Texas activist reveals how ‘Star Trek’ prepared them to fight LGBTQIA+ oppression in their state
Ryn Gonzales began volunteering for Out Youth, an Austin nonprofit serving the LGBTQIA+ community in 2005 – the same year that then Governor Rick Perry banned gay marriage in the state. Gonzales, 36, who uses they/them pronouns, has been working for Out Youth ever since, now serving as the nonprofit’s operations and programs director and still contending with the state’s conservative legislators.
Last week, Texas Governor Greg Abbott called for certain medical treatments for trans youths to be investigated as child abuse. It was a statement that carries no legal ramifications, but nevertheless has already led to families being reported to the state’s department of child protective services. Gonzales says it’s the scariest thing that’s happened in the nonprofit’s 32-year existence.
When Out Youth’s headquarters, a blue bungalow in the city’s Hyde Park neighborhood, shuttered with the first COVID lockdown in March 2020, Gonzales scrambled to find a way to keep the community connected. They started a tradition of hosting a Zoom every evening at 8 p.m. to read a bedtime story because Gonzales knew what a comfort it could be. It gave the community a sense of normalcy during a time when everything else was upended.
Identifying and providing the resources Gonzales wishes they had access to earlier in their life is central to the philosophy at Out Youth — where they believe anyone who comes into the space, physically or virtually, should feel empowered to work toward a healthy and successful future.
What got you started on your path to your current role?
Watching Star Trek: The Next Generation when I was a kid. As odd as it may sound as the start to my story, Star Trek taught me to fiercely hope for a future where everyone had a purpose and no one was left behind. As I grew up, the leadership lessons I learned from Captains Picard, Sisko, and Janeway led me to become the first openly gay drum major at my high school, the founder of StandOut at the University of Texas at Austin, the programs director at the Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival, the chair of the City of Austin’s LGBTQ Quality of Life Advisory Commission, and, of course, the operations and programs director at Out Youth.
Outline your day-to-day. Do you have any rituals or routines around work?
There is no such thing as a day-to-day routine in my work at Out Youth. I spend much of my waking hours meeting with new clients, helping families in crisis, answering questions that come in by email and phone, acting as a spokesperson on LGBTQIA+ youth issues, and supporting our staff so they can do the life-changing and life-saving work Out Youth has been known for over the past 32 years.
If I have a ritual, it’s the cup of coffee I pour myself around 10 p.m. when I sit down in the quiet of the night and do the work I can’t get to when the sun is up. I use that time to plan for an even brighter future for Out Youth.
How do you deal with career-related doubt or frustration?
I use a mix of therapy, venting to friends, and crying about it. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a job that didn’t cause some doubt and frustration. The key is to not be left alone in it, at least for too long. Humans, even introverts like myself, need ways to externalize and process the difficult things we experience in our lives, especially the kinds of things I encounter in my work at Out Youth. Like I tell our youth when they are sitting in front of me, crying and apologizing for crying: “The tears come up to go out. If you don’t let them out they sit inside you and fester and mold. You don’t want or need that inside you.”
How do you know that what you’re doing is right?
Often, youth who are about to turn 18 and move away will come to me with questions about where they should go to college, what they should do for a living, whether they should plan on making a family. Over all of these years I’ve discovered that they’re all asking the same question: “Ryn, what do I need to do so you’ll be proud of me.” And my answer is the same every time: “When I see you again in the future, I’m going to ask you three questions. Are you happy? Have you done as little harm in the world as possible? And are you more yourself today than you were in all the days before?” By that very same metric, I am proud of myself and my work. I know what I’m doing is right because it makes me happy, it makes the world a little better every day, and along the way, I have become a more authentic version of myself.
What’s success to you?
When I was 33, Out Youth presented me with the Bill Dickson Legacy Award, the highest honor we bestow on people who have made a lasting impact on Out Youth. It was strange to be honored for my legacy at such a young age. But in thinking on the topic of legacy — and what mine had actually been up to that point — I returned to a series of moments. When new youth start coming to Out Youth’s drop-in community center, at least in person, they are given a tour, fill out an intake form, and go through an orientation with me. At the end of their first night with us, I always try to find them as they leave and ask how their first visit went. What struck me is that the youth’s answers were all essentially the same: “I like it here. I feel like I can breathe.”
Something as seemingly basic and easy as breathing is easily overlooked. But to know that so many of the youth we serve are walking around, day in and out, holding their breath waiting for the inevitable shoe to drop. Success, and my legacy by extension, is knowing that the youth who join the Out Youth family are able to breathe easier when they are with us. That we offer sanctuary and respite from a world that too often tells them they are worthless. We welcome them into our family, which now has over 35,000 members all over the world, and they find belonging and acceptance that is too often in short supply.
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