Robin McHaelen & Our True Colors: Truly Transformational for Today’s Gay Youth

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Robin McHaelean, an MSW and true pioneer in the field of sexual minority and gender issues, appears very comfortable in her own skin…  She speaks with a clarity, passion and compassion which are so vital to the workings of her non-profit, Our True Colors.  She is the Founder and Executive Director of Our True Colors.   She has travelled the journey personally and professionally dealing with the invisible and often “throw away” youth since the early 1990’s. Was it prophetic that her very first conference for lesbian, gay and bi-sexual youth was called “Children of the Shadows” with 250 kids in attendance?  And… although it was transformational, no one could have predicted that this organization and this conference would surround the forgotten children with love and safety since 1992.

Listen to interview with Robin and Kamora of  True Colors on Shattered Lives:


Robin and her Mentoring Program Coordinator, Kamora Le’Ella Herrington, spoke with Ladyjustice and Delilah of Imagine Publicity in a lively and information packed fashion that seemed to fly by!    Perhaps the best way to capture all of the information is in a factual manner point by point. However, readers are encouraged to listen to the audio version as well… (Minus a little technical difficulty with someone’s phone in the beginning) The audio version and their repartee bear witness that  they are part of a dedicated team, they are articulate, witty, filled with conviction, realism, hope and LOVE for those they serve!

