So last Wednesday I had four coffee dates. The first at 10AM was with a 42-year-old graduate student, who recently admitted to himself his attraction to other men, and is looking for guidance through the coming out process. The next meeting, at 11:30AM was with a Freshman international student who is questioning her sexuality and looking to meet more open-minded people, particularly lesbian biologists.
After lecture I grabbed a pretty boring turkey sandwich and headed to my next coffee date. The rower across the table from me expressed deep concern that if she came out to the other girls on the team, they would make the rest of the season a living hell. At 3:30PM, (I was pretty jacked on caffeine by this time) I met with another 19-year Sophomore who was convinced that if he came out to his conservative Catholic parents, his out-of-state tuition would be coming out of his own pocket.
By the end of the day I felt literally weighed down by the sadness, isolation, and marginalization these students expressed to me. It shows me how much work has yet to be done.
This semester I am working at my university's LGBT campus resource center, facilitating our Mentorship Program, which pairs queer students who might be just coming out, or freshly navigating LGBTQ life on campus with an "out" student who can relate to some of their experiences. The idea is to build connections within the queer community as a means of identity development: the Mentor and Mentee make plans to meet weekly just to chat about life, dating, telling friends and family, finding community, or anything else that may come up.
I currently have thirty-six Mentors, nineteen of which are currently paired up with a Mentee.
The first step for me is to meet with a Mentee, who e-mails the program or sends in a request form from our web site, so that I can make an informed decision in pairing them up. I am very reflective and intentional about my pairings - I openly ask the Mentee what they are looking for in a Mentor. Some say that it doesn't matter. Others, and I see this more with Mentees who are women or trans-identified or people of color or a combination, want someone that can relate to them on that intersectional level as well as a queer level, understandably.
If I can't find that ideal Mentor, the next best thing is finding someone who will be sensitive in the way they approach the Mentor/Mentee relationship. Just talking it out is so powerful, as long as the Mentor does some self-educating beforehand, and doesn't ask a Mentee to explain themselves or expect to be able to relate.
Before the end of the year I'd like to create a concrete pamphlet or video or something that I can send around to different educational institutions and resource centers. I'd love to see programs like this being adopted by other Universities, high schools, middle schools, or queer community centers around the world. The problem is that not everyone has the time or support for something like this, but that I think is the beautiful part of this program; it doesn't need a lot because it is so organic. It's about people talking to people. It's something we do every day, only more structured so that participants can be held accountable to meet and discuss their lives proactively. People with the time to take it on can do so without much expertise, because as queer people we are already have a framework, and can help each other grow through establishing the connections that will build our community.
Here are some of my Tips For Mentorship:
- Try not to give unsolicited advice: what works for you might not and probably will not work for someone else. Sometimes coming out just really isn't a good idea for someone at a particular time.
- Share your experiences, but the conversation is really about them so keep it focused.
- Don't say things like "I understand how you feel." Do you? Do you know every life experience I've had, every way that I've been shaped by those around me that has lead me to this particular emotional reaction? We can connect to each other through an emotion - isolation, loneliness, sexual excitement, success - but never can understand exactly how that feels for every person.
- Ask leading questions. If a Mentee says "I'm nervous about how my dad will react," ask "what about it makes you nervous?" "What have you heard your dad say about LGBT people in the past?" "Do you think there is a risk in coming out?" "How can you be out and where is it safe?" "What do you need right now?"
- Negotiate the kind of relationship you will have with your Mentee outside of meetings. Are they comfortable with you acknowledging you on the street?
- During meetings, use eye contact! Have an open body posture. People won't respond as openly if they feel the person listening isn't paying attention or is judging their testimony.
- If your Mentee ends up falling in love with you, be clear about your unavailability. If it becomes an uncomfortable situation, the Mentor/Mentee relationship should end and we can find someone else for the Mentee.
- If you end up falling in love or hooking up with your Mentee... psshhh I dunno. Can you just like, not do that? At least let me know so I can take you off my excel sheet.
Note: for the examples in the first paragraph, I changed student's specific interests for privacy reasons.
Screenshot via Stop the Silence, UW-Madison's LGBTQ anti-bullying campaign.