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The Hetrick-Martin Institute

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The Hetrick-Martin Institute is a New York City-based non-profit organization devoted to serving the needs of LGBTQ youth between the ages of 13 and 24, and providing them with the safety and skills they need to reach their full potential. If you'd like to support HMI, you can donate here.

Beauty allows us to shape our individual stories and find ways to connect to others all at once. With The Top Shelf we discover personal narratives through beauty routines. In The Beauty Politic, Into The Gloss explores how beauty connects communities, and how it informs a sense of self for the people within them. Beauty can be used as a tool not just for self-expression, but for empowerment and preservation as well.

The Hetrick-Martin Institute was established in 1979 to be a safe and supportive environment for LGBTQ youth. (It's the oldest organization of its kind in the US.) Folks at HMI do a lot—youth advocates are on call Monday through Saturday, and offer everything from training, to counseling, to emergency resources, to in-house programming. Over 2,000 LGBTQ youth receive services from HMI each year, and for the adults who provide them, this work is as essential as it is inspiring. All five people we talked to cited beauty as a way to better communicate inclusivity with the kids they work with. Read on to hear it in their words.

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Spencer Olson

Case Manager from Akron, Ohio

"I’m originally from Akron, which is outside of Cleveland, Ohio—people only know it because of LeBron James. If I look back, I was really afraid to be myself in the suburbs. A lot of people were really conservative. I pierced my ears when I first went to college, and my parents had a very strong reaction to it. I sort of stopped wearing them, not just because of that, but… When I moved to New York I started thinking about them more, and after I started working here I put them back in. People in this space communicate that you can be yourself, and that you’re welcome and accepted no matter what. I can think of a particular youth who comes here and changes into what they really want to wear. And I find safety to wear whatever I want, too. I could wear a sweatsuit or I could wear this bold, blue actual suit. I never wore jewelry before, and now I find myself collecting earrings. All of that communicates something that’s even more meaningful in a place like this.

I studied theater and psychology in school, and when I was graduating my mentor recommended I look into doing drama therapy. I applied to NYU’s drama therapy program, got it, and that’s how I met HMI’s assistant director of counseling. I’m continually amazed by the ways our youths carry themselves through, given everything that they’re struggling with. I used to work with adults, and could sort of have this mindset of, ‘adults can take care of themselves.’ But now that I’m working with youth, talking to someone who’s 16 and navigating everything on their own without support, it’s much harder not to think about when I’m home. When I need to, I find that running gives me space to separate—I can put on my headphones, run, and really be in my own space. I’m actually training for a half marathon that’s in a few weeks, and I’m also in the process of directing an NYU grad student’s drama therapy thesis. All of that stuff helps.

I’m somebody who showers all the time—that’s my ritual. Even if I’ve showered the night before I have to shower in the morning. After I get out I use Milky Jelly Cleanser. Before I knew about it my skin was horrible—I was seeing dermatologists, using retinols, and nothing was really working. Once I found this stuff, my skin stopped breaking out almost instantly. Of course it still does from time to time, but it’s really, really helped. Next I use Solution, then Priming Moisturizer, and then Futuredew. And Acqua di Parma has beard products that are great—I’ll use their oil some mornings if my beard feels rough.

There’s this little Elf dual-ended concealer that I fell in love with for my tired-looking eyes. I also have this roll-on silver sparkle that I like, and sometimes I put it on my neck. Makeup will be something to explore as I grow and spend more time here. It’s exciting to work at a place where everyone really lives their truth."

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Crimson Porco

Homeless Youth Outreach Worker from Queens, New York

"Crimson is my legal name, as of December. I’m still waiting for statements with the name change on my bills, and it’s a process, but… it’s lovely. I’m proud of saying my name now. It’s also part of my drag name, Crimson Kitty. I used to work as a cosmetologist, which would fund my nightly shenanigans doing burlesque. Eventually my act became more drag than burlesque, and I was kind of the only AFAB [assigned female at birth] person performing drag in gay clubs. Newer performers would come to me and say, ‘I want to do this, but I don’t think I can,’ and I would say, ‘You can do whatever you want.’ I became a mother-figure to these people, and I liked it. I liked to be of service.

