A few years ago, teenager Levi Narine sent his mom, Timika, a marketing executive, a photo of a bus-shelter poster of himself sitting on a stoop surrounded by a loving family. “Acceptance starts at home,” read the poster. “Love and accept your LGBTQ child.”
What was odd, Timika noted, was that the people surrounding Levi in the photo weren’t his actual family. They were models, hired by the longtime Brooklyn social-services agency CAMBA for their Project ALY campaign to help New York City families, especially those from homophobic or transphobic cultures in the Caribbean or Latin America, understand, embrace, and support their queer or trans kids.
“I was extremely nervous about doing the poster,” says Levi, 22, a self-described queer and nonbinary fashion student at Parsons School of Art and Design who grew up in Brooklyn’s Park Slope with his Trinidadian family. “I wasn’t out to my family, and we’re not very vocal about that stuff. Growing up in the Slope,” which has a longtime LGBTQ community, “we’d see diverse families, and my family’s comments were insensitive or ignorant.”
He says that his friends encouraged him to do the poster. “They said, ‘Maybe this is your way of coming out to your family without having to sit down with them.’”
But Timika didn’t get the message. “Levi did some modeling, and I thought it was just another gig,” she says. On a deeper level, though, she felt uneasily that maybe her teenage son, who’d always loved fashion and dressed flamboyantly, was trying to tell her something. “I suspected he might be different, but to be honest, I was in denial, and I felt like if we just didn’t talk about it, then maybe it wasn’t true.”
She said nothing about the poster to Levi. “I was confused,” he recalls. “Our relationship was strained for a year, where we didn’t really talk, and I felt weird sharing things with her.”
Timika, too, acknowledges the strain. “I chalked it up to young people being disrespectful to their parents,” she says. “I didn’t chalk it up to his needing his mom to validate him.”
Breaking Down Bias
The poster was one of several put out by Project ALY since it began in 2013, according to CAMBA’s Roslyn Campbell, ALY’s project manager. She joined the program—which includes educational workshops for parents, teachers, family shelter managers, and other adult figures in the lives of LGBTQ kids—after years of working in social services and seeing how often queer and trans kids were rejected by their families, and the devastating effect such rejection had on young people. (Ample research has now shown that young people who are rejected by their families over their sexuality or gender identity are at much higher risk for depression, anxiety, self-harm, including drug use and HIV risk behaviors, and suicide.)
“I definitely saw up close what these kids were going through, including some who were in group homes because they were not accepted by their families,” says Campbell. (She even worked with current Pose star Indya Moore, who has talked openly about growing up in group and foster homes.) “I started wondering what was out there to help parents understand their kids,” she says, adding that she saw a pattern of kids’ disruptive or violent behavior being linked to sexual or gender identities they felt they could not express and live out freely.
Project ALY, she soon learned upon starting work at CAMBA, was just the program she was looking for. ALY, which focuses on Brooklyn but will do workshops in all five New York City boroughs—it does not do individual parent-child counseling but can refer to agencies that do—was created specifically to speak to African-American, Afro-Caribbean, and Latinx families and communities, says Campbell.
“We speak one-on-one to people at health fairs and tabling events, sharing stats about how LGBTQ young people are eight times more likely to commit suicide if not accepted by their families,” says Campbell. “Our overall point is that a little acceptance can go a long way.”
Campbell said that there is some truth to the widespread perception that Caribbean communities can be virulently homophobic and transphobic. “Especially people coming from places like Jamaica, there is more religious rigidity and indoctrination. Before I even talk, they will say, ‘I don’t believe none of this, and this is against God,’ and then I might say, ‘Well, from what I understand, God said that the first rule is to love, to judge not lest ye be judged.’ Then I might get an ‘Amen’ choir, or they might double down, walk out, or not be open to receiving information. Either way, I encourage open discussion.”
The turning point often comes, she says, when she shares statistics showing how much likelier LGBTQ kids are to put themselves at risk or even kill themselves if they are rejected by families. “By that point, about 85% of people will start sharing stories about LGBTQ people who they know and love. They’ll say, ‘Thank you, you’ve given me a new way of thinking about this.’”
Even the 15% who don’t come around “seem to take a small step forward. They’ll say, ‘I don’t understand it, but I’mma have to think about this or pray on it.’”
