The Trevor Project Hears Every Day How President Trump Is Putting LGBT Teens In Danger
Amit Paley, CEO of the Trevor Project—a suicide hotline for LGBT youth—talks about the harm the Trump administration is doing, and why he knows the desperation that callers feel.
His father, furious that his son had just come out as gay, told the teenager that the family’s gun cabinet was unlocked and that his son should use one of the weapons to kill himself, to stop his father from being “embarrassed” by him.
“I don’t have anywhere to go,” the 14-year-old said.
The young man was calling the Trevor Project’s confidential, toll-free, 24-hour ‘Lifeline’ suicide prevention hotline earlier this year from a conservative, rural part of Middle America, and Amit Paley had taken his call. Newly appointed as CEO of the Trevor Project, Paley, a hotline volunteer for six years, still does regular four-hour shifts taking calls from young LGBTQ people aged 13-24 at risk of suicide or in crisis. In 2015, the nonprofit’s 920 volunteers helped over 200,000 young people.
On a recent afternoon in the conference room of the Trevor Project’s midtown Manhattan offices, Paley recalled to a reporter that he had looked up the resources available to the 14-year-old caller.
“There was nothing within two hours of where he lived, so we really were a lifeline for this person,” Paley said.
“I was able to tell him why his life was worth living. It sounds very basic and simple, but first of all I told him, ‘I can hear how much pain and suffering you’re in. I know how difficult this is.’ I told him I could hear from what he was describing how hurtful what his father did was, and how lonely he felt.
“I told him I wanted him to know there were people like him across the country and around the world who not only think there is nothing wrong with being gay, but who would celebrate him for who he is. I told him that I was one of those people, and that I was so proud of him for being as courageous as he was for calling and talking to me.”
Paley said the 14-year-old had thanked him and said that he didn’t know, until that moment, that anyone felt positively about being gay. Paley was able ultimately to ensure the young man was safe and able to find support.
Paley, a handsome 35-year-old with thick dark hair, is a former foreign correspondent and business journalist (with The Washington Post), and former management consultant with the firm McKinsey. He joined the Trevor Project as a volunteer following a rash of headline-making LGBTQ teen suicides a few years ago, including that of former Rutgers student Tyler Clementi.
“I wanted to give something back,” Paley said, the familiar motivation of many a volunteer (full disclosure, this reporter once volunteered for Switchboard, formerly the London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard).
Taking on the CEO position is “deeply personal,” Paley said, because as a volunteer he hears “the voices of the young people who desperately need our help. After the election it became clear to me that young people needed our help more than ever.”
The day after the presidential election the Trevor Project’s call volume doubled, and there has been an increase in calls since then as the Trump administration’s rolling back of LGBTQ rights has gathered pace, a regression symbolized most starkly for activists in the lack of a presidential proclamation for Pride Month.
In May, Paley said, the Lifeline received more calls from LGBTQ young people than in its entire 19-year history.
“The policies of this administration, no doubt about it, are directly harming young LGBTQ people,” Paley told The Daily Beast. “What’s so upsetting and shocking for them is that up until this point they had been growing up in a time of increasing acceptance and tolerance. Our mission is to end suicide among LGBTQ young people, and we are concerned by any activities that might reverse the progress we have made.”
“There are more people feeling in crisis and more people reaching out for help,” said Paley. “When the president of the United States and politicians in positions of power stand up and make LGBT people feel less-than, or make them feel their rights are being taken away from them, that has a significant impact on their self-worth.
“That’s our reason to be here: to say, ‘No matter what anyone in Washington says, you are worthy, you are loved, you have dignity, and you are who you are and who you love does not lessen you as a person.’”
Younger LGBTQ people may be coming out at a time of greater visibility and pop-cultural embracing, but their feelings of isolation and threat remain acute.
The Trevor Project is finding as many young people defining themselves as gender nonconforming as trans, Paley said—and it’s not just their parents and friends of those young people struggling with these new self-definitions, but parts of the LGBTQ community itself.
Given the political climate, callers are telling Trevor volunteers that they are more worried than ever about coming out.
A 2012 Human Rights Campaign survey of 10,000 LGBT-identified youth found 42 percent reporting to be growing up in a not-accepting community. A third said their families were not accepting.
“LGBTQ young people are at elevated risk of suicide and other types of serious harm,” Paley said. “Among that general population transgender and gender nonconforming kids are at particular risk. This administration has taken a number of decisions pulling rights back from them.
“If you’re trans, 14 years old and in Alabama, you’re already going through an unimaginable amount of challenges and suffering. If, under President Obama, the voice in Washington has been generally encouraging until now in support of you and now all of a sudden you don’t have that voice and they are taking back the right to use a restroom in peace, that’s devastating to some young people.”
