07/05/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Gay Youth Offered Safe Environment In LGBTQ High School

NEW YORK - The New York City-based non-profit organization Hetrick-Martin Institute (HMI) recently celebrated its 30th year of helping the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgendered and questioning youth community. For the occasion, they held a panel discussion on Thursday between founding members and current staff members, as well as various individuals who have benefited from their services over the years.

The discussion took place at Harvey Milk High School, which offers a safe environment for LGBTQ students who feel that they cannot attend mainstream schools due to intolerance and harassment. The school became a four-year, fully accredited public school in 2002.

One of the panelists, Joyce Hunter, D.S.W., an assistant professor of psychiatric social work at Columbia University in New York and founding member of the Hetrick-Martin Institute, came back on the circumstances of the creation of the non-profit. She explained how in 1979, life partners Dr. Emery Hetrick, a psychiatrist and Dr. Damien Martin, a professor at New York University, created the institute after hearing the story of a homeless adolescent who had been gang raped and kicked out of an emergency shelter because of his homosexuality. "We had to do something to make these young people part of the community," Hunter said. "We had to create a place where they could come and be safe."

And they have managed to do just that. Matthew Agostini, a senior at Harvey Milk High School, was one of the panelists and agreed to share his story with the audience. The young man explained how, after coming out at age 13 in a small "churchgoing" town in Florida, he was constantly being "teased" - an understatement to explain how he was being verbally and physically abused by his peers. Agostini ended up moving to New York with his mother to find a more accepting environment and attend Harvey Milk High School. "I made the best friends here." Agostini said. "It's also helped my mother understand me better. She still wishes I wasn't gay, but only because of safety reasons now. She doesn't want to change me anymore." Agostini will be graduating from Harvey Milk High School in July.

Ann Northrop, former member of the education department of the Hetrick-Martin Institute and co-host of Gay USA, explained that a reason for homophobic behaviors is often ignorance. Several years ago when she was doing advocacy and prevention work for the Hetrick-Martin Institute in New York City's high schools, she remembers visiting a specific Catholic high school where some students told her that the meaning of AIDS was "Adios Infected Dick Suckers." She said that the key to ending homophobia was patience and conversation: "People are actually hungry for this conversation," Northrop said. "You just have to give them the opportunity." She said that after a talk on homophobia at a high school, it was not rare for students to come up to her and say, "We don't want to beat up gay people anymore."

Tenaja Jordan, a former student at Harvey Milk School, explained that her Jehovah's Witness parents did not tolerate her homosexuality. "It was just not possible for them," she said. Jordan described how the Hetrick-Martin Institute and Harvey Milk High School had been a saving grace for her. "This had to work," she said. "The consequences of it not working were just too bad." The young woman is now a junior at CUNY York College and is pursing a degree in social work. She wants to become an advocate and mentor to the LGBTQ youth community. When asked how she thinks life would have been without the Hetrick-Martin Institute, Jordan said she did not even want to think about it.

Not all of the students lacked supportive parents. Vidari DeGuzman's parents did not reject him when he came out first as a lesbian - when he was still living as a woman - and later as a transman. Now a staff member at the Hetrick-Martin Institute, the former Harvey Milk High School student explained that the organization have helped him understand his worth, and given him the tools to advocate for himself and the LGBTQ community.

Thomas Krever, the current executive director of the Hetrick-Martin Institute said that approximately 2,500 young LGBTQ come to his organization's doors every year. "There is still a need for places like HMI," he said. When talking about the acceptance of LGBTG individuals by society, Krever explained: "We've made significant improvements, but there's so much more to do." He added that with the current financial crisis, the Hetrick-Martin Institute has had to lay off 25 percent of its staff and has lost over half a million dollars in charity money.

With the exception of housing, the Hetrick-Martin Institute offers every possible service to LGBTQ youth. However, it works in close collaboration with LGBT homeless shelters throughout New York. Out of the approximate 100 students currently enrolled at Harvey Milk High School, Krever explained that over 10 percent live in group-homes, and that 30 to 40 percent live in unstable situations (shelters, friends' apartments...). The Hetrick-Martin Institute makes sure that despite their unstable living situations, these young and often fragile individuals get a good education to hopefully one day make a better life for themselves.