One woman’s journey from an industrial chemist to LGBTQ youth advocate.
by Brandon Wolf • Photos by Dalton DeHart
Deb Murphy was born in 1955 and grew up in south Florida. She recalls being bullied in school, but maintained a circle of friends who liked to play sports and go to the beach. Still she often felt alone. “Having company and being with your own kind are two very different things,” she says. Looking back on her solitary teen years with her characteristic optimism, she muses that if things had been better, “I might not have studied as hard.” Academics was the best escape she had from loneliness.
After high school, Murphy enrolled in the chemistry program at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, where she was told she could not live in the women’s dorm because she was gay. The decision was later reversed, but she had already found an apartment where she didn’t have to hassle with acceptance. She quickly became friends with a neighboring gay male couple. “We never worried about security,” she says wryly. “A tough-looking biker lived there, too, and no one wanted to mess with him.”
Murphy worked her way through college, taking six years to get her degree. Boca Raton is home to many rich and elite, so once she established herself as dependable and energetic, Murphy was often hired to house-sit in some of the city’s most beautiful homes. She also worked the concession stand at the local polo grounds, along with stints as a waitress, a bartender, and a taxi driver.
Finding Her Real Passion
Out of college, Murphy worked for the next 20 years as a chemist. Work in a chemical plant was “brutal for men,” she says, “so you can imagine what it was like for a woman.” Jobs for a hardworking professional chemist paid well, but her heart just wasn’t in it. She left the male-dominated world of test tubes and took “a radical sabbatical.”
Just as she had done in Boca Raton, she applied her multiple talents to a multitude of short-term and part-time jobs. “For a while, I contracted with condominium associations and painted unit numbers on their curbs,” she says. She also did technical writing for construction firms and spent five years as the first paid staff member for the Houston Gay & Lesbian Film Festival.
By 2002, Murphy had become a freelance writer and was asked to write a story for OutSmart about a gay youth program then called HATCH (Houston Area Teen Coalition of Homosexuals). The program that began in 1987 had gone through some unstable times, but had survived and was meeting regularly at Montrose’s Grace Lutheran Church.
Murphy liked what she saw while researching the article. When a paid facilitator position opened up, she applied and was hired. The group met at the church, but the organization officed at The Montrose Counseling Center at 701 Richmond (later renamed The Montrose Center and relocated to 401 Branard). Within a short time, the youth group was absorbed into the counseling center.
For Murphy, this was great news. “We now had an infrastructure and access to United Way funds. I was able to focus totally on running the program. I saw what the organization was at the time, and saw what it could be. Volunteers can only do so much, but a paid staff can grow an organization.”
In Hatch Youth, Murphy had finally found her true passion. The teenage clients loved her, and management was pleased with the results they were seeing.
Helping kids isn’t rocket science to Murphy. She has built a program based on common sense and runs it straight from the heart. Those entering the program are given only one rule to follow—you can’t hurt others and you can’t hurt yourself.
Murphy lets teenagers be teenagers. She guides, not pushes. Each “Hatchling” is unique and special to her, and she respects their individuality; she runs on their timetable.
Some teens come to their first meeting and within an hour are comfortable; others spend the first few weeks saying little more than their names. Some come once and are never seen again; some may return every week for years, while others may drop out for a year and then return. Murphy puts no pressure on these young people to fit into a certain pattern or formula.
Becoming a Hatchling
Anyone from 13 to 20 years of age is eligible to join the program. Meetings are held Tuesdays 5–9 p.m., Fridays 7–10 p.m., and Sundays 6–9 p.m. A transgender youth support group meets on Tuesdays.
The first hour is a social time for teens to meet and get to know each other. The second hour is a special program—a film, a speaker, or a presentation. During the third hour, participants form small groups, where they can talk with others about their feelings.
When a new youth walks into the Hatch Youth area for the first time, a steering committee member welcomes them, introduces them to others, and makes sure they aren’t left to fend for themselves. But if a visitor just wants to sit and watch, they are free to do that too.
The one thing Murphy wants each young person to feel is that they are in a safe place, where they can be themselves. The gender expression of each person is respected, free of any social or societal expectations.
Murphy welcomes unscheduled drop-ins by teens who want to just talk. Her office hours, she says, are “from the time I get there until the time I leave.”
Murphy feels that Hatch Youth provides three things LGBT teens need—community where they have a sense of belonging, a place where they can grow into true and authentic people, and the knowledge that they are beautiful at their core. Sometimes, Murphy says, someone who has seen her playing Monopoly with a group of Hatch young people will ask, “How does Monopoly help these kids?” She explains that this is one of the ways that she builds bonds with teens before they will trust her to help them.
What do LGBT youth in 2014 find interesting? Murphy says that their favorite speakers are the women from LOAF (Lesbians Over Age Fifty), who tell them what gay life was like decades ago. The most requested movie on movie night is Rent. “I think they know every line of every song in Rent,” she says. The phantasmagorical Moulin Rouge is the second-most requested film.
An Impressive History of Success
“There has never been a scandal, no teen has ever been hurt, and we have a zero percent suicide rate,” says Murphy about the 27 years of Hatch Youth’s existence.
In 2010, 13-year-old Asher Brown, an eighth-grade student in metropolitan Houston’s Cy-Fair ISD, committed suicide. Asher was not a participant in the Hatch Youth program, but because of Murphy’s work with LGBT teens, she was the media’s go-to expert. The common question addressed to her was: Why is there such an epidemic of LGBT teen suicides? “I told them it wasn’t an epidemic of suicides, it was just an epidemic of finally reporting them,” remembers Murphy.