Paley was referring specifically to the Departments of Education and Justice in February withdrawing guidance to schools to let trans students use facilities that corresponded with their gender identity.
“Imagine being a teenager, going through puberty, the challenges of that, especially if your gender is different to how the world sees you,” said Paley. “Imagine hearing from the leaders of the country that you don’t deserve to go to the bathroom that conforms to your gender identity, so you literally have to hold it all day. Forget the medical issues that causes. Forget how that makes people feel. Think about how that makes you feel not listened to. It’s heartbreaking.”
Young people are calling the hotline to talk about Trump, and also anti-LGBTQ policies within the states they live, such as Texas, whose Supreme Court recently banned same-sex marriage benefits, and where an anti-trans bathroom bill may soon become law.
One hotline volunteer (the Trevor Project's title for them is "crisis worker"), Katie Schreiber, told The Daily Beast the young people she spoke to expressed their fear of the Trump administration, both in terms of laws and how the administration negatively viewed LGBTQ people more generally. “They are frightened for their emotional safety and physical safety,” Schreiber said.
Ashby Dodge, the Trevor Project’s clinical director, said: “What is different about this administration to any administration I’ve ever seen is that its behavior normalizes negative and bullying behavior towards minority groups, including LGBTQ people.
“If you add that public behavior to already struggling young people dealing with suicidal thoughts, behavior and feelings, and to homophobia and transphobia more generally, it’s magnifying their stress and anxiety by hundreds of percent.”
“The policies coming out of this administration are having a direct impact on LGBTQ young people,” said Paley. “In many cases it is literally affecting their ability to do physical types of activity, like go to the bathroom or feel safe in their schools. The policies are affecting the mental health of young people, which we see in the increased number of calls we are getting from LGBTQ young people in crisis.”
It is unknown if Trump’s presidency has led to more LGBTQ people committing suicide because there are no statistics tracking that. The Trevor Project backs the LGBT Pride Act, a recently introduced bill by Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney which would require the CDC to improve data collection on the sexual orientation and gender identity of victims of violent crimes and suicide.
“It’s critical for so many reasons to measure this. Always in management, we said, ‘If you’re not counted, you don’t count,’” said Paley.
The Trevor Project wants politicians to be aware of the negative impact of their policies, and for young people to know that they are not alone and that they are cared for.
On the phone line, Paley said the most basic thing to ensure is that the caller knows that they are being listened to. “It’s so deeply powerful to tell someone, ‘I hear you.’ They’re in so much pain that just hearing that can mean the world to them and be life-changing.”
Volunteers also pass on information about support services if the caller so wishes—and if the caller’s threat of suicide is deemed to be serious and immediate, then getting in touch with local emergency services is, said Paley, “a last resort.”
“We hope to be able to help them by talking to them,” Paley said. “If they need it, if they do not want to be physically alone, we will find them support. Our top priority is to ensure the safety of every young LGBTQ person who reaches out to us.”
Paley grew up in the Boston suburb of Newton, within an “incredibly loving and supportive family.” His father Jack, is a businessman, his mother Ziva a retired plant biochemist. He has a younger sister, Shimrit.
But even in such circumstances, “in a liberal place like Massachusetts, with Barney Frank as my congressman growing up, I really struggled a lot with my sexual orientation,” Paley said. “It was very difficult for me to be open about who I was. I didn’t come out until I was 22 in my senior year college of college [at Harvard]. I was someone who always felt very driven. Probably a lot of that, like many LGBTQ people, was me channeling a lot of my confusion and feelings into ‘I will succeed, I will not let anyone judge me or think I am less-than. I will show people I am deserving.’
“A lot of that was motivated by feelings of insecurity, shame, and concern that if people found out who I really was and who I loved that they wouldn’t love me back. We see it here as Trevor as well. We get calls from New York, San Francisco, L.A.—places where you’d think people might be OK. It’s incredibly challenging to accept who you are.”
Paley thinks he knew he was gay late in middle school. In retrospect he knows it may sound irrational but he thought he would not be successful, happy or loved if people knew he was gay. The horrific murder of Matthew Shepard happened while Paley was in high school. It was the year after Ellen DeGeneres’ momentous coming out, the beginning of Will & Grace. Queer as Folk was soon to debut in both its U.K. and U.S. incarnations.
The Trevor Project itself was founded in 1998 by James Lecesne, Peggy Rajski, and Randy Stone, on the night their Oscar-winning short film, Trevor, premiered on HBO.
