Speaking Youth to Power
The leaders of Vermont's comtroversial queer youth agency only recently came out... of college
At first glance, Kate Jerman and Lluvia Mulvaney-Stanak don't look like movers and shakers. You certainly wouldn't peg the two short-haired, bespectacled women as co-executive directors for Outright Vermont, a statewide agency that provides information and support to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and questioning youth, 22 and under. For one thing, the women are pretty young themselves: Jerman is 24, Mulvaney-Stanak, 23.
Plus, they don't dress the part of "executives." For an interview at the Outright offices on St. Paul Street in Burlington, both wear jeans and T-shirts. Mulvaney-Stanak, a part-time DJ at The Buzz, also sports a small black guitar pick on a chain around her neck, and a black warm-up jacket emblazoned with the word "Rock."
And the women speak fluent teenager. Sitting on a donated gold couch in Xando, Outright's drop-in youth center, Mulvaney-Stanak expounds upon the nuances of her job, from schmoozing donors to leading a youth group on a trip to the Statehouse: "I was like, thank God I have youth with me, because they're younger than I am." She's incredulous when her interviewer looks clueless at a reference to TRL. "Total Request Live?" Mulvaney-Stanak prompts. "MTV? Carson Daly? You should write that down."
In the six months since they took the helm at Outright, the two women have earned a reputation for being passionate, articulate advocates for queer youth. (Note to the p.c.: It's OK to call them "queer youth" -- that's what they call themselves.) Together they're challenging not just homophobia but also the perception that young people can't be effective leaders.
"A youth organization has a responsibility to have youth voices in every aspect," Mulvaney-Stanak insists. "We are really walking our walk. Our mission is not just to support and advocate for youth, it's to be young people that are moving and shaking this community."
Initially, many in the queer community were skeptical that the youthful co-directors could handle the kind of controversy the organization has sparked over 15 years. Outright's practice of sending workshop leaders into schools to teach tolerance of queer kids roused the ire of anti-gay activists during the assault against civil unions in 2000. Dozens of angry letters vilifying the group appeared in newspapers across the state, and staff members received death threats. As a result of public pressure, the Department of Education eliminated the group's state funding.
Outright directors have to deal with more than just a volatile public -- the kids who come looking for support are often in crisis. Results from the 2003 Vermont Department of Health Youth Risk Behavior Survey, available on Outright's website, show that students who report having had same-gender sex are more likely than other kids to get in physical fights, to use drugs such as cocaine and heroin, and to attempt suicide. Were Jerman and Mulvaney-Stanak ready for this challenge?
Sam Abel-Palmer, chairperson of Outright's board of directors, was one of the skeptics. Although the two women had been working as program assistants since August 2002 -- and departing director B.J. Rogers recommended them for the job -- "I had some doubts," Abel-Palmer concedes. He warmed to the idea after hearing the women talk after a board meeting. "The more I heard, the more impressed I was."
Board member Craig Stevens recalls getting some flak about the decision, but he defends Jerman and Mulvaney-Stanak vigorously, calling them "Renaissance people." He adds, "They have a great rapport with youth, and a great ability to work with policy makers as well."
So far this assessment seems to bear out. Jerman reports that attendance is up at Outright's Friday night support group; so is participation in the Wednesday evening drop-in program. The organization currently serves 100 to 130 individuals -- and counting. "We average 23 new youth each quarter," Jerman says.
She also notes an up-tick in Outright's online traffic -- Mulvaney-Stanak took control of the website earlier this year. Previously an outside contractor managed the site, which Jerman says was geared towards potential funders rather than youth. Mulvaney-Stanak updates it much more frequently, and posts safe-sex information along with news about the group and upcoming events such as Drag American Idol. "Compared to the first quarter of this year," attests Jerman, "our email and website contacts went up 50 percent."
They also reach more people through workshops and presentations. Last week alone, Jerman spoke in St. Johnsbury, Killington and Brattleboro. And the group's relationship with the Department of Education, while not fully repaired, is "steadily improving," she says. Board member Stevens credits the new directors. "They have the savvy to build those bridges," he says.
People who have known Jerman and Mulvaney-Stanak shouldn't be surprised at how things have turned out. Both boast resumes packed with activism and organizing experience.
