By Rita Wu
A trailblazing facility when it was created, the Hetrick-Martin Institute this year is celebrating its 30th anniversary. The organization is the country’s oldest and largest agency serving the needs of gay and lesbian youth.
Located on Astor Place near Broadway, the institute offers academic-enrichment and job-readiness programs, ranging from college prep classes, an on-site G.E.D program and computer training to career counseling and in-house internships. Also available are a variety of art and culture courses, including dance and theater.
Supportive services include free weekday meals, counseling and help finding housing. Last year, Hetrick-Martin assisted more than 1,000 L.G.B.T.Q. (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning) youth and their families.
As part of Hetrick-Martin Institute’s 30th anniversary, a roundtable panel discussion was held two weeks ago with founding and current staff members to look at the organization’s impact on L.G.B.T.Q. youth and to examine what has and hasn’t changed in the past three decades. In 1979, two educators on gay and lesbian issues who were life partners, Dr. Emery Hetrick, a psychiatrist, and Dr. Damien Martin, a professor at New York University, created the Institute for the Protection of Lesbian and Gay Youth. In 1988 it was renamed Hetrick-Martin Institute in honor of its founders.
In turn, Hetrick-Martin Institute became the host agency for the Harvey Milk High School, a small public school catering to at-risk L.G.B.T.Q. youth. Hetrick-Martin manages the entire facility, but the Department of Education operates the school, and accepts applications for prospective students.
H.M.I. began as an advocacy program.
“It started as an answer to a social vacuum,” said Thomas Krever, H.M.I.’s executive director. “This was the ’70s. No one was thinking about L.G.B.T. young people, at least not formally. Stonewall was still at its infancy, 10 years old at the time. So gay rights as a movement was the voice of adults. There were so many needs for children, as we unfortunately know today, gay or straight.”
That year, there was a story in the news of a boy who had been kicked out of his group home after he was gang raped. The incident was blamed on his homosexuality. Outraged, Hetrick and Martin mobilized community members. They wanted to provide support and social services to underserved L.G.B.T.Q. youth. This was the start of Institute for the Protection of Lesbian and Gay Youth. The first several years, the two men made the rounds at events and lecture circuits, giving speeches and educating professionals.
Word spread and kids started showing up at their door.
“We live in a country in which roughly 30 percent of young people, upon coming out, are evicted from their homes,” Krever noted. “So there was a huge social need. They filled the vacuum. They filled the void. So the first services were mental health, counseling, crisis management — you know, people needing a place to sleep, young people considering suicide.”
Today the Hetrick-Martin Institute is essentially a full-service program, though it does not provide overnight beds. It is equipped with a full-time staff of social workers, mental health professionals and an after-school service. H.M.I. works with youths from all around New York City and the tri-state area.
“L.G.B.T. young people are far less provincial,” Krever said. “They will travel further for the same service. And if you think about why that is, when you’re dealing with issues of sexuality or gender identity and you are not out, it’s not safe to go to Boys and Girls Clubs or your YMCA or your local after-school program for risk of being outed. They like to, they prefer to travel outside of their geographical comfort zone — and will travel further for those services to avoid the coming out when they are not ready, and to remain anonymous.
“But once they come into Hetrick-Martin Institute, there’s no such thing as anonymity, because it’s all about community building, by dissolving the unknown between people so that people can engage and really find common points, and not to create homogeneity, a homogeneous population. We’re celebrating our uniqueness, you know, the tossed salad versus a melting pot, where each item retains its individuality but blends together to all make an amazing product.”
Eighty percent of the youth that attend H.M.I. self-report verbal, mental and physical harassment at school. As a result, many never finish high school. L.G.B.T.Q. youth are three times as likely to drop out as heterosexuals. Many come to H.M.I. to “rebuild and repair the damage that has been inflicted upon them,” Krever noted. But there are many that come in “doing really well, looking for a place to grow, survive.”
Krever credits the low level of incidents at H.M.I. to “a lot of premeditated hours, a lot of work focusing on client impact, policies and procedures, environmental design, professional development of our staff — how to go far beyond just conflict negotiations and really rebuild young people.”
Beatriz Henriquez has been coming to H.M.I. on and off since 2003. She remembers her first day as being “really lively, everybody was happy and smiling and nobody was ashamed of who they were.” She had transferred to six different high schools because of discrimination and needed a place where she felt comfortable.
“It’s definitely empowering,” she said. “It reminds me every day that I don’t have to hide who I am. This place affected me in a lot of ways, basically taught me that whatever happens in your life, to keep pushing forward.”
Henriquez won this year’s Damien Martin Award, which is presented by other youth members to someone they see fit as a standout in the youth community. Come September, Henriquez will be attending LaGuardia Community College in Queens.
The institute has a cutoff policy that limits members to 12 to 21 years old. Henriquez, 20, already has plans to come back and work as a counselor.
“I’m going to go to school, full time for two years, get my associate’s and come and apply here to work,” she stated.
H.M.I.’s after-school program runs Monday to Friday, from 3 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Dinner is at 6 p.m., with programs every night. The program is open to anyone between 12 and 21, whether or not they are enrolled in school. A photo ID with age is required. Membership intakes are held Monday to Friday, from 3 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. To schedule an appointment, call 212-674-2600 ext. 271. For more information, visit www.hmi.org.