The 18-minute movie tells the story of a 13-year-old boy in 1981 who loves Diana Ross and who ends up attempting suicide as he struggles to make sense of a world which seems not to want to make sense of him as a young gay man. The making of it inspired Lecesne, Rajski, and Stone to set up a hotline for young people just like the fictional Trevor.
Of that period in the late 1990s, Paley recalled: “There were certainly cross-currents of things getting better and people becoming more accepting, and yet there were other cross-currents that gay people could still be murdered for who they are, or being rejected. There were all the policies of the time, which were against us and since we have been lucky to see reversed.”
Did Paley ever feel suicidal himself as a gay teenager?
“I mean, I did experience feelings of sadness and depression, and thoughts of, ‘the world would be a better place if I were not here,’” Paley said, “and so I know what a dark place feeling ashamed of yourself can lead to.”
What stopped Paley at the time?
“I had a very loving family, and I think I retained hope and optimism, and I felt supported in other ways by the community.”
He has not asked his parents directly about that time, but he doesn’t think they noticed anything was wrong with him, instead seeing the self-motivated, driven teenager he himself presented himself as.
“I never told anyone. I didn’t have sex. I had a girlfriend in college. I didn’t have relationships with men until after I came out. Anecdotally, I think I’m somewhat unusual compared to my friends. I had to be comfortable saying ‘I’m gay.’”
While he was still in the closet at Harvard in 2002 and working for the Crimson newspaper, Paley broke the story—that was later made into two plays, Unnatural Acts and Veritas—about the secret Harvard court in 1920 that investigated and later expelled gay students.
Harvard authorities initially tried to prevent Paley from obtaining records to report the case, then insisted he redact the men’s names, arguing that they should not have further shame bought upon them if they were still alive.
“It was strange, reporting this while I was in the closet myself,” said Paley, “but I have always felt driven by pursuing injustice, and a sense of correcting injustice. On the one hand I was telling the stories of men whose lives were destroyed and in some cases died themselves because of this thing around their sexuality, and on the other I had a fear that I wouldn’t be successful at the same institution if it was known that I was gay.”
Harvard released a strongly worded statement at the time saying what happened to the men accused of being gay should never have happened.
“But then Harvard not wanting to reveal their names seemed to add another indignity upon indignity,” said Paley. “I wanted to tell the story of these men who had their whole lives ahead of them and whose lives were destroyed just because they were gay or knew someone was gay. I wanted their story told for their sakes, and for everyone to know that what they did wasn’t wrong. They should be honored for who they were, and we should remember, especially now, how easy it was for people in positions of power to destroy and harm LGBTQ young people. We can’t let that happen again.”
Paley’s crusading self, he said smiling, comes from both his father, a Republican, and his mother, a Socialist. He was brought up “with both sides, with diametrically opposed ‘right answers,’ but the feeling that every answer should be thoughtful and you should be vocal about what you think is right.”
As a self-confessed “wonk,” it was a major legal decision that would prove pivotal in Paley’s own life.
Justice Anthony Kennedy’s wording of the Supreme Court majority decision in the case of Lawrence v. Texas in 2003 was so affirming it made Paley both cry, and come out.
The ruling, which ruled that state laws banning sodomy were both unconstitutional and an invasion of privacy, enshrined for Paley “the institution at the highest level of American life saying there was not only nothing wrong with being gay, but that you can also be celebrated. I thought, ‘Well, if the Supreme Court is saying there is nothing wrong with being gay then this is not going to be an impediment in my life.’ If I had any doubt it would be, it went with SCOTUS saying gay people are part of the fabric of the country in soaringly eloquent language.”
After the Goodridge decision in 2004, striking down the ban on same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, Paley and his first boyfriend, elated, watched the first marriages take place at Cambridge City Hall. “I felt comfortable being myself. I had my first boyfriend. It was such an incredible time, walking with him, and seeing this swell of optimism and hope around real progress. I just felt lucky to be alive.
“That’s why I know how important what senior politicians say in Washington is because it directly influenced and impacted my story in a very positive way,” said Paley. “Now I can see how negatively it can affect people too.”
Paley told two of his best friends first that he was gay, more friends within days of that, then his parents.
“They were supportive, but they struggled,” Paley said. “Sometimes people think in liberal places it’s so simple to come out, but my parents knew me for 22 years and always imagined I was straight, and that I would marry a woman. They had that image of me.
“After 5 seconds it wasn’t like, ‘We totally get it,’ but they have always been loving, always supportive, and always wanted the best for me. Over time, as the country has changed and also as they have seen me have deep and loving relationships, they have changed. I have a partner I love and care about [Jonathan, who works for a tech startup; they have been together nearly three years], and I think that has done a lot to change what it means to have a gay son for them.”
