How Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound's LGBT Initiative makes a difference
by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
In the July 20 edition of Seattle Gay News, Associate Editor Shaun Knittel told readers about the launch of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound's LGBT Initiative. This week, Knittel interviewed a 'Big,' Bryan Corbett, and a 'Little,' Zoe MacGregor.
When I first met Bryan, 27, at Oddfellows Café on Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood for this interview, I thought I'd been duped. Sitting next to him was 10-year-old Zoe. I thought to myself, 'Uh-oh, something has gone wrong. I requested to speak with an LGBTQ Big and Little pairing.'
Admittedly, as I walked over to make introductions, I thought, 'This is a straight guy and girl, or a Gay man and Lesbian girl. Great. Now what am I supposed to tell my readers?'
I didn't know it then, but I was about to get a lesson in life. For the next two hours I was witness to the impact and difference the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound LGBT Initiative is making in the lives of its participants. Bryan, a Seattle transplant from Wenatchee who is conservative in appearance, and Zoe, a girl who is Transgender, are teacher and student and vice versa - mentor and protégé and so much more. In many ways their relationship can be likened to Lego building blocks.
'THERE'S ALWAYS RAINY DAY LEGOS'
'We have a lot of shared interests,' Bryan says, looking over at Zoe as we talk about the Big Brothers Big Sisters program that brought the two together. 'There's always rainy day Legos.'
With that, Zoe's face lights up with a smile that tells the rest of us at the table that Legos are a common denominator between the two.
When asked what's the deal with Legos, Bryan responds, 'Who doesn't like Legos? It's a toy you can still play with as an adult.'
And he confides, 'When we are building things together with Legos we talk about things. When we first met I had to provoke dialogue. But ever since Zoe began to identify as Transgender, all of that changed. She's much more playful now and open to discussion and asks more questions.'
Zoe, who had not yet transitioned when Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound paired the two, says Bryan is 'easy to talk to.'
'It's good to know another LGBTQ person,' she said. 'We talk about school, and, well, all sorts of stuff. Life in general.'
When talking about Legos, you really get a sense of the depth of understanding that Zoe possesses. 'There's no wrong or right thing to build,' she said.
Watching the two of them talk about each other with affinity - and agree with each other on almost everything they say - one gets the feeling that Bryan and Zoe really do get each other and that the bond they share is an important one. But the story doesn't begin or end with Legos. It began in 2010 after the media blitz that followed the deaths by suicide of LGBTQ and perceived-to-be-LGBTQ youth.
'I HAD BEEN IN A SIMILAR PLACE'
When Bryan Corbett first reached out to Big Brothers Big Sisters, he did so as a reaction to having 'read too many news stories about LGBTQ kids who were committing suicide because they felt they didn't have anyone.'
At the time, says Emily Juhre, 21, 'The LGBTQ Initiative existed but was not widely known.'
Juhre, a Pride Foundation fellow, worked with Big Brother Big Sisters Puget Sound to help publicize the initiative. The program, she says, is 'really good. It's an amazing all-volunteer program that is making a positive impact.'
'Before meeting Zoe, I knew of Transgender but did not know anybody personally,' said Bryan. 'My perception was more like Transvestite, someone who felt themselves better represented opposite their birth gender.'
'After meeting Zoe and experiencing the personality and confidence that came out with Zoe's transformation,' Bryan says. 'I saw that she wasn't a boy who liked girl's clothes, she is a girl who wants to be herself.'
'This program gives back, time and time again,' he said. 'The time commitment is real, the kids are real, and building a friendship with a youth is real.'
Seeing Zoe be the happy kid that she is, especially when they go out together, is very satisfying to Bryan. 'I pushed myself to be more confident in my surroundings and advocate for support and understanding,' he said. 'The program supported me and encouraged me right from the get-go. I was hesitant to call and say 'Hey, I'm a Gay guy that wants to help kids,' but that's exactly what I said and had an amazing reception. The process is personal and within the organization I have a bunch of names and phone numbers I can call on for questions, comments, and support.
'LGBTQ youth need to know this community loves and supports them,' Bryan continued. 'Any youth needs to know they aren't alone but so many don't know where to go or who to ask. Outside of our Seattle LGBTQ community it's not such a pretty picture. My high school didn't have any programs or rainbow signs on the doors. I found out about PFLAG very late on - [I was] nearly a senior when I went to my first group. Even that PFLAG group was held at a church 30 miles from my home. Had I known of this resource even earlier, it could have eased the growing pains of being a closeted Gay kid from a small town. I can look back and totally recognize times in my life where a mentor and support system could have helped me.'
Carolyn MacGregor, Zoe's mother, says Bryan first met Zoe in November of 2010.
