Ray Johnson marches in the Oak Park Fourth of July parade in 2013.

For over a year, Ray Johnson spent a part of his weekend as a volunteer crisis counselor for the Trevor Project, a nonprofit focused on crisis intervention and suicide prevention for LGBTQ+ youth. For three hours every Sunday evening, Johnson would sit around his home, prop his laptop open and answer calls from the crisis hotline.

Using a digital messaging service, Johnson would mostly text or chat with teens or young adults in need of someone to talk to. Messaging services often gave Johnson the chance to provide others a judge-free zone. His job was just to listen, offering resources as the opportunities arose. 

“They don’t see you, and they don’t hear your voice,” said Johnson, who among many things is a former Oak Park village trustee and once co-chaired the Oak Park Area Lesbian and Gay Association Plus (OPALGA+). “So, there’s no tone or inflection. It’s just what you’re typing.”

“If you’re speaking to a young person who’s in a situation and your goal is to create a safer situation for them – a de-escalation if you will of what they’re feeling and sharing – there’s no time limit on that,” said Johnson, whose eyes began to swell with tears.

Prior to the global health crisis, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer youth in the U.S. faced higher risks of depression, anxiety, substance use and suicidality, and those risks may have been exacerbated by the pandemic, according to the Trevor Project. 

Last July, the Trevor Project polled 600 LGBTQ+ youth between 13 and 24 years old and found that over 50% of them reported symptoms of anxiety or depression during the pandemic. Youth who identified as transgender or nonbinary experienced higher rates of anxiety and depression.

The survey also found that one-third of LGBTQ+ youth “were unable to be themselves at home,” and about the same number of transgender and nonbinary youth said they felt unsafe in their living situations since the pandemic began. 

As Johnson recalled some of the conversations he has had with individuals through the hotline, he became emotional and was reminded of those moments in his life when he felt alone and hopeless.

When Johnson was 19, he was diagnosed with mononucleosis, mono for short. While it wasn’t uncommon for young adults to get mono, the infectious illness “created a spiral effect,” he said.

“I couldn’t work my three jobs, so I had no income,” he said. “I was already living on the edge. I applied for food stamps. I had to pay rent. I was totally, totally stressed out. And, you know, you can’t go to school when you have mono, so grades are impacted. This whole cascade of chaos came down on me, and I got in a really dark place, and I remember that.”

That’s why Johnson became a volunteer. He wanted to help someone else find that “glimmer of hope.” Through Johnson’s training as a crisis counselor, there is one lesson that has stayed with him, and it goes back to listening. “Listen to hear, not respond,” he said.

Deborah Levine, director of LGBT YouthLink, a branch of CenterLink: The Community of LGBT Centers, echoed Johnson and reiterated that what teens and young adults need is a safe place. For some LGBTQ+ youth, schools and local centers became places of refuge, while others found home to be more welcoming. The pandemic’s shutdown and stay-at-home mandate last spring caused a shift, quickly eliminating those spaces, said Levine, an Oak Park resident.

Like most organizations, LGBTQ+ youth centers began hosting virtual events, but that became a challenge for those who couldn’t find any privacy inside their homes. That’s where messaging services like Q Chat Space come in.

Q Chat Space – which launched in 2018 – allows teens between 13 and 19 years old to connect with each other. The conversations include discussion topics and are moderated by key staff to help ensure participants’ wellbeing. Teens have the chance to engage in hour-and-a-half conversations, which cover anything from learning how to cope with mental health or queer representation in the media. In the last three years, Q Chat Space has also expanded to host chats exclusively for LGBTQ+ youth of color, Spanish-speakers and transgender and nonbinary youth.

“The reality is, despite the really significant disparities that LGBTQ youth experience, most of them still end up being healthy, productive, successful adults and they need help to get there.”

Deborah Levine, director of LGBT YouthLink

Q Chat Space gives teens the chance to just be together – a virtual hangout where they can be, said Levine.

Levine and Rachel Megibow, a school psychologist at Oak Park and River Forest High School, spoke more about the power behind creating an online community for LGBTQ+ youth.

Megibow, co-sponsor of the school’s A Place for All (APA), said Zoom became a platform for LGBTQ+ teens to continue offering support to each other and expressing themselves. Zoom gave students the chance to display their pronouns and preferred names, Megibow said. 

The student organization also began collaborating more with other school groups to hold online events. A Place for All partnered with two other clubs and invited author Zaylore Stout for a Q&A about his 2019 book, “Our Gay History in Fifty States.” Members of APA were also able to bring in Denali Foxx, a recent competitor on RuPaul’s Drag Race, to speak during a virtual session.

While Megibow celebrated those pockets of opportunities, one thing that has been on her mind is trying to make APA more inclusive toward Black and Brown LGBTQ+ students.

According to the Trevor Project’s July 2020 survey, one in three Black LGBTQ+ youth – about 32% – said their living situation was “much more stressful” than before. Nearly 80% of Black LGBTQ+ youth also reported that recent news stories, images and videos about violence against Black people in the US negatively impacted them “and with more intensity.”

Carlos Benitez, a recent graduate of Dominican University in River Forest, said he noticed that many of his classmates, who are part of the LGBTQ+ community, stayed on campus and lived in their dorms. Like Levine, Benitez said some of his peers did not have a home they could go to. 

“We know that queer folks and especially Brown and Black queer folks are at a higher risk of becoming homeless,” Benitez said, adding that people of color in the LGBTQ+ community remain disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and often face another set of barriers on top of their gender and sexual identities.

Drawing from his own experiences, Benitez was critical about some LGBTQ+ resources that he has approached for help. Some groups – who appear to have a wealth of resources – ultimately become limiting, if they are unable to offer bilingual services or do not clarify whether people who are undocumented or do not have health care can gain access to services.

But Benitez encouraged people, young and old, to not be discouraged, ask for help over and over again until those needs are met, and never give up.

“Take a deep breath,” he said. “You’re not alone. There are so many people out there waiting for you, and you just got to knock on their door. You really have to knock on their door.

“It’s going to be a long ride, and it’s going to be very difficult. But you can find a place. You can find space. You can find community. All those things are very possible.”

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