Paley chose to volunteer at Trevor because, he said, “while there are many worthwhile organizations, there are very few where you are helping very literally to save lives, or where your direct presence has such an immediate impact.”
The training is rigorous, and there is full support for volunteers. He felt nervous and a huge sense of responsibility when he did his first shifts.
“The volunteers here change lives,” Paley said. “Someone may be on the brink of killing themselves, and there is no higher calling than saving the lives of people in crisis. This type of work is always with you, but that’s OK. It’s such a privilege and blessing to be able to spend my professional life doing something like this.”
On a shift earlier this year Paley took a call from a 19-year-old man from the western part of the U.S. The man had called the night before and spoken to another volunteer. He had been worried how his family would take his coming out, had a weapon in his hand and planned to kill himself.
“The volunteer made him feel heard,” said Paley, and told him that while some people may not accept him, many others would love him for who he was.
The volunteer convinced the young man to get rid of the weapon and spend the night with his parents. To Paley, the next night, the young man said he wouldn’t be alive had it not been for that volunteer. “That’s why we do what we do,” said Paley.
Despite their glitzy, star-studded benefits that often grace the pages of entertainment magazines—John Oliver hosted the most recent TrevorLIVE gala in June—Paley says many people do not know about the Trevor Project.
The organization wants to publicize its new chat and text services, alongside the Lifeline which operates 24 hours, seven days a week, to reach more young people. It also wants to sign up more volunteers to reach more young people.
“I would ask them to put themselves in the shoes of an LGBTQ young person who is struggling today, whether they’re a young lesbian woman in the big city or a struggling transgender teenager in the Deep South, and understand what the implications and harm caused by their policies is having on them.
“I would ask them to do the right thing, stand up and protect and help these LGBTQ young people, and stop taking any actions that are putting their lives at risk.”
Paley also called on the Departments of Education and Justice to allow transgender and gender nonconforming individuals to “use the bathroom of their choice in peace. I would ask people to imagine what their lives would be like if they were not able to go to the bathroom when they were at school. It’s devastating and so sad and so harmful, and it’s just not right. It’s not American to be treating young people as less than because of who they are.
“I would ask Mr. Trump and Mr. Pence to reconsider their decisions. They have taken away the rights of LGBT young people at school. They should allow young LGBT people to flourish whoever they are.”
The Trevor Project is also campaigning for the outlawing of conversion therapy, which the helpline receives many calls from young LGBTQ people about after parents and family members have either put them through it or threatened to.
The nonprofit is lobbying for more funding and research into suicide more generally. “It is the second leading cause of death in young people [after accidents],” said Paley, “and we need to spend more money and resources around it. We should learn how to talk about suicide prevention, and not feel shame and stigma about the topic.”
Paley and I met a few days after New York’s Pride March. He, like me, noted the many young people in attendance. But the day before the March Paley had done a phone shift which reminded him there were many other young LGBTQ people “not at Pride, and who are struggling to be open and proud.”
If the March and smiling faces reminded Paley of the amazing progress the LGBTQ movement has made, his phone shift reminded him “of the huge amount of work still to be done. In cities we may think it’s all over but we cannot forget there are people across the country who are still in huge pain, huge suffering, and who have been left behind and they need our help more than ever because they are facing a backlash.
“The price of some of these victories has been borne by a lot of LGBTQ young people in the rest of the country. I think we all have an obligation to fight for and support them, and send them a message of love and hope, so they know we are here for them and they never feel alone and never forget they have a community of people fighting for them.”
The volunteers themselves, for all the pain and suffering they hear, are inspired by the resilience and bravery of their callers.
Crisis workers Katie Schreiber and Travis Smith and training coordinator Joie DeRitis all say how impressed they are by the callers and how rewarding the calls can be, sometimes going from somewhere very negative and ending somewhere much more positive.
DeRitis recalled a volunteer saying after one call that they weren’t sure if they had helped the caller.
“I told that volunteer that for those 32 minutes the caller was not alone, that was the simple fact. It is so rewarding and challenging, and you hear the most stunning stories of resilience and love, and care and self-care and self-preservation,” said DeRitis. “So often you get off the phone at the end of a shift and you feel an amazement around the vulnerability the callers give us and around the vulnerability the volunteers and people who work here have in order to do this work. I think it’s really special, really beautiful, and really magical in a lot of ways.”
And with that, DeRitis and the others headed off for another life-saving shift.
The 24-hour, toll-free Trevor Lifeline is on 866-488-7386. Its website, detailing all its services and how to volunteer, is here.