Suicides are driven by two factors, Murphy explains: when a teen is sure they don’t belong and when they believe the world would be better off if they were dead. Bullying can convince them that both of those things are true, and the Hatch Youth program is there to help them understand that neither is true.
In the early days of the program, Murphy says, LGBT youngsters often had to find creative ways to attend the meetings secretly. Today, she says, there are “cupcake moms” who drive their children to the meetings, and the average age of a Hatchling has dropped to about 15.
The most poignant words of praise for Murphy’s work come from former Hatchlings. LaKeia Spady, now a student at the University of Houston Downtown, remembers that she sought out Hatch Youth after moving to Houston to attend school. “I was really nervous when I first walked in, but everyone was so nice. I’d never felt that kind of acceptance before,” she says. Spady served on the annual Hatch Prom committee and was nominated by Murphy for a national LGBT activist award. She won and was flown to Washington DC to accept it.
Spady says that Hatch made a real difference for her. “I made friends that I will have for a long time. I learned how to understand myself better. I got to know a lot about other people in the larger Houston LGBT community, and I built a support network of concerned, caring people.”
Brian M. Carlson, now 30 years old, was 14 when he joined Hatch Youth. He remembers noticing real improvements in the program when Murphy was hired. Carlson was out when he began high school, but he felt isolated. “I got along better with Hatch Youth during those days. At school, there was nothing for LGBT kids. Even the sex education classes had only heterosexual information.”
Carlson had no interest in his high school prom, but looked forward to the Hatch prom. “It was so much fun to get all dressed up for an evening.” He says that Hatch helped him become comfortable with his sexuality, to make lasting friendships that he still has, and to become involved in the larger community. He was a member of the local HRC steering committee and learned firsthand what it takes to run an organization. He and his partner were married in New York two years ago. “We were married in the gazebo in Niagara Falls State Park,” he remembers.
One of Hatch’s most compelling stories is Jeffry Faircloth, who grew up in a home with strong Pentecostal values. Pentecostals believe that homosexuality is a sin and that it dooms people to an eternity in hell. Faircloth felt trapped in his situation and lived with a fear that if anyone found out he was gay, his church would perform what is essentially a public exorcism of the demon that was driving him into homosexuality. His first chance to find another point of view came when he met a girl with a lesbian mom at a driver’s education school.
The girl sensed Faircloth’s conflict and told him about Hatch. “I got the number for the Hatch switchboard, but our home phone kept track of all calls in and out. So I walked to a pay phone at a Shell station. My hands were trembling as I tried to insert the coins. Based on the teachings I’d had, I was about to doom my soul for eternity.”
The first meeting, for Faircloth, was “like The Twilight Zone.” He’d never seen a gay teenage couple holding hands. The small-group sharing hour was a lifesaver for him. He was finally able to speak about all the conflicting feelings that raced around inside his head and heart.
“I wasn’t sure what to make of Deb at first,” Faircloth admits, “but I got to know her through personal conversations and saw that she had a lot of empathy. I saw someone gay and older who was successful. She became a great role model. Deb has a heart for kids that is so big, I can’t really describe it.”
Faircloth had to work through a lot of theological issues to come to peace with his sexuality. “I finally realized there was a big gap between what I’d been told about homosexuals and what gay people were really like.” But his father remained adamantly opposed to anything gay. One night, shortly after Hurricane Katrina, his father came into his room and collected everything gay—books, memorabilia, gifts from his lover—and threw it all in the dumpster. When his father returned home the next morning after working his graveyard shift, his son was gone. Faircloth took temporary shelter with Hatch friends while he found part-time work as a teller, enrolled in school, and soon found his own apartment.
Faircloth is now the co-president of Houston PFLAG. For many Hatchlings, PFLAG has become the next logical step when they age out at 20. Like Hatch Youth, PFLAG gives them a social anchor, provides important information through their regular presentations, and offers small sharing groups.
Murphy believes that every teen who walks through the Hatch Youth door has something to offer. She says it may take a while, but “if you watch close, sooner or later you’ll always be able to catch a kid doing something good.”
These days, Deb Murphy has more time to reflect on her life than she’d prefer. Several months ago, after a routine medical procedure, blood clots unexplainably started racing toward her legs and feet. Physicians stabilized her condition, but not before they were forced to amputate her left leg below the knee and a significant portion of her right foot.
Talking to Murphy in the rehabilitation hospital, where she is currently in recovery, one can’t help but be inspired by her reaction to her situation. “I often read my Gratitude Diary,” she says. “For years, before I go to sleep at night, I write down things I’m grateful for. Those things help me keep the present in perspective.”
Murphy is also thankful that the blood clots went all the way to her feet instead of stopping farther up her legs, which could have meant even more extensive amputation. Despite the positive outlook, she is no stranger to tears. “I have no memory of the first month after the onset of the clots,” she says. Her voice chokes as she adds, “I’m thankful for that. I think the memories would be difficult.”
Brittany Burch, a program coordinator at The Montrose Center and Murphy’s direct supervisor, says that Murphy “brings a passion to finding broader experiences and skills for the youth to help make them better prepared to face the world after they age out of Hatch.” Murphy’s temporary absence has given Burch the opportunity “to know the youth better,” but she is nonetheless eager for Murphy’s return, as are all the Hatch young people who have come to depend on her compassion, wisdom, and support. “Hatch isn’t Hatch without Deb at the helm,” says Burch. “My motto since she’s been out has been ‘WWDD—What Would Deb Do?’ We’re all ready for her return.”
Still ahead for Murphy are surgeries to fit her with prosthetics. Alterations to her car and her house will accommodate her altered body, and she is far enough into her recovery to be impatiently looking forward to a return to work.
“I like the words of Frederick Douglass,” Deb Murphy says as she reflects on her last 12 years as head of Hatch Youth: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”