'Zoe's transition was really quite gradual,' said MacGregor. 'She first asked for a dress when she was four, but had already started growing her hair longer and was very interested in 'pretty' things and playing with girls.'
Soon she was wearing clothes from the girl's department exclusively and seemed content to identify as 'a boy who likes girl things.' It was only in the spring of her ninth year that she decided she wanted to try living as a girl full-time. She has had a great year and seems happily settled in her identity.
'It has actually been fairly easy for me to accept and support her, as I've never appreciated gender stereotypes and didn't have a strong attachment to her boy identity,' said MacGregor. 'Her feminine spirit has always been present in various ways, so I was never totally shocked or surprised. Harder to deal with has been the interactions with extended family and schools, and the process of educating folks in all the various arenas of our lives.'
'I hope that she can continue to hold her head up proudly as someone whose gender identity is an integral and positive part of who she is and how she sees the world,' she continued. 'I hope that her experiences continue to shape her into a compassionate, caring, and accepting human being, and I hope that ignorance and discrimination never keep her from pursuing her dreams, whatever they may be.'
'Children need to know that, no matter what, at least one parent, and certainly ideally both, loves them to the core, and will support and affirm them as they discover and embrace their authentic selves,' said MacGregor. 'It takes a whole lot from the outside world to tear down a strong foundation of parental love and affirmation.'
CHILDREN KNOW THEIR GENDER
It is very common for many to ask how a Transgender child can know their gender identity at age 10 or even younger. We don't, however, ask a gender-typical child how they know if they are a boy or a girl. If you are a person whose body aligns with your gender, you don't question - you simply 'know.'
'Kids like Zoe know who they are as well, and at much younger ages than 10,' said Aidan Key, director of Gender Diversity. 'It is quite common for Transgender kids, as soon as they begin to talk, to start proclaiming that they are a boy, not a girl, or vice versa.'
The confusion for a Transgender child begins when their parents, siblings, friends, teachers, and everyone else 'corrects' them and insists that body parts, specifically one's genitalia, are the determining factors for gender. If a Transgender child does not see other children like them, see themselves reflected in society or the media, and has every authority figure around them insisting they aren't who they say they are - well, that is when it becomes quite confusing.
'Again and again, I work to educate others so they can understand the concept of gender identity and how that is different than sexual orientation,' said Key. 'I've worked with attorneys, pediatricians, teachers, camp directors, psychologists, professors, and students. The common thread for all these adults, whether heterosexual, Gay or Lesbian, is that they most often view the concept of gender diversity through the lens of sexual orientation. '
Gender identity is not about having sex and it is not about to whom we are attracted. It's about who we are.
'One seven year old child put it to her parent perfectly when she said, 'Dad, when are you going to understand? I have the body of a boy but the heart and mind of a girl.'
'What I repeatedly witness with these adults is a paradigm shift with respect to their understanding of the fluidity of gender,' said Key. 'Surprisingly, young children have little to no difficulty grasping the concept of gender fluidity and can readily talk about their own frustrations with gender restrictions.
'When adults witness the conversations of these children, it's as if they are transported back in time when gender was simply about the toys that you played with, the clothing you wore, the color of your shoes, and the friends you played with. Ultimately, clothes, colors, and activities do NOT have a gender - one is simply assigned. Children readily see the fallacy in this designation. Adults need to dig deep and remember.'
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound partners with actively involved community members to match caring adults with children, 'both of whom benefit from our one-to-one mentoring programs,' say officials.
Here's how it works: Bigs (adult volunteers) and Littles (children ages 7 to 17) meet a few times a month in school or the community to share fun activities and a little part of themselves.
National research has shown that the positive relationships between youth and their Big Brothers and Big Sisters have a direct and measurable impact on their lives. Little Brothers and Sisters are more confident in their schoolwork performance, able to get along better with their families, 46% less likely to begin using illegal drugs, 27% less likely to begin using alcohol, and 52% less likely to skip school.
According to information provided to SGN by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound, 'LGBT identities are not only accepted but seen as an asset to reflecting the full range of identities that BBBSPS is trying to represent in their Bigs and Littles.'
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound says it are committed to providing activities and opportunities for LGBT Bigs and Littles. In fact, the group recently sponsored a Gay and Lesbian Film Festival movie, tabled at the Seattle AIDS Walk and Rainbow Families pumpkin-patch event, and talked with over a dozen LGBT organizations and groups in the area.
'Please consider volunteering to become a mentor,' said officials, adding, 'You can make a BIG difference in the life of a child by committing a few hours a month to just hang out with a young person.'
If you're interested in becoming a mentor, or if you know a young person who could benefit from the program, contact Jordan Lane at email@example.com, or Pamela Shields at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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