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LGBTQ Mentors Serve Houston-Area Youth Through Big Brothers/Big Sisters

Organization expands outreach to community.

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After attending a Big Brothers/Big Sisters event in Houston, where he learned that more than 900 children were on the group’s waiting list, 42-year-old Lennard Sims felt compelled to get involved. 

But Sims was also nervous. After all, he was preparing to marry his partner of seven years, Shelton Davison, and he wondered whether his sexual orientation would have a negative impact on his application to serve as a mentor, or “Big,” to a child in the Big Brothers/Big Sisters (BBBS) program. 

“Big Brothers/Big Sisters Lone Star is proud to stand with the LGBTQ community and all other communities that want to join us in our good mission of ensuring that every child—from every background or circumstance—who reaches out for a mentor has a caring and compatible adult reaching back.”

BBBS Lone Star CEO Pierce Bush

As it turns out, BBBS staff also had some concerns, but not about Sims’ sexual orientation. Rather, they feared wedding planning might impact his ability to spend time with a child. But in the end it worked out, and today Sims and his “Little,” 8-year-old Bryant, have been matched for about six months.

The Big Picture

BBBS Lone Star, the local branch of BBBS of America, serves Greater Houston as well as parts of North Texas.  

“Big Brothers/Big Sisters has a big mission that requires us to engage the good in all adults to help ignite the potential in every child,” says BBBS Lone Star CEO Pierce Bush, the grandson of the late president George H.W. Bush. “Big Brothers/Big Sisters Lone Star is proud to stand with the LGBTQ community and all other communities that want to join us in our good mission of ensuring that every child—from every background or circumstance—who reaches out for a mentor has a caring and compatible adult reaching back.” 

BBBS Lone Star is one of twenty LGBTQ pilot chapters funded by the Altria Group, Inc. 

“This initiative is helping us improve our own LGBTQ cultural competencies and increase our outreach and services to the LGBTQ community,” says Michael O’Teter, chief program officer for BBBS Lone Star.

Alexander Dailey, who serves as director of community engagement for BBBS Lone Star/Greater Houston, says finding LGBTQ mentors can sometimes be challenging. “While Big Brothers/Big Sisters has engaged individuals from the LGBTQ community for decades, too frequently LGBTQ adults and organizations don’t realize that about our organization,” says Dailey, who identifies as gay. “So our biggest challenge is getting the word out to the LGBTQ community that we do want to serve LGBTQ youth and we actively want to engage adults from the community as mentors, as well as in every other aspect of our organizational life.”

January is Mentorship Awareness Month, an opportunity for BBBS to engage potential Bigs from the LGBTQ community. Dailey explains that while many Littles identify as LGBTQ, that does not necessarily mean they will be matched with LGBTQ Bigs. 

“[Mentors] will be paired with a child based on needs, strengths, proximity, and compatibility,” Dailey says. “The compatibility component will consider sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression, as well as race, background, and other factors. All of these are considered in an attempt to maximize the potential bond between the adult volunteer and the child.”  

The Big Couple

Kristine Anthony, 51, and her fiancée, Kristy Miller, serve as a Big Couple—one of several options for couples or families that want to mentor a Little together.  

Anthony, a commander with the Houston Police Department, says the application process takes into consideration the requests of both Bigs and Littles. 

“I asked for an older teen,” Anthony says. “I really wanted a girl who wouldn’t just want to hang out in the mall, because that’s not me. I indicated I wanted a Little who was outdoorsy. I also wanted an older Little because I know that they kind of age out and they quit matching. I could not imagine a girl that wanted a big sister that wasn’t going to be able to get matched, and that broke my heart.”

Anthony started the program as a single Big to Terriell, 14, in December 2017. Later, Terriell initiated the process of expanding their Big/Little “family” to include Miller.

“With Kristine being her Big as a single, I would be ancillary. Every once in a while, I would join in, but I would not be a main involvement,” says the 36-year-old Miller, who serves as a clinic social-work manager at Legacy Community Health. 

“As a couple, we can do everything together,” Miller adds. “I went through the whole vetting process initially so that we could all spend time together as a couple or individually, before we officially became a Big couple.”

The process of becoming a Big takes about two months. 

First, volunteers complete applications, which can be found at bbbstx.org. Then, BBBS staff members contact applicants to set up interviews and conduct reference and criminal background checks. 

The BBBS matching team works to find the child that best fits each volunteer, and then seeks approval of the proposed match from the parent or guardian. 

If a Big identifies as LGBTQ, that information is shared with everyone as part of the consent process. Although BBBS does not discriminate, the group recognizes that some Littles or their parents/guardians may not have the same point of view.

The Big Coming Out

Zach McKenzie, 28, has been volunteering as a Big since he was 24, but did not come out as gay until recently. 

“I met Haven when he was 8, and he’s 12 now. Me coming out is a relatively new thing, and [back when we were first matched] I wasn’t really wrestling with [being gay],” McKenzie says. “Going into this organization, you’re more concerned if the kid is going to like you, and what your relationship with the family is.” 

McKenzie’s story is an example of how the bond between a Big and a Little can transcend a typical volunteer experience. Participants often see themselves as family. McKenzie came out to Haven’s Nana before he broached the subject with his Little. 

“This whole relationship has been very emotionally fulfilling,” McKenzie says. “I initially reached out with a super-long text to his Nana, who I also refer to as Nana when we talk. She sent me the sweetest text message back and was very affirming. I had a feeling she would be gracious, and so to see that felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders.”

Eventually, he had the opportunity to come out to Haven. 

“I had to mentally and emotionally prepare,” McKenzie says. “I just kind of went into it ready for the worst-case scenario. We hung out like we always did, and I knew that if it didn’t go well I couldn’t be defensive with him. I needed to reconcile with that beforehand.” 

“He first reacted by regurgitating stuff [about gay people that] he had heard, but he hadn’t formed his own opinion yet, so we had a really great conversation,” McKenzie recalls. “I told him I am the same person. Nothing has changed. After we got done we went right back to what we had before. The hardest part was bringing it up.”

Although the coming-out process was a unique aspect of their long relationship, Mc-Kenzie’s favorite story is about the day Haven asked if they could be known as “brothers.” 

“We got tickets to the Astros game, and as we sat down there was a lady with another little boy. We heard them talking and whispering. They were wondering if we were with BBBS too, and she introduced her Little as her ‘brother,” McKenzie says. “As we were driving away in my truck, Haven looked at me and asked, ‘Did you notice how she introduced him?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, is that how you want me to introduce you?’ And he said, ‘Yeah.’ And now that’s how we refer to each other. We’re brothers.”

This article appears in the January 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine. 

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Ryan Leach

Ryan Leach is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine. Follow him on Medium at www.medium.com/@ryan_leach.

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