Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Twin Cities program connecting LGBTQ youth to mentors to expand to St. Cloud

People watch and clap at a hockey game
QUEERSPACE collective mentor Eliza Gazett and her mentee Lily Mouw cheer during the first period of the Minnesota Wild’s second annual Pride Night game against the Calgary Flames March 7 at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

A Center for Disease Control and Prevention Report from last month that showed a spike in despair and hopelessness among teens — especially girls and LGBTQ youth. More than 10 percent of LGBTQ teens missed school in 2021 because they were afraid for their safety, and nearly one in four experienced bullying.

A Twin Cities non-profit, QUEERSPACE collective, is working to connect LGBTQ people with adults who understand what they are going through. Now it’s set to expand to St. Cloud.

MPR News digital reporter Grace Birnstengel wrote a story about the program and she joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer to talk about it.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a spike in despair and hopelessness among teens, especially girls and LGBTQ youth and nearly one in four experienced bullying. A Twin Cities nonprofit is working to connect LGBTQ young people with adults who understand what they're going through and now it's set to expand to Saint-Cloud. MPR News reporter Grace Birnstengel wrote a story about the program and she's here to talk about it. Hey, grace? How are you doing?

GRACE BIRNSTENGEL: I'm doing well, Cathy, thanks for having me.

CATHY WURZER: Hey, what did you learn in your reporting about what LGBTQ youth are going through right now?

GRACE BIRNSTENGEL: Yeah. So an organization called the Trevor Project, which is a national crisis support group, they put out an annual survey on LGBTQ youth mental health every year. And the most recent one showed that 45% of queer and trans youth had seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year. And the survey also found that those same youth who have accepting community, affirming spaces, or any amount of social support from family or friends reported significantly lower rates of suicide attempts in the last year.

So of course those struggles are not inherent to being LGBTQ. Experts and advocates say that this is the effect of widespread mistreatment and stigma and of course a national rise in anti-LGBTQ rhetoric.

CATHY WURZER: Curious. 45% had seriously considered attempting suicide. How does that square with the numbers, say of straight youth, do we know?

GRACE BIRNSTENGEL: I don't know that off the top of my head, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: How did you get interested in this story? What were you curious about that led you to dive in?

GRACE BIRNSTENGEL: Well, I know from my own experience how it can be very rare to have an LGBTQ adult in your life as a kid and how meaningful that can be. I heard about this program Queer Space from just my networks. And then the program came up again in a story circle which is something that MPR News does to invite people to talk with some of our journalists about their experiences and what they want to see from our coverage.

And so I was just really curious to see based on things that are happening at the National level and here at the local level how this group in the Twin Cities is working to support youth who are understandably under a lot of stress right now.

CATHY WURZER: So we're talking about the QUEERSPACE collective, right? And this is like a mentorship program for LGBTQ youth in the Twin Cities. So a little bit of history might be good here.

GRACE BIRNSTENGEL: Yeah. So QUEERSPACE's founder and executive director Nikki Hangsleben told me that she got the idea when she was getting her MBA at Saint Thomas. And here's a little bit about how the idea came to her in her own words.

CREW: I was seeing a lot of statistics around mental health challenges that the LGBTQ youth in our community are facing and so I started looking around to see what type of mentorship programs explicitly existed for our community and found that of 5,000 mentorship programs across the country, there were maybe five that focused on LGBTQ youth.

CATHY WURZER: OK. So how does it work?

GRACE BIRNSTENGEL: Yeah. So to answer your previous question, the program launched two years ago, next month. And the program works by QUEERSPACE matches LGBTQ youth with an adult for connection and support. Youth can participate, ages 12 to 17, mentors have to be over 25 and the commitment is that the mentor will meet up with the mentee two to three times a month.

And it can look like anything from just going on a walk and talking or visiting art museums or the zoo, playing board games, just really whatever the mentee is into doing. And so far in the two years that it has existed, QUEERSPACE has brought together 34 different pairs.

