At a recent meeting of the Howard County chapter of PFLAG, a handsome young man named Josh Deese, who was celebrating his 21st birthday, introduced a short film named Trevor. The movie described how a gay youth named Trevor had been bullied to the point of suicide but then recovered to live, hopefully, a better life.
Among the audience at this screening were a couple of dozen of members of the chapter’s Rainbow Youth and Allies group, ages 14-22. The normally energetic youths sat riveted in stone silence throughout both the film and Josh Deese’s powerful post-film discussion that described a similar path he himself traveled and how it ultimately led him to be a compelling spokesman for The Trevor Project— the nation’s leading LGBTQ youth suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization. Most young people who turn 21 go out partying to celebrate; Josh decided to help educate the community.
Josh’s life has been anything but easy. Openly gay, he grew up in a small town in South Florida called Clewiston with all of its Southern charm hovering over the town’s sugar cane, orange farms and alligators. “Clewiston is every Southern boy’s dream – if he were straight,” says Josh.His parents were of modest means living in a 2-bedroom mobile home where he shared a twin-size bed with his little brother. He was always treated differently beginning with elementary school. Josh watched CNN in the 2nd grade, read newspapers and followed the 2004 Presidential election hoping to impress his teachers. His friends traveled a different road, and the differences between Josh and them were beginning to widen.
“In middle school, I was treated differently because I was the kid who everyone thought was gay,” Josh recalls. “The teases and insults turned to slight shoves and slaps. Eventually, it got worse. The school administration never did anything to those responsible. I remember crying to my father in 8th grade asking ‘Why? Why don’t those kids get in trouble?’” He looked at me and ultimately said, ‘Well, that’s just how the world works. They’re at the top, and we’re not.’ Then he said something that really stuck: ‘But you can be… you can be. And one day, you will be.’”As the only openly gay student in high school, he was known as “Josh, the faggot.” “Not “a faggot,” but THE faggot,” he emphasizes. School life was filled with isolation and fear. “From the members of my wrestling team, who hazed me intensely in an effort to get me to quit the team, to the rest of my peers, who threw insults, as well as punches.”
Josh was constantly taunted, books were slammed out of his hands in the hallway, and he was shoved into lockers. All the usual epithets were hurled at him.After staying after class one day to speak with his English teacher, he decided to take a shortcut home and noticed three guys following him. He tried to move faster but it was too late.
“A swift yank from a strap of my backpack and a stinging smack to the face knocked me to the ground. No one was there to help me. The three guys punched, kicked, and slammed me. I recognized one of them – a boy on my wrestling team; someone I trusted and confided in. ‘Deese,’ he said, calling me by my last name, ‘I’m sorry man, but we’re doing you a favor,’ he concluded, as he kicked me square in the gut. I got up, bloodied and bruised, and limped my way back home.
“My parents were furious. My father wanted blood. My mother just wanted the violence to end. My nose was fractured, my jaw bone suffered injury, and I had a busted lip – a hearty reward for the boy who just wanted a friend.”Josh had begun looking for resources for LGBTQ youth on Google. He found The Trevor Project, which has a website full of resources and tips. “They had a 24-hour lifeline that LGBTQ youth could call if things ever got too tough and an awesome website – TrevorSpace – a social networking site, where LGBTQ youth from all around the world could talk to each other.”
He created a TrevorSpace account and began speaking to some of the first gay guys who he ever had interacted with. “It was refreshing to see so much diversity on the coming out spectrum. People on this site made me feel accepted, safe and happy.”Through this site he made some friends. “I even found a boyfriend: a beautiful boy named Kyle. He was from Missouri. His parents were Baptist preachers. His beautiful blonde hair, radiant blue eyes and gorgeous white smile had taken me aback. I was in love. WE were in love.”
After a month of chatting on Skype, Josh and Kyle began dating. They talked about their dreams of being together. “Kyle suddenly went missing,” Josh says. Over three weeks later Kyle’s sister contacted Josh to tell him that their father found out about Josh and discovered gay porn on Kyle’s laptop. They were forbidden to speak to one another and Kyle was sent to a gay-reversion clinic.“Three months later, I received a message on Facebook. It was Kyle – he was back. I remember quickly rushing through my computer to get to Skype, so I could see his beautiful face again. My eager excitement turned to worry and deep concern. For the next few weeks that we talked, he wasn’t the same anymore. He wasn’t smiling anymore. His voice was monotone. His eyes looked sad and empty.”
After exchanging goodnight kisses through the webcam, Josh never heard from Kyle again. The friend who had introduced them on TrevorSpace messaged Josh. He asked if Josh was OK and asked him if he heard about Kyle. The friend attached a newspaper article from the Internet that indicated Kyle had hung himself.“This beautiful boy felt so upset and hated and depraved by his parents, that he felt the only way out was to take his life. I lost it – I cried uncontrollably and felt hopeless. I didn’t know what to do,” Josh recalls.
