Editor's Note: "Stories from the Helpline" is a recurring feature on The Bilerico Project, bringing in the personal accounts of Helpline counselors from The Trevor Project. The Trevor Project is a non-profit organization that operates the only nationwide, around-the-clock crisis and suicide prevention helpline for LGBTQ youth. This installment comes from Caroline Bird, a volunteer Helpline counselor on The Trevor Helpline. She volunteers at The Randy Stone West Coast Call Center in Los Angeles..
I've been with the Trevor Project since the opening of its West Coast call center more than two years ago. At that time, there were no more than 20 would-be counselors who met for the inaugural training in the classroom of a high school, which had kindly donated its facilities to Trevor.
For me, training was a peculiar reversal of what LGBTQ youth experience. I knew I was different. I felt like an outsider. I wondered what I had in common with my fellow trainees. Save for the desire to help young people, there was no common ground between me and the other people paying rapt attention to the lectures.
"The thing is," I wanted to explain to people, "there is something you should know about my sexuality." The reel of thoughts that was playing through my mind was bizarre. I wanted to clarify issues before there was any confusion or misunderstanding. "I don't identify in any of the LGBTQ categories," I said. "I'm straight."
For the first time in my life, I was the outsider. I felt that everybody had an advantage that I lacked (like experience of dealing with LGBTQ issues). I was definitely the minority. Yet this fact in itself helped me to really empathize with how life must be for our callers. I truly experienced life as a black sheep rather than one in the flock. Nobody went out of their way to make me feel uncomfortable. I just felt, well, different, and that in itself was alarming.
I joined Trevor following eight years of experience working at ChildLine, which is a crisis hotline for young people in trouble or in danger in the UK. While I had the skills to help callers in a general sense, I was concerned that I lacked expertise on issues that affect LGBTQ youth specifically. And while I was not as versed in some areas as my fellow trainees, I found that I actually brought a perspective that many of them could not. As a parent, I feel great empathy for young people whose own families have rejected them. I have lost count of the times I have told a young caller that just because his or her own mother disowned them did not mean that there weren't other mothers who would embrace them for who they are. Such statements were often met with resistance: "How would you know anything about that?" callers would ask. I would let them know that as a straight parent I fully embraced them for having the courage to stand up and be true to themselves. In some cases, callers were astonished to learn that a straight person would want anything to do with Trevor. "Why would you care about us?" is a comment that I have heard on several occasions.
I care because I am a human being who cannot tolerate prejudice of any kind. I have had the privilege of speaking to many courageous young people since the Helpline opened. Whenever I am able to help a caller, I gain so much for myself, in terms of enrichment. It is so rewarding to hear the tone of a caller's voice change during a call when he or she realizes that things are not as bad as they seemed. To hear that dead, flatness of tone give way to a relaxed, natural speech pattern fills me with joy. It is very true that in helping others we really do help ourselves. Inevitably, there are days that are tough, but to hear a caller tell me, "I just can't thank you enough/you're awesome/I never thought of it that way before/I never thought anybody would understand me like you did," brings an indescribable sense of well-being. I get the highest level of job satisfaction from my work on The Trevor Helpline.
Aside from learning so much about LGBTQ issues during my time as a counselor, I have developed a network of friends and colleagues who would normally lie way beyond my social sphere. As a middle-aged housewife and mother from a very conventional part of town, I find myself mixing with the most interesting, kind and wonderful people who I would never meet in the course of my regular day.
This fact reminds me that we are all very quick to make judgments. At face value, one would imagine that I have nothing in common with the majority of my fellow counselors, but we all share a goal to make the lives of LGTBQ youth fulfilling and happy. We all strive to ease the pain of our callers and to have them accept and understand that they can be proud to be who they are.
Our callers are some of the most courageous people I have ever encountered and I constantly applaud their bravery in opening up and sharing their issues with me. As long as young people need to pick up the phone and call The Trevor Helpline, I will be honored to share my own "outsider's" perspective with them.
Be sure to check out our previous installment of "Stories from the Helpline" from volunteer Wing-Sum Doud, Adrienne Smith, Michael Vacha Jr., Dave Reynolds, Brooke Carlson, and Aneesh Sheth.