked. The Center is a wonderful support system and a ray of light.
The Center’s Alan Acosta weighs in on the Obama administration’s request that the Supreme Court overturn California’s Prop 8.
Picture This: How We’re Helping LGBT Youth Thrive