The day after the 2016 presidential election, the call volume at The Trevor Project’s TrevorLifeline doubled. “It was heartbreaking to hear from so many young people,” Amit Paley, The Trevor Project’s CEO and executive director, recalled. Looking back on the days and weeks after Trump took office, 94% of LGBTQ youth reflected that politics had negatively impacted their mental health.
The Trevor Project was founded more than two decades ago to address the finding that LGBTQ youth are almost five times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. That statistic is paired with the overall fact that suicide is the second leading cause of death in the United States for young people.
Paley stepped into his role at The Trevor Project in 2017 after successful careers in journalism and business. Paley, who grew up in Waban, attended Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston and The Roxbury Latin School. He came out as gay when he was an undergraduate at Harvard University. After he graduated in 2004, Paley joined The Washington Post, where he reported on the Iraq war and the 2008 financial crisis. He left the Post when he was awarded fellowships at Columbia Journalism School and Columbia Business School. In 2011, he volunteered for The Trevor Project, which he said “very quickly became the most rewarding thing in my life. It was my passion project on weekends and nights.”
Paley is the first CEO to have begun his association with The Trevor Project as a volunteer. He manned the 24-hour TrevorLifeline while he had a busy day job as a health care consultant for McKinsey & Company. Part of his responsibilities at McKinsey included coordinating the firm’s pro bono services to help nonprofit organizations scale and grow. Even today, as CEO, Paley still takes his shifts on the TrevorLifeline.
According to The Trevor Project’s “National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health 2021,” the pandemic has exacerbated mental health challenges for LGBTQ youth. Seventy percent reported that their mental health was “poor” most of the time or consistently. Sixty percent of transgender and nonbinary youth reported that the pandemic negatively impacted their ability to express their gender identity. More than 80% of LGBTQ youth said that COVID-19 made their living situation more stressful, a statistic that goes hand-in-hand with the finding that only one in three of these young people found their homes to be LGBTQ-affirming.
Paley said that while The Trevor Project is the world’s largest organization dedicated to suicide prevention of LGBTQ youth, he worries that the 1.8 million young people who need the organization’s services are not all being reached. “Our mission is to end suicide among LGBTQ people who are still struggling,” he said. He further observed that transgender and nonbinary youth attempt suicide less when their pronouns are respected and they are allowed to change their legal documents officially.
In the past few years, The Trevor Project has also turned its attention to creating a grassroots campaign to end conversion therapy, which it defines as “several dangerous and discredited practices aimed at changing an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity.” Bolstering that effort is the organization’s research team, consisting of academics and mental health professionals who have published their studies in peer-reviewed academic journals.
“We’ve looked at LGBTQ youth, including trans youth of color and bisexual youth, to track the impact of conversion therapy,” said Paley. “In addition to publishing in well-regarded journals on the subject, we’ve made a concerted effort to get that information and data to mass audiences. Publishing research in the academy together with our ongoing campaign creates systemic change.”
Conversion therapy, banned in Massachusetts in 2019, remains legal in 30 states. The Trevor Project has also acted to defeat anti-trans bills targeting young people in tandem with its advocacy work on ending conversion therapy. “These bills prevent trans youth from accessing medical care, using the restroom where they are most comfortable and participating in school sports,” Paley said. “We are also leaders in the campaign to pass the Equality Act, which would end discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the vast array of public life.”
The Trevor Project has exponentially grown from its early days as a 24-hour lifeline into what the organization’s website describes as “a preeminent resource for LGBTQ youth in crisis—one that remains the primary resource for over half of the youth who reach out to us.” And the original lifeline, still in operation, continues to embody the organization’s core commitment. To that end, The Trevor Project has recently branched out to offer TrevorSpace, an affirming international community for LGBTQ young people ages 13-24.
The Trevor Project’s mandate to save lives resonates during Pride Month and beyond. “Pride is different for everyone,” said Paley. “For some people, it’s an opportunity to celebrate who they are. For some people, it’s not safe to be out. Pride is about activism and standing up to powers and forces that are restricting the rights of LGBTQ people. In the end, there is no right way to celebrate Pride.”
There is, however, a crucial way to support LGBTQ youth. Studies have shown that having one accepting and caring adult in the life of an LGBTQ youth can reduce the risk of suicide by 40%. “Changes are complicated,” said Paley. “They take a long time, but everyone has the ability in their personal interactions to display love, acceptance and support. It makes such a difference to be affirming and loving toward others.”