By Liz Massey, December 2015 Issue.
It’s common for a novelist to go on tour to meet his or her audience. It’s far less common to do so with the intention of potentially saving their lives.
But Chandler-based author Bill Konigsberg (pictured) has had an unusual career. After spending much of his early career penning sports articles for ESPN.com, he moved to Arizona to earn his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from Arizona State University in 2005 (and contributed freelance writing to Echo along the way).
Since that time, Konigsberg has written a series of award-winning young adult (YA) novels that focus on LGBT themes, including Out of the Pocket, Openly Straight and The Porcupine of Truth.
In September, he set out on a 21-city tour to promote The Trevor Project’s wide array of crisis intervention and suicide prevention services – ranging from the toll-free Trevor Lifeline, 866-488-7386, to TrevorSpace, a social networking website – LGBTQ young people, as well as their friends and allies, ages 13 through 24.
According to Konigsberg’s fundraising page (classy.org/trevorawarenesstour2015), his goal was to visit “the parts of the country where LGBTQ youth are most in need: the South and the Midwest.”
Echo caught up with Konigsberg, by email, shortly after the conclusion of his road trip.
Echo: What made you decide to do a tour for The Trevor Project?
Konigsberg: Over the past couple of years, I’ve begun to feel like the luckiest guy in the world. I’m beginning to have this career I could never have imagined when I was younger; I have the love of a wonderful man; and I’ve finally become comfortable in my own skin. Thinking back on my life one day, I remarked to myself that I must be the luckiest person, because by all rights I probably shouldn’t even be alive anymore. I was a deeply depressed teenager, and I struggled with shame about being gay well into my 20s. I did have a suicide attempt when I was 27, and had I not called a friend after taking pills, he wouldn’t have called the EMTs and I wouldn’t have had my stomach pumped and I would have died in my apartment. I can hardly imagine what I would have missed. I decided it was time that I take my gratitude and do something useful with it, so I contacted Trevor and they were more than happy to have me travel the country and talk to teens about suicide, depression and coming out.
Echo: Where did you go, and how did you select your presentation sites?
Konigsberg: The tour really happened organically. I put out some messages on social media about my willingness to do visits for free, and the requests began to come in. A map began to appear, and then I queried a few schools and community groups to fill in blanks along that map. Of course, the [tour] is just a tiny slice of what is needed; I’ve heard from so many schools, churches and organizations since then about their need for a speaker to spread some hope and love to their LGBT youth.
Echo: What were your expectations about the tour as you set out? How did this compare to the reality of what you encountered?
Konigsberg: My expectations were that it would be rocky, filled with unknowable ups and downs, lots of joy and many challenges. Those expectations were met!
You never know, when you’re putting yourself out there with the public, how things will go. I had several times I had to drive away from an event and call my husband for moral support because of something that happened. Sometimes it was just sadness about the people I’d just met, and other times it was anger about how I was treated. It’s just how things go, I guess. I am so happy I experienced it – all of it, even the tough stuff.
Echo: How would you characterize the differences in growing up LGBT for today’s teens, as compared with our generation (people now in our 40s)?
Konigsberg: It’s just so different now, and yet a lot of things haven’t changed at all. It’s complicated. In general, younger people are much more educated about LGBT issues, and kids are, in most areas of the country, able to find at least some support at school, at least in the form of other kids who are openly LGBT. And at the same time there are still countless stories of kids who have had to leave their schools for fear of their safety, and countless stories of kids being kicked out of their homes. It’s simply true that the more things change, the more they remain the same.
The biggest difference, though, is how gender fluidity and trans issues have become the centerpiece of this generation of teens. Perhaps 70 percent of the teens I met in community groups were dealing with gender issues rather than issues of sexual orientation. It was quite a learning experience for me!
Echo: How did embarking on this tour impact your work as a writer of young adult novels?
Konigsberg: I haven’t begun to write anything new since the tour, but I definitely feel like I have a better handle on what’s really going on out there now. It will completely change me as a writer in that way. I know, for instance, that the books that are now desperately needed are books about gender fluidity. I’m not sure I’m the right person to write about that, but I feel compelled to try.
Echo: Any unexpected joys or disappointments on the road?
Konigsberg: There’s always the joy of meeting incredible people. There are so many people out there who have dedicated their lives to working with LGBT teens, and I’m so thankful to have gotten to meet some of them. These are just incredible people. These are the true difference makers in young people’s lives.
Echo: What have you learned from this tour?
Konigsberg: I’ve learned that I’m a middle-aged, cisgender, gay white male. I mean, I knew that, but it really hit home for me. As I was telling my story to rooms full of mostly trans kids, I occasionally had the feeling that they were thinking, “How old is this guy?” And I realized that talking about coming out in the 1980s would be to these kids like someone coming to talk at my school back then about coming out in the 1950s. Yeah, not that relevant to my teen journey. Sigh. I am who I am, and I think the most important thing I can offer is my willingness, my time, and my open heart.
To learn more about Konigsberg’s tour and his YA novels, visit billkonigsberg.com.
Trevor Project offers a social network for LGBTQ youth
As the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ young people, The Trevor Project offers a wide variety of programs, services and resources geared toward saving lives.
What many community members do not know, though, is that the organization also offers support through and online community via TrevorSpace, a social network that was relaunched in 2013.
“TrevorSpace is the only program we know of on this scale that gives LGBTQ young people and their allies a chance to directly support each other,” said Athena Brewer, The Trevor Project’s crisis services director via its website. “TrevorSpace friendships can provide connections that we know can make a difference in the well-being of a young person, and can often prevent the kind of isolation that increases a young person’s risk of suicide. TrevorSpace is a very powerful intervention resource for LGBTQ young people worldwide.”
Features of the social networking site include an instant messaging service for certified members, a Facebook-style newsfeed, the ability to “like” and comment on posts, and a multitude of new sexual orientation and gender identity options on members’ profiles.
The Trevor Project envisions a powerful future for TrevorSpace. Athena says, “Our dream is that the site becomes a place where LGBTQ youth can go when feeling scared, singled out, or just lonely; TrevorSpace can become a place where LGBTQ youth can say, ‘Hey, I’m not alone. There are so many people on here who understand me better than anyone else ever has,’” Brewer said. “With TrevorSpace, you might feel alone, but you are not really alone. You have thousands of other LGBTQ youth who have your back.”
Like The Trevor Project’s other initiatives, TrevorSpace is intended for LGBTQ young people, as well as their friends and allies, ages 13 through 24.
For more information, visit trevorspace.org.