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Poor Timing

The Trevor Project Slashed Its Crisis Line Staff During Pride Month

The move raises questions about how well the 988 line will be able to do its job.

Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images
The Trevor Project at the 2023 Los Angeles Pride Parade

A lot of Raelle Kaplan’s childhood consisted of acting.

The plaid blouses and the white leather sandals at school, when all they wanted to wear were oversize crops and cargo shorts. The practice makeouts at sleepovers when they had no desire to date men. The smiles and nods at home when things were anything but normal.

In the suburban North Carolina “white picket fence” environment in which they were raised, Kaplan’s journey to find their gender and sexual identity was rocky. “I’ve been hospitalized, I’ve been on meds, I’ve had suicide attempts,” they said, “I guess I’ve been through it all.”

In their darkest moments, Kaplan repeatedly turned to the same organization: the Trevor Project, which for over two decades has provided mental health services for LGBTQ youth. They first called, tears streaming down their cheeks, from the branches of a weeping willow on a steamy summer day. “I remember feeling heard,” they said.

Soon, Kaplan was drawn to the other side of those calls. At the age of 16, they started working for a local hotline, traveling to hospitals, courts, and jails to support LGBTQ and other youth impacted by sexual violence. In August 2022, they joined the Trevor Project’s first cohort answering calls for the organization’s new federally supported hotline.

“I know exactly what these folks are going through,” Kaplan remembers thinking at the time. “They deserve a voice—and I know how to be that voice.”

On June 14—two weeks into Pride Month, the country’s annual celebration of the LGBTQ community—Kaplan received an otherwise unremarkable email. The title was “988 updates,” and it contained an invitation to a Zoom meeting. Because it was Kaplan’s day off, they almost didn’t attend.

But soon after the video conference started, things took a turn: About half of the staff answering 988—the newly rebranded crisis hotline that was a key pillar of the Biden administration’s mental health “Unity Agenda” and, to that point, had received almost $1 billion in federal funding—were losing their jobs, Trevor Project executives told attendees. Given that the webinar was in presentation mode, Kaplan—and the other attendees—couldn’t unmute themselves, raise their hands, or communicate with one another. Executives ended the call within minutes.

The turmoil presents a stark contrast to the White House’s language around the LGBTQ hotline, which it has repeatedly highlighted during the broader 988 rollout. (The LGBTQ subnetwork was launched in September 2022 as a nine-month pilot program to allow gender- and sex-nonconforming youth calling 988 to be transferred directly to someone specializing in these issues.) “I want to say directly to LGBTQI+ kids—you are loved just as you are, just the way you are,” Karine Jean-Pierre, the administration’s press secretary, said in an April 2023 briefing. “And if you’re feeling overwhelmed,” she added, “you call 988.”

The administration’s inauguration of the LGBTQ-specific line came at a critical juncture. In 2021, hate crimes against transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals occurred at the highest rates on record, FBI data shows. Recent studies have also found that rates of mental illness in lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth far outpace those in heterosexuals: Between 2015 and 2019, suicidality rates in these individuals were five times higher, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

Use of the LGBTQ 988 hotline reflects these larger trends. According to data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA, 6 percent of calls, 14 percent of chats, and 17 percent of texts routed to 988 during the pilot period were from LGBTQ individuals. (In 2022, 7 percent of Americans self-identified as LGBTQ, according to Gallup.)

But now, as the Trevor Project’s hotline gets culled, Kaplan wonders: Where can they turn in times of crisis?

Toby Everhart’s journey to self-discovery, like Kaplan’s, was full of ups and downs.

There were peaks, like founding the Seattle Trans Clothing Swap and “watching a trans woman spin in a dress for the first time,” they told me. There were troughs, like thoughts of self-harm and, later, suicide attempts. And during Everhart’s journey, much like Kaplan’s, the Trevor Project—whose tag line is “It Gets Better”—was synonymous with hope. During rougher patches, they would spend mornings sitting on the bathroom floor, speaking to a Trevor Project voice on the other end of the line.

The Trevor Project has provided refuge for LGBTQ youth since its founding in 1998. Over that quarter-century, it has become the world’s largest provider of LGBTQ crisis response internationally, according to the organization; in 2020, the Trevor Project provided services in over 100 countries.

“Our vision is to always be the world’s largest and best-in-class provider of suicide prevention and crisis intervention services for LGBTQ youth,” the company wrote in its strategic plan.

So in July 2021, when the House appropriated $7 million for the LGBTQ hotline, selecting the Trevor Project as the partner providing the call-takers seemed natural.

“Sometimes you just need a trans person to talk to,” Everhart said. “The lifeline is the last line of defense most people have.”

The reasons behind the sudden cuts remain a mystery to people like Kaplan and Everhart, who was set to join the Trevor Project’s 988 line before their offer was abruptly rescinded.