A lot of my work with Hetrick-Martin is with the homeless. I live in Queens, so I know a few hotspots—we just go out there and ask people, ‘What do you need?’ If they need anything that we can provide, we get it for them. Another part of my job is helping to run the emergency drop-in pantry where people can access clothes, shoes, socks, and snacks six days a week.

I also co-run a few groups here, most notably Crafternoon every Wednesday from 4 to 7:15PM. I know how to sew because I make all my drag costumes, so I teach the kids. They are hysterical, ridiculous, they say the craziest things, they’re so resilient and so much smarter than I was at their age. What can be hard is when you try to help, and they don’t want it. But I find that, unless it’s a serious or extreme case, to just back up and wait for them to come to you. I call them my kittens, because some take a while to get used to you.

Back in the day I came out and was like, ‘I need the queer haircut. Everyone needs to know.’ This is probably information that’s 14 years too old, but back then all lesbians had the same haircut. But then I loved it. I go to a fantastic queer-friendly barber in Crown Heights called Camera Ready Kutz, and I dye it myself with Manic Panic, which I’ve been using since I was 14 years old—I’m 40. This is Purple Haze, and other colors I like are Lie Locks, Vampire Red, and Infra Red.

If I’m in drag, it’s a full fantasy. Drag is where I get to play. And if I’m not going anywhere, I’m playing video games in my Charizard onesie. But in my day to day, I’m definitely serving goth corporate realness. I’ll always at least wear some liner to work. And I shave my brows once a week for performance reasons, so I use this NYX gel to draw them on. It’s very hard for me to find brow products that last on naked skin. When I dress up and look my best, I feel better, and I do a better job. And the kids, they know."

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Neicy Webster

Senior Educational Specialist and Youth Health Advocate from Trinidad and Tobago

"I’ve been working at the Hetrick-Martin Institute for three years, and I’m technically an alumni. The ballroom community here really stood out to me. Dance is a stress-reliever—I learned by watching and creating and remixing. My thing is walking face, and once I’m on the floor, my alter ego comes out. Even when I got too old to participate, I would come to the Vogue Femme Fridays and support. Now I host those and Kiki Lounge, which is a safer space for kids in the ballroom scene—safer, not safe, because there’s no such thing as a safe space.

I am currently in my fourth semester of undergrad for my associate’s degree. Hopefully in 2020 I’ll graduate and move over to John Jay for criminal law, and then to Howard for law. That’s the plan. I was originally studying community health, but took some classes with criminal justice students and really liked them. People always told me I couldn't be a lawyer. But I switched my major just in time, and I’m so glad I’m studying what I really want to do.

I only wear makeup when I’m going to a ball, and someone else has to apply it. I don’t know how to do it myself. But I do wear my contacts and lashes every day. Lashes aren’t makeup—they’re an accessory. Fingers can’t get them on precisely enough, but the trick is using a tweezer to lay them perfectly. On my face I use Vaseline petroleum jelly and Futuredew. Three pumps—not two. And on my body, I do a mix of Jergens lotion, tea tree oil, petroleum jelly, this Victoria’s Secret glitter thing, and pheromones. I’m not telling you where I get that one. [Laughs]

I have a longer regimen for my teeth than my face, believe it or not. First I brush with a black charcoal dust, wash that out, and then brush my teeth like normal. I also order teeth whitening kits from Groupon—it’s 10 dollars for the tray, the light, the desensitizing gel, the whitening gel… you can’t beat that with a bat. I haven’t been to the dentist in over 10 years, knock on wood, and my teeth are one of my prized possessions.

You want to know my schedule? I start off my day with a little bop, just to get me in the mood, which is either Summer Walker or City Girls from the 305. My class schedule is 9AM to 3:15PM on Mondays and Wednesdays, no breaks. I took five classes last semester, and passed them all, thank God, with really good grades. Then I come to work, and I do something totally different here. I say I’m in the field of prevention, because my work can be helping prevent everything from HIV, to STDs, to drug use, to being harmed. Between work and school, it helps to keep a calendar. If it weren’t for the kids, I don’t think I would be doing this—honestly, I just don’t think I’d come in. I work for them."