Jerman, admittedly the more reserved of the two -- "I'm the serious one," she quips -- has the more dramatic story. She came out as a lesbian at 14, during her sophomore year at Essex High School. Her parents were fine with it; her peers had a problem. As the school's only out student, she became a target for homophobes. "I had people spit on me," the soft-spoken organizer reveals.
Angered by the attacks, Jerman brought her concerns to her teachers, who didn't believe her. "They told me, 'This stuff doesn't happen here.'" She fought back by organizing homophobia workshops at Essex High, and by participating in dozens of Outright panel discussions, where she described her experiences to students in schools all across the state.
After graduating from Essex, Jerman attended the University of Vermont. There she joined the campus GLBTA (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and ally) group, and moved into "A Room of Our Own," a queer-themed housing suite in the Living/Learning Center.
Professor and GLBTA advisor Jackie Weinstock got to know Jerman well when the activist took her class on sexual identities. "She was one of those really motivated students who wanted to learn to put things into practice," Weinstock recalls. "She was just passionate about doing the work."
For her final project in Wein-stock's class, Jerman and fellow student Mike Bensil started a series of conversations that led to the establishment of the R.U.1.2.? Queer Community Center, now one of the state's largest queer organizations.
After her sophomore year, Jerman transferred to New York University and earned a B.S. in social work. She then served as medical-services director at a queer community center in Queens before returning to Vermont for her job at Outright. "I'd always wanted to work here," she says.
Mulvaney-Stanak envisioned her career differently. "Lluvia thought she was going to be a DJ," quips Jerman. "Thought?" Mulvaney-Stanak interjects. "I am! I still am. Stop that."
In fact, the Barre City native gave up a full-time DJ gig at The Point to work at Outright. She comes from a family of organizers: Her mother runs a nonprofit in Barre, her father is president of the Vermont State Employees Association, and her twin sister runs the Livable Wage Project at Burlington's Peace and Justice Center. Mulvaney-Stanak recalls one family vacation that included a stop at the former home of labor leader Eugene V. Debs.
She launched her activist career after arriving at Castleton State College in 1998. "She hit the ground running her freshman year," says Victoria Angis, assistant dean for campus life. "Within a couple of months, everybody on campus knew Lluvia."
The dean says Mulvaney-Stanak was a "master juggler." She ran the concert committee, served as vice president of Student Activities, worked on the radio station, and served as president of the campus GLBTA group. When she graduated, Castleton honored her service at the school; the GLBTA even named an award after her.
Now Mulvaney-Stanak uses her powers of persuasion to motivate Outright kids to get involved -- from testing for HIV to registering to vote. "I do a lot of carrot-holding," she says. She also leads some workshops, including several at the Community High School of Vermont in Burlington. The school is run by the Vermont Department of Corrections and serves kids in the criminal-justice system. Vocational Coordinator Warren Hardy praises Mulvaney-Stanak's ease at connecting with the kids.
He says his students are a particularly tough audience. Trying to teach them tolerance for queer people can be tricky. "The attitude around here, everything is 'f-ing fag' and, 'If any of these fags touched my ass I would kill him,'" Hardy says. Mulvaney-Stanak got through to them. "The rapport was excellent," he says. "Her delivery sucked the kids in immediately, to where they got up and did role-reversal role plays."
Now Hardy brings in Outright every semester, encouraging kids to see the links between racism, homophobia and the discrimination they face as offenders. "Having Outright come in assures these students that they're not a forgotten or discarded population," he says.
But Mulvaney-Stanak admits she's had a harder time working with young people one-on-one, especially in the Friday groups. "I remember the first month being, like, 'What did I get myself into?'" she says. "Kate would talk me off the ceiling once in a while..."
Jerman seems less daunted by interacting with boisterous or emotional kids. She's comfortable discussing how to help youth make healthy choices without actually telling them what to do. "We don't usually have to initiate that stuff," she says. "...And so many of them don't have anybody to talk to that we hear everything. It all just comes out."
Jerman stresses that Outright can be a fun place, too. One recent Wednesday afternoon, she accompanies two queer youth to North Beach, where they make sand castles. Twenty-year-old Alia Stavrand Woolf and 22-year-old Charles Spring don't have any real problems to discuss. They just want to hang out.
Both say the two directors were the right choice for the organization, and Woolf thinks it's important that they're young. "Especially in a space like this," she says, "where it's important to feel safe. They're less like authority figures, more like mentors."
A hundred feet away, two guys throw a Frisbee. When one misses, the other calls him a fag.