CATHY WURZER: OK. So it sounds like a safe space to be with somebody who understands what it's like. So what effect have the mentorships had on the folks you talked to, the mentors and the mentees?

GRACE BIRNSTENGEL: I got the opportunity to meet Eliza Gazette who is a mentor and Lily Mao who is her mentee. And they've been connected for a year now. Mao is a freshman at Mounds View High School and she told me that when she came out as trans she felt very unsupported at her middle school and she was really depressed. She heard about QUEERSPACE, she applied, she eventually got paired with Eliza and things really have turned around for her now as an adult.

And she has an adult in her life who understands what she's going through and is available to talk and encourage her through it. She told me that she feels more safe around Eliza, her mentor than most people, which makes sense because they have this deep understanding of something that they both know about very intimately and it can be hard to talk about with people who don't understand that since there's so much stigma around being trans.

And then for Eliza, the mentor, she's 31 and she's also relatively early in her transition. And she told me that as a mentor she was really looking for opportunities to help other trans people, specifically trans kids, because there's in her words so much working against them right now. And Eliza also told me she sees a lot of her younger self in Lily and that she was also really motivated to participate because something like this wasn't around for her when she was young.

And she said, Eliza told me that she had any amount of that visibility and support. She said she might have been a lot more comfortable coming out at a younger age.

CATHY WURZER: Do they have a waiting list?

GRACE BIRNSTENGEL: They do. They have a long wait list of mentees looking to get paired with mentors. They're specifically looking for more mentors of color and more trans mentors of color, something like 80% of the mentee applicants are trans and it's common for the mentees to want to be matched with someone who shares different identities of theirs. Not a requirement but can be ideal.

And then they're also looking for mentors with some different interests that many applicants have expressed having, like a lot of the mentors I guess are very interested in the outdoors and they're getting a lot of mentee applications for people-- for kids who really want to talk about video games and punk rock and thrifting. And so they're looking for mentors who are into those things.

CATHY WURZER: OK. So you mentioned or I mentioned in the intro that this program is going to be expanding into St. Cloud did they indicate as to why?

GRACE BIRNSTENGEL: Yeah. Well, they got a grant to support that. After hearing that St. Cloud would be a really good place to start if looking to expand into greater Minnesota. I guess there's just been a lot of expressed interest in that area and that program is kicking off at the end of this month. They're taking applications right now for both mentors and mentees.

CATHY WURZER: OK. So as you know, there's a bill in the legislature that would protect the ability of trans youth from-- coming from other states. They would travel to Minnesota for gender affirming care, we've talked about that in the past. Would the bill affect what this organization is trying to do at all?

GRACE BIRNSTENGEL: Well, I imagine it would bolster interest even more as we expect families to relocate to Minnesota to seek more supportive community and environment for queer and trans kids. And the founder of QUEERSPACE told me that she really wants their program to be a resources for those families and they're also looking to rent a building to open an LGBTQ youth-- a center, a physical space in uptown to also help serve those families.

Yeah, they're currently looking at a space in uptown Minneapolis. Having it purchased it but fingers crossed that it will work out.

CATHY WURZER: OK. And then I'm curious about what she told you, the executive director of QUEERSPACE about what they've learned so far in the two years they've been in existence.

GRACE BIRNSTENGEL: I think the main thing is just how much of a need this is. They're brainstorming different ways that they can serve more youth by offering group where they're going to put on a series of like six-- series of meet ups over the course of six weeks where they'll be like two to three mentors and 12 mentees so that they can, like I said, serve more youth when they don't have enough mentors yet. But yeah, I think really the main thing is just how popular this is and how meaningful it is for youth.

CATHY WURZER: All right. Grace, thank you so much.

GRACE BIRNSTENGEL: Thank you, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: We've been talking to MPR News reporter Grace Birnstengel. By the way you can find her story by going to mprnews.org.

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