Christopher Cary didn't have any gay adults he could look up to when he came out at 16.
Now 49, he's becoming the mentor he wished he had as a teen, joining a new mentoring program for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) youth in the Twin Cities.
"It's representation and that's important for kids," said Cary, a high school counselor who lives in St. Louis Park. "If you're struggling, there is a community for you. There are people who will love you unconditionally."
Nicki Hangsleben launched Queerspace Collective this year to fill a critical void in Minnesota and nationally for LGBTQ-specific programs and resources.
The new nonprofit started this summer with a mentoring program, "Queerspace hangouts," matching LGBTQ 12- to 17-year-olds with LGBTQ adults. The program combats isolation — which is even more pronounced during the COVID-19 pandemic — and boosts support for LGBTQ youth, who are disproportionately affected by harassment and homelessness and are more at risk of suicide.
"The pandemic has created additional stressors and ... isolation for a community of young folks who have already felt pretty isolated and have been dealing with a lot of anxiety and depression," said Hangsleben, 42, of Minneapolis, who's worked in the nonprofit sector for nearly two decades.
"That has just really heightened the need for LGBTQ youth to have additional support systems."
While other mentorship programs also serve LGBTQ youth, Hangsleben said research shows that fewer than 1% of mentorship programs in the U.S. have formal LGBTQ youth programs.
Cary was part of a well-known mentoring program but he was matched with a straight mentee. Joining Queerspace Collective's program, he said, "felt more genuine for me; I can be myself."
So can his mentee, Mike Findley, 14, of Fridley, who had never met a gay adult until signing up for the program, he said.
"It's nice to be around an adult who actually understands what I'm going through," Findley said.
"It's nice to feel connected."
The duo is one of seven matches in the program so far; more than half of the mentees involved are transgender youth. Each week, the mentors and mentees meet up for activities such as walking in a park, attending a Lynx game or checking out a record store.
In the next couple years, Hangsleben hopes to grow the program outside the Twin Cities to more than 200 mentors and mentees across Minnesota, and expand nationally while adding other potential resources such as a youth drop-in center.
Hangsleben is so far the only employee of Queerspace Collective, but she's already raised $80,000 and is applying for grants in hopes of hiring a program coordinator.
The nonprofit is hosting a fundraiser Nov. 11 and is also looking for more mentors, especially transgender and nonbinary adults, as well as people of color.
To volunteer, donate or get more details, go to queerspacecollective.org.
Hangsleben got the idea for creating the nonprofit while completing her MBA degree. She heard from the Link and other local nonprofits that work with LGBTQ youth and young adults that a mentorship program was needed.
LGBTQ teens and adults make up a disproportionate number of homeless Minnesotans. According to a Wilder Research report, LGBTQ people make up 11% of the homeless population and nearly a quarter of all homeless youth in the state — even though about 4% of all Minnesotans identify as LGBT.
Nationally, lesbian, gay and bisexual youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared with heterosexual youth, according to the CDC.
(If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text MN to 741741.)
"Because it feels like our community is so much more open now or people are so much more accepting of the queer community than they were 20 years ago, I was just honestly surprised to see that the statistics for LGBTQ youth were still so high around suicide and homelessness," Hangsleben said.
"We know that mentoring works, and that if youth are paired with adults, they are much more successful in life," she said.
While family members and the broader community are more accepting of LGBTQ youth than decades ago, Queerspace Collective board chairwoman Beth Mejia said more advocacy and support is needed, citing anti-trans bills proposed elsewhere.
"We're still dealing with challenges," said Mejia, who works as an MRI technologist and is also on the board of Gay for Good, an LGBTQ volunteer network.
"We want to make things happen for our kids, just help them live their authentic life."
For Kate Whaley, 39, of Minneapolis, signing up to be a mentor was a chance to give back and start an intergenerational friendship with her mentee, Vienna Johnson, 12, of Minneapolis, who enjoys the weekly social outings.
"It's nice to have a place," Johnson said, "where someone understands you."
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141