[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 the leading national organization focused on crisis and suicide prevention efforts among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth. This installment comes from helpline counselor Stuart Brewster, who volunteers at the Randy Stone West Coast Call Center in Los Angeles.]
"I just want to know, can you change? Is it possible? They say it is."
Adam's voice cracks just slightly at the end of each question, a sign of nervousness and also that his stated age of 16 is probably accurate.
Not a prank. Check.
I want to tell him that God loves him just as he is, that even if "change" were possible it wouldn't be necessary, that once he learns to understand himself he won't want to change anymore. Embrace the beautiful creation you are, Adam!
But he hasn't technically told me he's gay yet, and he has no reason to trust me if I told him all of that. We've only been on the phone for about 1.5 minutes. This is probably the first time he's dared to even ask this much. So instead I ask, "Who says that?"
Maintain composure. Check.
About 4 minutes in, he comes back to the question. "Look, I just... they say you can change, should I try it?" It's only been a couple of minutes, but a lot has happened: he's told me he thinks he's "homosexual" (he won't use the word gay), that his family is deeply religious, and more importantly, that he is deeply religious. He's scared of what his family and church would say, but he's also scared on a personal level. He really wants to "do right by God."
But I can't tell him what to do - too many people in his life already do that. "You know what, Adam, I've known a couple of people who have tried that stuff, tried to 'pray away the gay.'" We both laugh at the cliché.
Establish rapport. Check.
"But I gotta say, it was really tough for them. It made a couple of them really depressed - they were so wound up by trying to change who they were, but not being able to, that they tried to kill themselves. They're okay now, but it was really rough for awhile."
Silence. Either I've said something he didn't want to hear or something struck a chord.
5.5 minutes. "Adam, are you thinking about killing yourself tonight?"
A brief pause. Then a quick, soft "Yes." Oh crap oh crap what do I do what should I say what if I say the wrong thing what if I fail him what if I...
Breathe. It's not about me. Go back to the checklist.
"Do you have a plan?"
He doesn't. And he has no history of trying before, either. Evaluate suicidality. Check.
But he fantasizes sometimes about people attending his funeral. Sometimes he feels sad in these daydreams because no one ever really knew him. But usually he is relieved, because he doesn't have to hide the secret of his true self anymore. Either way, he says, he is free.
14 minutes. He is starting to relax enough to get away from the "change" question and get at the heart of what he really wants: "There is no one else I can talk to," he says, his voice cracking again. "I just don't want to go to hell. I just want to be normal. I just want somebody to talk to."
I know firsthand how faith can be twisted into a weapon against people who are different. I want to explain to him about translation errors in the Bible and the history of the Metropolitan Community Church. I want to tell him about the Equality Ride and Bishop Gene Robinson and other faiths where gays are revered as prophets and shamans. I want to tell him that normal is a matter of perspective and an overvalued commodity anyway. I want to tell him about a website where young people who are going through the same thing he is can talk to each other. There is so very much I want him to know.
"Thank you for talking to me, I think calling us was really brave and I know how hard it can be," I begin, while thinking about ways to introduce one of those ideas without scaring him away. But a sound in the background on his end of the phone interrupts me.
"I gotta go, it's my mom," he says.
"Okay," I say. "Please call again if you need anything, okay? We're always here, twenty-four seven."
Click. 16 minutes.
As I write up the call report, I wonder if Adam will be okay. I think about the smart, funny, insightful person I talked to and marvel that people who have known him his whole life will probably hate him if they ever learn this part of who he is. I wonder about what else I could have said to alleviate his loneliness, about what more we would have talked about if only there were time.
There are always what ifs on the helpline - it's so rare that you find out what happens after the caller hangs up. But whatever might have been, I know that just being there to listen to him without judgment taught him this:
There is hope. You are not alone.
If you're interested in learning more about our programs such as "Dear Trevor" or how to be a Helpline counselor, please visit our Web site at TheTrevorProject.org.