Sam Mitchell was not allowed to use the boys’ restroom at his high school because, he was told, it would prove too upsetting for other students. The girls’ bathroom was off-limits, too. That left the transgender 17-year-old — who was assigned female at birth but identifies as male — isolated and forced to use the restroom reserved for the school nurse.
Mitchell, who lives in East Texas, can’t imagine a place where his gender is not an issue, where the specter of being bullied is not a daily fear. Recent federal data suggest he is hardly alone: Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender young adults are significantly more likely than their heterosexual and cisgender peers to harbor suicidal thoughts and behaviors, and to attempt suicide, often related to bullying.
So this summer, Mitchell expects to find himself in Provincetown, of all places. He and a handful of other young adults are coming from Southern states to P-town, long an LGBT mecca, to experience something they haven’t before: a welcoming work and social environment.
The aim of the mission, known as “Summer of Sass,” is to match young adults with host families who will provide a safe summer home away from home.
“Just to go somewhere where I will be accepted,” Mitchell said, “sounds good.”
The motivating force behind Summer of Sass is Kristen Becker, a 40-year-old Provincetown comedian who grew up in Louisiana and vividly remembers what it was like to have to hide that she was gay.
“You would go through your day, day after day, in a constant fear that someone was going to find out,” she said.
Terrifying accounts of three transgender women recently murdered in Louisiana ratcheted up the fear. Now, a region of the country that seemed tricky to navigate while Becker was growing up sounds even more dangerous, she said.
When Becker described to friends her dream of helping young adults experience the safe harbor of Provincetown, residents immediately stepped forward.
Some donated frequent flier miles to help offset the price of plane tickets. Business owners said they would gladly hire new arrivals. Host families opened their doors.
The high cost of housing in the vacation haven means it’s vital for families to step forward. Thousands of tourists vie for spots, and a one-bedroom apartment can easily fetch $9,000 for a few months, said Erik Yingling, vice chairman of Provincetown’s Board of Selectmen. Host families are offering their rooms for a fraction of the going rates, and although the young visitors will have to pay the rent this summer, organizers hope to raise money in the future to defray costs.
“The community is very supportive of [Summer of Sass], and projects like this that provide a safe harbor,” Yingling said.
Mitchell is scheduled to arrive in late May, and his stepmother, Lee Harris, is coming for a few days, too, to meet his host family. Hosts undergo criminal background checks as part of the program, and serve as a sort of big brother or sister to guide the young adults, many of whom may be spending their first extended time away from home.
“I hope he will be accepted there, that it’s the type of community where you can just be you, because he has never really had that,” Harris said. The rejection has become so profound that Mitchell speaks almost matter-of-factly about a close friend, a boy he has known since they were 9 years old, who decided he didn’t want to be friends anymore when Mitchell revealed three years ago that he was transexual.
Mitchell’s experience in school of having to use the nurse’s bathroom echoes that of Gavin Grimm, the transgender Virginia high school student who sued his school district for the right to use the boys’ restroom, a closely watched case the US Supreme Court declined to hear last month.
During the summer, Mitchell is expected to stay in Truro, about 10 minutes from Provincetown, with Bethany Gregory, a 43-year-old woman who has two children and two grandchildren, and who is a chef at a Provincetown restaurant and director of the town’s soup kitchen.
Gregory grew up in a small, conservative town in upstate New York and hid her pansexual identity there for years because she didn’t want her children to be stigmatized.
“There was not a question in my mind that I wanted to be involved” with this project, Gregory said. “I have had a lot of people reach out to me to say if Sam needs a job, we can make that happen.”
Rod Vaughan, a 45-year-old gay mail carrier in Provincetown, didn’t hesitate to offer his loft and guidance when he heard organizers needed host families. Vaughan grew up in southern Missouri.
“I was that little kid who was bullied in the South, and I thought, why not use this space” to help out, Vaughan said. “When you are that age and you are gay, you generally don’t have a mentor to go to.”
Vaughan’s young renter will be Teddy Lowery, an 18-year-old gay man from Bossier City, a suburb of Shreveport, La. Lowery graduated high school early, in January, to escape the daily barrage of bullying.
“I haven’t heard the word ‘fag’ in a while, and that’s a nice feeling,” he said. “That was an everyday kind of thing.”
Lowery plans to study botany this fall, and is hoping to be accepted to a college outside of Louisiana. He learned about the Provincetown program from Adrienne Critcher, the political director at PACE, a Shreveport organization that advocates for the LGBT community.
Gay issues “weren’t on the radar” for Critcher and her husband, both retired professors, until their son told them he was gay when he was in college. They have been advocating for the LGBT community ever since.
Critcher said Shreveport has become more accepting in the years since their son, now 33 and an associate professor in California, left town. But life for young LGBT people, particularly in public schools, can still be hostile, she said.
“Kids like Teddy need to leave,” Critcher said. “I hate to say it, because we need people like that to change things here. But on the other hand, there is a welcoming world out there they need to know about.”