Learning while dancing is definitely one way to get through to youth, and the Hetrick-Martin Institute has utilized that technique to the fullest.
Voguing balls, a dance-filled educational process, is one of the many ways that HMI, the oldest and largest organization dedicated to helping gay, lesbian, transgender and questioning youth to reach their fullest potential, works with youth.
The Institute began in 1979 when Dr. Emery Hetrick, a psychiatrist, and Dr. Damien Martin, a professor at New York University, who were life partners, gathered a group of concerned adults together after learning about a homeless 15-year-old boy who had been beaten and thrown out of his emergency shelter because he was gay.
The adults formed the Institute for the Protection of Lesbian and Gay Youth to assist this group of young people; in 1988, the organization was renamed the Hetrick-Martin Institute. To date, more than 2,000 youth per year participate in the HMI's programs, and the Institute is home to the Harvey Milk High School. "HMI is the nation's oldest and largest LGBTQ youth organization," CEO Thomas Krever said in an interview with Playbill.com. "The Q stands for questioning, and it's the realization that sexual orientation and gender identity is challenging enough for adults to figure out who they are. How do we expect 14 or 15 year olds to do that? We offer a safe space where young people cannot just come and be, but grow and thrive and become real, contributing citizens."
The institute is currently collaborating in a charitable partnership with the Broadway production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. John Cameron Mitchell's groundbreaking musical about an East German transgender singer fronting a fictional rock-n-roll band, starring Tony nominee Neil Patrick Harris, is donating a portion of the price from each ticket to HMI. The partnership also utilizes the resources of the production, including representatives from the show meeting with young people in an educational and mentoring capacity, and additional fundraising support.
"We've had a long history with Hedwig and have been beneficiary to its incredible charitable giving and work," Krever said. "For a nonprofit, where you're struggling to get the word out about the mission you're trying to fulfill and the young people that you're trying to serve, this was a godsend. To be included more than a decade later in this new epic performance has just been, once again, another godsend for us to really get the message out there."
Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Hetrick-Martin Institute began their relationship in 2003 with the tribute album "Wig In A Box: Songs From and Inspired by Hedwig and the Angry Inch," which benefited Hetrick-Martin. It was followed by 2006's "Follow My Voice," a documentary film on the HMI School and the making of the "Wig in a Box" album.
"Hedwig — the whole nature, the message behind it, what it stands for, the character — living an unabashed, proud life, unapologetic — what a phenomenal way to really convey to the world who we serve, particularly our transgender young people," Krever said, recounting attending opening night of the current production. "I was just weeping to see the receptivity and the way the audience embraced Hedwig. And Neil — Oh my God. I just lost it. I was so overcome. It really sends a powerful message into the world. And the time is now and the young people — education, help, employment — these are things that are not a privilege. They're the rights. And to have something so prominent and someone so prominent... it's just been an incredible statement around our work."
The work that Hetrick-Martin Institute does involves facilitating numerous programs for those between the ages of 13 and 24, in New York City and in Newark, NJ, as well as utilizing its homeless youth outreach program, inviting young people to come to the Institute. "Every day we are out there on the street," Krever said. "Even today, I have a team of staff combing the streets, looking for homeless youth. Our goal is to try to bring them back here, where we have hot showers, Cafe HMI, which is the largest hot meal program in the U.S., as well as clothing. That's all here under our roof."
Also under the Institute's roof are services that include mental health and counseling as well as opportunities to speak with trained adult social workers. HMI also offers the largest after-school program in the United States for LGBTQ youth, focusing on job readiness, public speaking skills and career engagement. The institute also offers programs that feature volunteers and corporate partners working with the young people.
"The reality is we still live in a country where [in] more than half of the states, you could be fired on the spot for disclosing who you are," Krever said. "We don't have that right on a federal level to be out and proud. So we always have to be really mindful for young people to not teach them to live in fear, but to teach them to make wise decisions about who they are and to understand the realities of the world, particularly in employment."
Along with job readiness, HMI focuses on health and wellness and is one of the largest testers for HIV, STDs and STIs, as well as pregnancy, in the United States. Krever spoke of the need for this service, saying many teenagers who miss school due to bullying and harassment are also missing out on conversations about sexual education — while they are going through adolescent development and are experimenting sexually. HMI also focuses on academic enrichment. "We feel very strongly that homelessness should not be a prerequisite for education," Krever said. "Aside from that, we run the gamut all the way through tutoring and homework help, and college readiness," adding that they will give out more than $30,000 worth of scholarships in 2014 for people going onto college or vocational school. Music, drama, arts, the spoken word and photography are also focused on in HMI's programs, giving youth the opportunity to have difficult conversations through art.
"Arts and culture is such a powerful medium to have difficult conversations in a very nonconfrontational way," Krever continued. "When a young person might not have the words to express what they're going through, they may be able to do this with a camera or paintbrush or some other artistic medium."
HMI is also the founder and home of Harvey Milk High School, a transfer public high school in partnership with new York City's Department of Education. The school operates fully out of the space but is run by New York City; HMI provides technical support as well as the mental health and after-school services for the youth.
One aspect of the programs that Krever spoke of is the ballroom scene, which utilized voguing balls to provide safe-sex messaging to youth.
"It's an extremely effective way of sending out HIV prevention and intervention messaging, through voguing and dance," Krever said of the process, which invites young people to compete in educating through different categories. The technique was recently applied during the Fame Ball, which was held Jan. 17.
"It's about meeting [the young people] where they're at in their lives," Krever said. "This is a really important social connection that they make... The categories are designed in partnership with the young people, and they're always designed to educate. Young people will dance and compete but have to convey their messaging to the judges. The winner of each category out-educates their competitor."
Krever described the technique as Positive Youth Development, a science-based approach that does not treat the youth as victims — the importance of which Krever stressed.
"These young people will come to us from all boroughs," he said. "They'll come to us from five different states on a given day, and they're navigating some of the largest mass transit on the planet. And still they come. To us, that's heroic. That's incredibly brave. And that's the lens in which we look at them — as young, brave individuals that are not settling for mediocrity, not settling for the status quo. And coming to us to socialize, to be with other young people, to get an education — not as a privilege but as a right — and really wanting to take on a leadership role." The leadership role is adopted by hundreds of people each year, Krever said, citing 150 people who will be trained to be social justice leaders and advocates and who will then train more than 1,000 people in safer sex practices, educational messaging and social media. Krever said the Institute is focused on developing the training institute further in order to widen the Institute's impact.
"We recognize there are lots of loving and caring people all across the country and beyond, who really do want what's best for their own young people, but don't know how to do it," he said. "Maybe they don't have the skills or curriculum or know-how, and what we want to be able to do is share that with them so they can really provide safe environments for their own LGBTQ young people... Young people have really embraced the work, and they understand their roles in making society better, and particularly focusing on their own generation and helping their brothers and sisters."