At least four days a week, Qing, a 24-year-old black gay man, buzzes into an unassuming, century-old high-rise near New York University in lower Manhattan. Squished between an upscale fitness center and a Lebanese eatery, the building’s double glass doors are blank. Its dimly lit hallway appears to lead to a freight elevator. The only clue to what’s inside is a modest sign over the entrance, identifying it as “The Hetrick-Martin Institute.”
When the elevator doors open onto the third floor, the building’s drab exterior falls away like Dorothy’s first Technicolor step into Oz. Here, at the Institute (or HMI, for short), the walls are splashed with rainbow murals, a pointed reference to its work helping New York City’s gay youth. Qing comes here to work on his freelance fashion designs, eat a hot dinner at its cafe and participate in group discussions like “In the Clear” on Tuesdays, where homeless youth share tips on steering clear of rain and snow, or “Neutral Grounds” on Thursday, which focuses on HIV (for kids both positive and negative) and the stigma surrounding the disease.
“Most of the time, if I need a safe space to go to, a place to digress, just to feel cared for and loved, I will always come to HMI,” he tells NationSwell, sitting in a classroom at HMI.
The son of a“deadbeat dad” that was in and out of prison and didn’t “want to change or help himself,” Qing (who asked that his last name not be used), grew up in rough part of the Washington, D.C., area, with his mother and sisters. Homeless for a five-year period, Qing drifted through eight different schools by the time he reached eighth grade. “Sometimes I feel like I’m destined to be like my dad,” he worries before adding, “I use my past as my motivation.”
Qing left his family in Virginia to pursue his fashion and design dreams in the Big Apple. As a child, he escaped life’s commotion by sewing or sketching outfits. “I want to have my own fashion house one day,” he says. “They have an open studio [at HMI], which I can’t find anywhere else. The space, the materials, the proper tools are there to use: my mannequins, fabric, pattern paper.” Recently, he painted, glittered and bedazzled a shoe to turn it into a flower pot. He shipped it home as a gift for his mom.
“Here at HMI, I actually learned how I am more, how I want to be. I came to understand that I live in color and that I don’t have this monotone life, I guess. We always learn to walk in your truth. I practice that every day — being more authentic — like myself all the time,” he says. When visiting certain New York City neighborhoods, like Harlem, people would stare at Qing. “Now, they respond differently. If you show that you respect yourself and love yourself, they will treat you the same way.”
The Hetrick-Martin Institute was founded in 1979 when Dr. Emery Hetrick, a psychiatrist, and his partner, NYU professor Dr. Damien Martin, heard about a 15-year-old runaway who was beaten and tossed out of a group home because of his sexuality. Outraged, they mobilized advocates and welcomed LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning) youth into their West Village living room. (The organization, formerly the Institute for the Protection of Lesbian and Gay Youth, was renamed in their honor when both died from AIDS.)
“It was a very different planet. This was a time when ‘homosexuality’ was in the same paragraph as mental retardation in the [American Medical Association] Journal,” says Thomas Krever, HMI’s CEO, a native New Yorker who previously ran gang intervention programs in Brooklyn and knows firsthand what it’s like to be young and gay. He praises recent significant gains, but acknowledges that homosexuals are still a long way from equality. (For instance, you can read national headlines about a judge in Utah who took a 1-year-old girl away from her lesbian foster mothers, how Houston voters rejected an ordinance protecting gays from discrimination or the latest on Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who became a poster child for Christian conservatives for denying marriage licenses to gays. Even in the liberal mecca of New York City, slurs are hurled at same-sex couples walking in Central Park.) And as Krever points out, “I can get married on Sunday and fired on Monday in more states than not.”
HMI has sometimes been pigeonholed as an after-school program for gay youth, but Krever articulates a much more comprehensive vision, inspired by Hetrick and Martin’s initial outreach. At its location on Astor Place, which it co-inhabits with Harvey Milk High School, a public transfer school for kids who were bullied at other schools, HMI wants to create a safe space for 13- to 24-years-olds to be who they are, “where they can get information that is accurate, maybe meet somebody that looks like themselves and has a similar history and experience the rites of passage that this population doesn’t have,” Krever says. (“I know for myself, at high school prom, I was dancing with my [female] date but staring longingly at the boy I had a crush on,” he says.) “It doesn’t mean teaching them fear and how to deny who they are, but how to navigate a system that is not tolerant and accepting,” Krever adds. Through discussion groups, career readiness classes, health programs, academic enrichment and extracurriculars, HMI encourages the 2,000 youth who come through their doors annually to thrive. In the process, it may also shift the opinions of hundreds of thousands of others who witness the teenagers’ successes.
Like the wraparound model at Harlem Children’s Zone, HMI focuses its work on the young person as a whole, addressing homelessness, substance use and risky sexual behavior as symptoms of underlying trauma, rather than as isolated problems. Five counselors provide rigorous therapy for LGBTQ kids who are struggling with their sense of self or are frustrated by feelings of repression and a thwarted desire for certain social interactions.
“Through those double doors in the counseling wing, you have young people that are literally in crisis, with therapists and social workers who are getting at complex trauma and a history of mental health issues,” says Rofofsky.
A typical session might start with a young person revealing his desire to come out to his parents. A counselor will respond, “How about the goal is not whether you’re going to come out or not, but why don’t we explore all the areas in your life that could be safe or unsafe?” As the conversation unfolds, they might explore the details of what coming out would look like at home, in the neighborhood and in the classroom. Often, the teenager may indicate other issues. Worries about a parent getting physically violent upon the revelation of their sexuality, for instance, might lead to more sessions about any underlying childhood abuse.
Some discussions happen in a group setting, like the ones that Qing attends, or through an art therapy class, which 21-year-old Kahdija, a straight ally from Brooklyn, enjoys. Kahdija first heard about HMI from her older sister, who came out as bisexual. She was scared and unsure of what to expect when she first took the elevator up, but she walked in and found a lot of “very flamboyant” guys — all dancing. “I’m here everyday, even on Saturday,” she says. “Yesterday, I stayed at school to finish up work and I kept looking up at the clock to see if I had time to make it to HMI.” When NationSwell visited HMI, Kahdija was finishing up a painting of a snake, refining the colors so that the reptile’s skin was dark with shade in all the right places.
Kahdija says participating in discussions has already changed her viewpoints. A few blocks from where she lives in Flatbush, she once saw a transgender woman harassed by a man yelling obscenities. Kahdija, across the street, watched in horror, but remained silent. After spending time at HMI, she’s now ashamed by her inaction. If she were faced with the same scenario today, she says she’d tell the guys off and suggest the woman go inside where she’d be safe.
It’s precisely that kind of leadership and understanding of the challenges faced by LGBTQ youth that Krever wants to see. He still vividly remembers his first months on the job in 2003, when members of the Westboro Baptist Church (who hold the infamous “God Hates Fags” signs) planned a protest outside the Institute’s doors to mark the start of the school year. Exiting the nearby subway station, Krever heard a roar and his stomach dropped in fear. He turned the corner to discover that the noise came from more than 500 supporters who had made a human chain to allow safe passage for the kids. “It’s how I knew I was at the right place and at the right time,” he recounts tearfully in his office. “I long for the day when it’s not a big deal when another CEO says he’s gay,” Krever says. Today’s not that day, but with HMI’s work, it can’t be far off.