“The next few days went by like a blur. I didn’t care about anything. I just wanted to be happy. My parents didn’t understand me, I didn’t have any friends, and the first love of my life was gone. I had nothing else to live for. So I planned, and I waited.”
Since Josh’s father was a police officer, there were many guns in his house. One evening when he was alone, Josh went to his parents’ room and took his father’s service pistol back to his bedroom.
“I sat on the bed, holding the gun, and began to cry. This is what my life had become: one of sadness, and sorrow, and fear. I put the gun to my right temple, counted to three, closed my eyes, and squeezed the trigger. My eyes still closed, I thought, ‘Is this death? I didn’t feel a thing.’ I opened my eyes, and saw that I was still in my room. No pain. No blood. No bang. I was alive. It appeared that the gun was loaded, but the firing pin didn’t strike the bullet properly – crazy odds.”He put the gun down and began to cry again. “There had to be a better way to solve this… a safer, more peaceful resolution. I began to think and that’s when it hit me – The Trevor Project. I called the lifeline and was relieved to find a warm, caring voice on the other end of the line. His name was Adam who was a counselor for The Trevor Project. I told him about everything that had happened in my life and why I felt the way I did. He was supportive, caring, and accepting. He assured me that my life was full of value and meaning. He made me feel special and significant.”
"There had to be a better way to solve this… a safer, more peaceful resolution."
Josh continued to call the lifeline for the next few months and began his road to recovery. “It was around this time where I was approached by a friend I had met on TrevorSpace, who told me that The Trevor Project was looking for LGBTQ youth who had leadership potential to join a special youth council. I applied and was accepted.”He persuaded his parents to allow him to fly to Los Angeles to attend his first Trevor Project training. “I spent the weekend meeting with a group of LGBTQ high school and college students who had also been admitted to The Trevor Project Youth Advisory Council. We shared experiences and stories with each other, gave each other advice, and allowed each other to grow.”
Josh learned LGBTQ 101, the basics of sex and gender, suicide prevention and crisis intervention strategies, as well as more background information on The Trevor Project’s programs and services. He was able to take all of the information that he had learned back home to Florida and did what he was taught to do: educate.“I started with my parents. Now, they had never disagreed with me, they just didn’t understand – and who would, in a small town where no one talks about sexuality and gender? I explained the basics of LGBTQ 101 and it all began to fall into place. My parents understood and were full of questions, which I happily answered.”
Josh is proud and grateful for his family’s support along his journey. His success with his parents led him to take that experience to school. “People started to understand. People started to accept me. This was the first time where I had finally met some actual friends, in the flesh, who wanted to actively participate in my life. What my Youth Advisory Council advisor told me was true, ‘Education trumps ignorance.’ This is when I began my journey as an activist for LGBTQ rights, suicide prevention, and mental health awareness.”
Josh found his final two years of high school to be amazing. He had friends, boyfriends, and many fun experiences.At his graduation, Josh presented his last act of defiance by “doing the Cat Daddy” next to his principal, and walked off a proud graduate of Clewiston High School’s Class of 2012. “One month later, I’d be on a plane to Washington, D.C., starting my new journey as a freshman at the University of Maryland, to pursue my passion for politics and public service.”
Josh found the past two years in the D.C. area to be both rewarding and challenging. His work with The Trevor Project allows him to speak at events and fundraisers, meeting Members of Congress, sharing his story and explaining the importance of legislation that would benefit and increase LGBTQ education and life-affirming services to LGBTQ youth everywhere.“I’ve had the privilege of being invited to the White House and working with President Obama’s staff to discuss important initiatives and programs for LGBTQ people. I was also humbled last year to win The Washington Blade’s Best of Gay D.C. Award for Most Committed Activist. I’ve even met an amazing guy that I’ve grown very fond of.”
Unfortunately for Josh, last semester he lost his co-signer for his student loans and was unable to pay for school, thus, forcing him to withdraw from the University of Maryland. The financial worries have contributed to his anxiety.“I’ve been stuck working full-time in order to pay my living expenses, but am currently facing eviction. I’m unable to have a social life or see any of my friends because I’m not in school.”
“As I said, happiness, or the lack thereof, has been the focus of my life. I continue to clutch closely, my father’s words to me. ‘But you can be… you can be. And one day, you will be.’ I think of this in my mind every night before I go to bed, thinking of a way out. Someone once said, ‘Some men aren’t meant to be happy. They are meant to be great.’ I intend to challenge this and prove it wrong. I know it’s possible. I don’t know how… but I’ll prove it wrong.”Hopefully, he will. Josh deserves happiness.