Coming of age in a society that often has limited options for young people is already quite complex, but coming of age in that same society as a Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender or Queer (LGBTQ) youth of color can be even more so. Mentors for these youth must work to respond to the challenges they face. The concept of intersectionality, a concept coined by Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989, can be useful for mentors working with this population. In my process as a mentor, I had to look closely at how age, sexuality, and race intersected to create a myriad of challenges in the coming of age processes of my proteges. Informed by work with four Black and Latino LGBTQ youth, this is an examination of some of the issues facing LGBTQ youth of color and what I learned as I mentored them.
On Being Young
That my proteges were in high school when our mentoring relationships formed meant that they were at a critical juncture in their development and battling issues that come with being young. As adults, we often minimize the complexity of teenage thought. We want to question their judgment and ability to make sound decisions, and while I am not saying that young people are perfect, I am saying that their capacity to process and understand the complexity of the world is often very acute. However, this attitude, that they know very little and that they need to grow up, prohibits many adults from understanding that teens do, in fact, have very real understandings of identity. Teens experience a lack of freedom to express identity openly and to use voice as their perceived “place” in the world is often a subordinate one.
On Being LGBTQ
As a result of being “too” young, my proteges were often unable to identify, name and own their sexuality. In addition to that, they also had to navigate a world in which homoantagonism is pervasive, being very careful with the ways in which they expressed who they were. They had to consider the consequences of being openly gay, or being identified by others as gay, and to worry about what that could mean regarding their emotional and physical safety. They existed in a world where heterosexuality was “normal” and homosexuality abnormal, experimental or “a phase”, and that increased their fear and trepidation. And these fears were founded too since we know well the statistics surrounding homelessness, suicide, and violence among and against LGBTQ youth and adults. All of my proteges shared that one of their primary concerns about being open about their identities in high school was that they were first-hand witnesses of blatant homoantagonism in their schools, many of these acts unaddressed and sometimes supported by adults.
On Being Raced
In my conversations with proteges about their decisions to “cover”, many of them expressed disdain for the concept of gayness to start. In fact, they identified “gayness as whiteness.” In each descriptor of their journey, they made statements about not wanting to be a cliche or a stereotype, and when asked to unpack that concept, they essentially described the effeminate white male so often portrayed in the media. As one of my proteges shared: “I was just trying to make everyone else see that I was this strong Black man, I was just trying to be a role model, an example for the Black community at school and if I was labeled gay then that would have taken so much from it”. This young man did not understand that he could be a strong Black man and gay at the very same time.
As a mentor whose purpose it was to provide guidance, I had more questions than answers about how to help each of my proteges navigate all of this. How would I remain sensitive to their need to cover though I knew they were struggling to name and own their identities? How would I respect the nature of our relationship and also recognize the expectations of their parents? How would I reassure them of their normality and help them connect with a history of LGBTQ voices of color? Experiences I had with these young people prompted me to begin reflecting on what the mentoring field needed to start explicitly focusing on issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality, essentially making mentoring more critical. Critical mentoring was needed to help mentors understand the challenges these issues bring to the mentoring relationship, to help them understand how to navigate these issues, and to help them make mentoring a more transformative process.
Here’s What I Learned
I learned to be a model for LGBTQ youth of color. My proteges had taught me that my comfort with my identity provided a safe space for them. Too often folks who are traumatized carry that trauma into mentoring relationships with young people and the results are disastrous. My ability to live my life openly, honestly and unapologetically empowered these youth in ways I did not understand at the time. The fact that my proteges identified gayness as whiteness made this issue doubly important. They had seen very few examples of LGBTQ folks of color and needed to. I not only modeled that reality but was a link to others in the community, providing these youth with important community resources; i.e. social capital.
I learned to speak up about the whitening of the LGBTQ world and help my proteges see beyond media representations. I had to help them challenge existing metanarratives. They could not know unless they were explicitly taught, that they were descendants of Angela Davis, Bayard Rustin, Audre Lorde, Richard Rodriguez, James Baldwin and Alice Walker. They could not know that a struggle was already occurring, that their community had already begun to challenge the notion of their invisibility.
Most importantly, I learned to educate others. I started having conversations with other mentors, with mentoring organizations, with folks in the community. I started asking how we could be better for our LGBTQ youth of color, and I started providing workshops, seminars, and training sessions meant to help us all increase our knowledge and awareness of their unique perspectives. And I didn’t do this alone, believing firmly in the idea that mentoring is a collaborative endeavor, I partnered with one of my young proteges to do this work.
Too many of us have experienced the angst of being young, raced and LGBTQ to leave our youth to it all alone. We must volunteer to serve as mentors, make ourselves visible to existing mentoring programs. We must also build programs in our communities and teach the next generation about a strong and thriving lineage of LGBTQ people of color. We must help others to understand the importance of reaching out to these youth, providing them with a network of support. Finally, we must, like we do everywhere else, demand the humanity that we and the youth that we mentor deserve.