Recently, ALY has been screening a short film it made, “My Daughter, Tyler,” about a mother’s journey to accepting her transgender child, who is played by a young person from the group home where Campbell previously worked. ALY hopes to make another such film with the last of its funding from the New York City health department.
Stories From the Heart
ALY’s workshops often include appearances from parents of LGBTQ youth who tell their own stories. One of them is part-time CAMBA staffer Paola Pando, from Ecuador, who struggled with her teenage son’s sexuality.
“I didn’t have religious or moral issues, but I had fear about what would come with all that society rejection,” she says. “I think he’s gay, but he hasn’t put a label on it yet. He was putting feminine images of himself on Facebook. ‘Why are you doing this?’ I asked him. I come from a conservative family, and I was scared they’d see him like that. His father lives in Ecuador and saw the photos and called me to say, ‘What’s happening here? Homosexuals go to hell and he has to get normal.’”
Once connected to ALY, says Pando, she started educating herself about what it meant to be LGBTQ. “There’s no one else to care for my son, so I had to be strong and do it for him,” she says. Her son is happier now that she accepts him for whoever he is or might become, she adds. “He’s been more open to me, we talk more like we’re friends, and now that he has that weight of the lie off him, he’s more motivated to take care of himself.”
When she does the ALY workshops in front of Spanish-speaking parents, “they’ll tell me that my story is inspiring and then share their own stories of acceptance of their kids. Sometimes if I ask if their kids are LGBTQ, they’ll say, ‘Thank God, no,’ which I can relate to, because mothers especially are thinking about the rejection their kids will face. The men generally are more anti-gay.”
For that reason, says CAMBA’s program manager Elise Koffler (who translated the call with Pando), ALY tries to talk to as many parents of elementary-school kids as possible, “so if their child presents as LGBTQ, they’ll be prepared,” she says.
Also part of the workshops, says Campbell, is a “First Crush” exercise, in which adult participants are asked to imagine what it would be like for a child to not be able to share feelings of their first crush with anyone because that crush was same-sex.
“I ask them, ‘Who do you think they’d talk to? What songs are on the radio for them? What are they called? Faggots. What happens to them when they’re 14? Then I’ll reiterate the stats” about how rejecting LGBTQ kids can be harmful to them in various ways.”
A Stronger Bond
As for Levi and Timika, Levi was determined to continue forcing a conversation with her about his sexuality via large-scale media opportunities. After interning in high school at the Brooklyn Museum, where he worked on an LGBTQ exhibit pegged to the 50th anniversary of the 1969 uprising at the Stonewall gay bar, he felt more confident in his identity and took up an offer from Verizon to be in a pro-LGBTQ ad made by the telecom giant. He asked Timika if the Verizon producers might interview him before the camera in one room of their house, her in the other, then have them come together.
According to Timika, who accepted the proposition despite her wariness, the Verizon producers asked her on camera, “Why didn’t you ever talk to your son about his sexuality?” “And,” says Timika, “I said, ‘Wait! I was never against his sexuality—I just never talked about it or acknowledged it. My mother never had those conversations with me. I didn’t know he was going through something.’”
When mother and son came together before the camera, says Timika, “I let him know I was very proud of him and how much courage it takes to be different and accept your own reality and not care what others think about it. And I apologized for never acknowledging” his identity.
Levi backs up that account. “She said that I could inspire others by coming out,” he recounts. “We were crying. It was very touching. I really have to thank CAMBA for helping start to rebuild my relationship with my mother. It really helped me. After the shoot, she started doing her own research [into LGBTQ issues], and now she’s not afraid to ask me questions, like, ‘Why do people call themselves queer? Isn’t that derogatory?’ Some of her questions make me laugh.”
Timika, too, says that she and Levi are in a better place now. “He’s not snapping at me every five minutes, taking what I say out of context. I’m getting used to him showing off his fabulous fashions.”
Her advice to other parents or parental figures struggling with their kids’ sexuality or gender identity? “Take your own feelings and your old learning out of the equation and see that your child is trying to tell you something. Notice the signs, and just listen and be aware of the situation.”
And if parents persist in feeling that such identities are against God? “I’d tell them that Christians once thought that slavery was OK with God, so come on. There was a time when black and white couldn’t marry in a church, either. You can waste your time thinking that your kid is wrong under your religious beliefs and regret it later when they’re no longer around. Or you can spend your time loving and accepting your child for who they are.”
To learn more about CAMBA or Project ALY, visit their website.