  • Our True Colors is an education and advocacy organization for sexual and gender minority youth with its  grass roots efforts  beginning in 1992 (Refer to detailed Timeline on their website);
  • Components include a mentoring program, the largest LGBT conference in the World (3,000 attendees at this month’s conference); a private professional partnership with the Department of Children & Families and model program including foster home or group home placements and training of 2400 professionals to date;
  • Robin began by “filling gaps” and kept moving to meet the ever increasing needs as more and more youth indeed began to “come out of the shadows” and make themselves known with the safe haven she was building;
  • Gay-straight alliances within school in Connecticut numbered just four in the early 90’s with  as many as 170 currently in high schools and a few middle schools;
  • The average age of “coming out” is currently 11 to 13 years of age.  True Colors is attempting to build support for this age group with a greater presence and continued trainings;
  • Guidance counselors and school social workers may be very supportive within their respective school settings…. However, it depends on the individual as they may carry their own biases and feel uncomfortable as well.
  • Readers should be aware that “coming out is a process…. Foe some youth it is “no big deal…for others it is a very big deal. Kamora credits Robin as being an integral part of the number of GSA’s in Connecticut and creating an environment in which gay youth can have their own space, feel part of a majority and be safe…;
  • Mentoring – Technically, Kamora states that her mentoring program has 52 matches… However, although those enrolled are supposed to be aged 14 to 21, others on the periphery of the age limit consider themselves part of the extended program. She has managed the program for 7 years but it has not yet been replicated;
  • In order to mentor, an applicant must be 24 years and participate in an extensive and not necessarily gay or share the same background.  They may share different types of trauma or social history and will still be a successful match; True Colors services those in CT, New York or Massachusetts and border communities;
  • Kamora provided a sense of realism in her witty style that many gay youth get the wrong impression that “all gay persons are wonderful and all heterosexuals are hateful… “ At the same time, gay youth come with issues beyond orientation and gender such as PTSD, ADHD, mental health issues and addiction cultural issues,  other family dysfunction….or general loudness and obnoxiousness.  The sky will not open up nor will doves fly….just because they are accepted in one environment or by one person…  HOWEVER, we cannot stress enough that there are so many gay youth who have absolutely no one to love them and need that mentoring influence and love!
  • Kudos to DCF social workers who go the extra mile to embrace their clients, such a Tonya Sutton.  Kamora commented that if paid professional work with clients but don’t love them it is a problem for these displaced kids who frequently don’t live with their families of origin (their bio families) as they have been rejected and kicked out of their homes.   Social workers have bias as well and may not be able to work effectively with them.
  • STATSTrue Colors XiX “Celebrating Our Allies” March 16-17, 2012 Conference:  A total of 3.113 participants; 115 high schools; 30 colleges and Universities with 14 different states represented throughout the U.S;  In addition, the Conference is very diverse in race, ethnicity and gender…… (And isn’t that the way it should be??)
  • Although National and local organizations like PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) do a stellar job of advocacy, education and support to family members, at times, it becomes a challenge to provide the support needed to different cultural and ethnic families who are not comfortable with their format  and services due to differences in beliefs or “privacy matters.” Therefore, True Colors seeks to pull in kinship relationships to assist gay youth…such as aunt, uncles’ cousins who can be accepting. TC’s work with adults is limited, and not a primary focus. However,  they interface with many adults who work with youth;
  • At the conclusion of their recent conference, a crisis was averted when two young men, each 18 who were described as “gentle and not streetwise”   were thrown out of their family homes and had nowhere to go.  As they were 18, DCF could not assist.  Robin provided shelter information for the Hartford area. However, more importantly, she looked to her network of mentors who stepped up… and provided temporary refuge for these vulnerable young men.  STATS- Depending upon the study used, gay youth represent 5 to 10 or 11% of homelessness overall; whereas the homeless population among gays increases to between 25 to 40%;
  • If gay youth are under the care of the state and placed in a group home, such kids may be targeted within that environment and may not be safe; Many have experienced abuse and trauma;
  • How do you prepare kids and prepare families for the process? Robin states that in the ideal situation you want to intervene early in the process. The number one predictor of how gay kids will do is the initial response of parents. When they struggle, most families move from rejection to ambivalence to acceptance (if they progress though all of these stages)
  • Providing wrap around services and providing time and space for parents and providing kids a yardstick comparing how long it took each kid to recognize and then accept their orientation or gender  (and then multiply that by five)
  • Kamora stated that “Life is messy…..  We can set ducks in a row…but orientation and gender is only part of it… The larger picture must be considered such as the time and space needed Teenagers need things to happen immediately and do not understand that in time there may be acceptance …or not. [For whatever reasons of their own, Ladyjustice was not able to progress as far as she would like on the continuum with her bio family.]  In such cases, the alternative is to develop surrogate families with other groups of friends.  It is indeed more complex when one has a disability as well…as society frequently cannot look beyond physical characteristics that get in the way for the judging party;
  • BULLYING & HARASSMENT:  Robin reported that youth who are targeted most are those who are gender non-conforming (i.e. effeminate boys and masculine identifying females) and therefore are the most at risk for harassment. 7th, 8th, 9th grades are the most targeted populations, particularly those with special needs or are gender non-conforming;
  • One in Five gay youth stay home from school daily due to bullying or harassment. And… they are seven times more likely to be assaulted by a weapon!
  • Hyper-Vigilance: Robin gave the example of a high school youth who was in a CT high school with many resources, but still had to be hypervigilent…. Wore the hood of his jacket up, slumped his posture, stayed close to the wall trying to be “an unobtrusive gay person”…  The fact is gay youth cannot be protected 24/7… parking lots, hallways, bathrooms remain territories which represent unsafe areas even if they are partaking of school resources.  Can you just imagine the stress?  As one educator said… “If you see mean…intervene!”
  • Kamora recounted the case of a bullied student who was harassed unmercifully… when he finally fought back, that is the point that resources were brought in to the picture.  This sends the wrong message…. It is okay to harass the gay kid until he tries to defend himself!  No!
  • Robin, Kamora and Delilah spoke to the matter of progressiveness regarding gay issues and human rights issues depending upon thee geographic area in which you live.  It is generally thought that the south maintains a higher level of prejudice against sexual minority and gender issues… ignore it altogether or has few resources; whereas the “progressive northeast – New England area is “miles ahead…  Kamora warned that we in Connecticut are often “lulled unto a sense of complacency regarding our acceptance as a state.”  ‘Just a couple of years ago, she cited an example in which a youth in CT had an exorcism videotaped.  Such things are supposed to happen “elsewhere.”
  • Media portrayal is difficult to gauge in terms of help versus hindrance.  The fact is, most of today’s gay youth now get there first dating experience over the internet which can be both good and bad…;
  • Robin consults with other states and has even trained others in Brussels….  She welcomes the opportunity to share with other states;
  • Those who are interested in contacting Jamie Goddard in Bridgeport who manages a program for gay persons seeking employment who also happen to have disabilities- physical or mental health contact the CT Department of Labor;
  • ***Her most important message is addressed to families who may have the opportunity to foster youth or mentor them.. It is powerful, meaningful and life changing.  “If you don’t have a dollar… If you don’t have a spare bedroom… If you don’t have extra time, Kamora advised to “just smile or start a conversation with a gay youth”.  It will mean the world to them….  And make their burden that much lighter… (LJ)
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