On its face, the pilot appeared to be a significant win. Danielle Bennett, a SAMHSA spokesperson, emailed a statement calling it “incredibly successful in connecting LGBTQI+ youth to mental health services.”

Indeed, the pilot was enough of a success that SAMHSA is keeping the program going. “The service is expected to become a permanent 988 Lifeline subnetwork with an expansion that will result in a 39 percent increase in staffing capacity to provide this critical service for LGBTQI youth,” Bennett told me.

Peggy Rajski, the Trevor Project’s co-founder, interim CEO and a filmmaker by trade, blamed “fluctuation of government funding” for the cuts in a statement to The New Republic.

“We—like many other organizations and businesses receiving government awards—must contend with the reality of needing to ramp up or ramp down staff and vendors relative to the funds available,” Rajski wrote. She did not respond to repeated questions about the Trevor Project’s overall financial status or reasons for the job cuts’ abruptness. And she did not indicate whether the pilot program’s long-scheduled conclusion had anything to do with the sudden cuts.

Divendra Jaffar, assistant vice president for public relations and engagement at Vibrant Emotional Health—the organization SAMHSA tapped to administer 988, including the LGBTQ hotline--contests the suggestion that any reductions in funding occurred out of the blue. “The pilot program was launched in September 2022 with an expected end date of June 30, 2023, which was communicated,” Jaffar said in a statement.

Financial statements from the Trevor Project also do not appear to reflect overall funding shortfalls.

A 2021 tax filing with the IRS—the organization’s most recent available—showed it had received record levels of donations. As of July 2021—the same month the House announced its $7 million funding package for the pilot hotline—the organization had almost $50 million in assets, up from nearly $28 million the previous year. In June 2023—about two weeks before the layoffs—Deloitte donated $1 million to the organization specifically for “hiring, training and supporting crisis line counselors,” Bloomberg reported.

“Funds restricted to 988 operations should not be conflated with non-988 revenue,” Rajski wrote to The New Republic.

Rajski did not respond to repeated questions about why a fraction of the nearly $50 million on the books could not be reallocated to service the line, if any portion of those funds were earmarked for other purposes, or whether there will be any changes in how the Deloitte funds will be used amid the 988 cuts.

Regardless, the staffing cuts come at a turbulent time for the Trevor Project more broadly.

In November 2022, the organization ousted then-CEO Amit Paley, apparently in response to employees voicing outrage about his previous work helping Purdue Pharma avoid responsibility for the opioid epidemic. Later reporting by LGBTQ Nation revealed that his departure had “no connection whatsoever to his previous consulting work,” and raised concerns instead about employee burnout due to, among other things, a “multichat application” that would force employees to “conduct several conversations with numerous help-seekers simultaneously.”

Five months later, staff—particularly those involved in crisis-counseling work—told Vice that they felt inadequately supported amid rising homophobia and transphobia. In April, about two months before the staff cuts, the Trevor Project formally recognized its newly-formed employee union—a group whose membership had not pulled punches airing complaints about the management issues and work conditions.

“Instead of caring for us, so many have been harmed by leadership at Trevor,” Ren Brady P., a crisis services operations employee, wrote on the union’s website. “We need the protection of a union and collective action to make sure this does not continue. We are working towards a healthier, safer work environment, so we can not only better care for each other, but ultimately better care for our youth.”

According to Vibrant’s Jaffar, redistributing funding away from the Trevor Project itself is expected to strengthen “responsiveness and resiliency in the [LGTBQ support] network.”

But despite such statements, and despite the projected overall expansion in services, people like Kaplan remain concerned about the future of the LGBTQ crisis line.

Trevor will still be involved, but with reduced staffing. At the same time, six other 988 call centers are coming online. But given significant problems across the country staffing the 988 hotline, it isn’t clear if those other centers will be able to fill the chairs at the levels required to meet the need.

More worrisome to people like Kaplan? It’s unclear how many of these centers actually have competency caring for LGBTQ-specific callers in crisis.

In a resource guide on its website, SAMHSA highlights that providers need certain capabilities to best serve this community; a primer on care for substance use in LGBTQ populations, for example, is 228 pages. Of the six new centers—CommUnity, EMPACT, Solari, Centerstone, PRS CrisisLink, and Volunteers of America Western Washington—only two have websites that mention LGBTQ services in any capacity on their crisis hotline pages, as of July 7. And only one—EMPACT—gives specifics beyond “having options for” LGBTQ individuals.

The new setup is already falling short.

Four days after learning they’d lost their job offer—and with it, health insurance, a consistent paycheck, as well as hopes for top surgery in the near future—Everhart called 988. The call rang through for about 30 seconds. Then the line went dead.

“The irony was not lost on me: I was calling a lifeline because I was fired from a lifeline,” Everhart said.

“They laid off a bunch of queer people, trying to help queer people, during Pride,” they added. “We need the opposite of what happened.”