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Tiffany Rivera

Program Manager, Adolescent Health from Brooklyn, New York

"I oversee the CAPP Contract, so Comprehensive Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention. We run in-house programming from 3:30 to 7PM, and also go to schools and nonprofit agencies to teach our curriculum in the morning. We speak to the kids for three hours, and they can ask any questions they have without feeling ashamed. Before we go, we typically explain to the school what our curriculum is and the different activities we do, and then they’ll either consent to that or not. Private schools can be a little tricky. If a school doesn’t want us to bring dildos, but still teach the curriculum, it’s hard. But I got into this work because I never received the proper education in school—they used bananas or water bottles, and the message was always, ‘If you’re going to have sex, you’re going to get diseases.’ I want to be able to tell kids that sex is OK, it’s natural, and that your body can do all of these amazing things we should embrace. A lot of youth are curious, or freaking out, or just don’t have the right answers, and this is something they want from their school.

The agency is very laid back, but I still tend to dress up. Sometimes the students get the impression that because I dress up I’m uptight, but it’s just a thing that I feel like I have to do. I try to teach them that you dress for the job you want, not the one you have, and they’re starting to understand that a little bit. [Laughs] And that doesn’t have to mean wearing a button up and slacks! It’s nice when they see me dressed up and say, ‘I want to do that, too.’

I never leave my house without makeup, even if I’m just going to the store. I have to put on eyeliner and mascara—that started in middle school. I like to put my eyeliner on my bottom waterline, and then use the MAC Extreme Dimension 3D mascara. My eyeliner has to be waterproof because… there are just days that are harder than others. I also always have my nails done, which is my me-time. I go to Judy at Linda’s Nail Salon every two to three weeks—she’s the only one allowed to touch my nails. They're very healthy and strong because Judy takes care of them.

Last year I got a Devacut, which was the first step in embracing my curls. I chopped off all of my hair—it was up to my waist. Now I use their B’Leave-in, styling cream, deep conditioner, and the Decadence shampoo and conditioner, and nine times out of ten I’m wearing my hair down. I also recently got my braces off and I’m still so timid about smiling showing my teeth. The whole office has been like, ‘Girl, just smile! You have a beautiful smile, let it happen!’ We support each other all the time. It’s nice to get those compliments, and feel that good."

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Samah Ikram

Counselor from Lahore, Pakistan

"I grew up in Illinois, in a small town named Rockford. I lived there until I was about 8. I remember reading Teen Vogue, playing dress up with my sister… I think I was one of the only kids of color in that space, and I was very aware of my dark hair and darker skin. Then I moved with my family to Lahore, Pakistan. It was kind of a reverse culture shock—instead of trying to fit in as a brown kid in a place where everyone had blonde hair, suddenly I was in this place where, hey, everyone looked like me, but there were still these weird, internalized Western standards of beauty. People encouraged fairness creams, and hair removal. When I went back to California for college, people were like, ‘Oh my gosh, we love your natural tan! We love your eyebrows!’ It was so interesting. Over time all of that resulted in me asking myself important questions about my relationship to my body and my identity. The more I look back on it the more I think, ‘Those are old feelings.’ I’m trying more body-positive ways to engage with the world.

There are so many different definitions of drama therapy, but it’s basically looking at a person as a whole, and the different roles that come up. How can we find a different kind of narrative, and help folks gain agency over their stories again? We work out of Harvey Milk High School, and every student there has to go through our intake program. But there might be some other folks who come to see me as part of their after school programs, or have recently been discharged from a hospital where HMI was referenced to them. I also work on-call, which is pretty much crisis management—helping folks who don’t have a consistent counselor stabilize, seeing what resources they might need.

People in this field talk a lot about burnout. This work can be difficult at times, and the question of self-care comes up a lot. I love to drink tea—when I go home, I’ll usually have a cup of tea, relax, and try to focus on what it tastes like, or what the temperature is. I love essential oils—lavender is my favorite, and I’ll put it on my wrists or my neck. I love candles. I’ll take a little walk after I leave work to check in with how I’m doing. I get my brows threaded every week at Perfect Brows, which makes me feel my most beautiful. I go to therapy, which is something I’m very open about. But there’s also this thing called vicarious resilience. Listening to the way that folks reflect on, or share their insights about their experiences is something that I learn from every day. I think about what it means to work in a sustainable way, and this is something that nourishes me. When I’m doing a lot, I feel better."

—as told to ITG

Employees of the Hetrick-Martin Institute photographed by Alan Winslow in New York, New York on January 30, 2020. Hair and makeup touchups provided by Glamsquad.