The Point Foundation’s website says its mission is to “empower promising LGBTQ students to achieve their full academic and leadership potential – despite the obstacles often put before them – to make a significant impact on society.”
Jorge Valencia, the CEO and Executive Director, talked about his own difficult coming out story, working for President Clinton and his work with the foundation.
What are examples of great philanthropy that the Point Foundation does?
Point Foundation’s (Point) philanthropy goes well beyond the financial contributions made to its scholars. For example, at Point, we believe that there is much to learn from mentoring – specifically, intergenerational mentoring. Many of our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) youth learn little to nothing about their LGBTQ history in school. Pairing them with a prominent member or ally of our community, provides them with this history and an understanding of the fight for equality and acceptance that has paved the way for them today. Additionally, resources are set aside to further expand our scholars’ educational and professional experience by providing leadership training in areas such as fiscal responsibility, politics, health and well-being, public speaking, as well as implementation of an annual community service project for every year in which Point supports their educational endeavors.
There’s news and highlights about what Point Scholars are doing – their community service projects and their involvement in the LGBTQ community – on our ViewPoint blog: http://blog.pointfoundation.org You can also find on our web site some personal reflections on the benefits of the Mentor and Scholar experience: http://pointfoundation.wordpress.com/2013/01/04/meet_mentor_pair/ and http://pointfoundation.wordpress.com/2012/10/31/mentor-alan-guno/
Your personal coming story is really incredible. When nobody else was in your situation, or if they were, they were closeted, did you confide in anyone in the Mormon community?
I “publically” came out at age 27. However, I knew at a very young age that I was “different.” Growing up Mormon in a Latino household in Texas, the notion that I could love someone the same gender didn’t even seem like an option. I didn’t have any role models, nor did I know of any LGBTQ adults. Moving from a small town in Texas to Provo, Utah to attend Brigham Young University (BYU) only reinforced that while I could relate to other Mormons or Latinos on a cultural level, my sexual orientation left little for which I could relate. Since leaving BYU, I have reconnected with numerous members of the LGBTQ community from my home town and BYU. Little did I know that we were all living in the closet for fear of being rejected by families, communities and educational institutions. And it is for these reasons, as well as the lack of visibility of the LGBTQ community, that I never confided in anyone regarding my full identity.
Also, as you grew up in Texas and were among the Hispanic mentality, there’s this air of men having to be macho all the time, which means, besides acting out like that in regular life, nothing other than dating women. I’ve seen this myself often in real life and through American Hispanic and European programming. How did this affect you as a teen? How did it affect people you know? What is the way to make people from other backgrounds, such as particularly religious or in some cultural groups into seeing you can be a traditionally macho, still strong, gay man?
As a teen, I definitely felt the pressures that many young men in the Latino community still feel today – that of never showing weakness or vulnerability, of showing little to no emotion unless those feelings are focused towards competition and survival. Thankfully, the youth of today are stronger than many of us were and are rejecting labels associated with gender – even in the Latino community. Like me, many of my peers felt pressured into participating in sports or proving their manhood. For some, this was accomplished by joining gangs or participating in what was perceived to be “manly” activities – drinking, smoking and even purposefully treating women as inferiors. In time, I was made aware that some of my gay, Latino classmates got married and had children because it was expected of them. As a result, families were ignored while they explored their sexuality on the side – living a conflicted and double life.
I believe that both religious and cultural groups are experiencing the rejection of labels by many of our youth, as well as a shift in society towards more inclusiveness. As such, these groups are being faced with evaluation of traditional roles. I also believe that women have had a great deal to do with the breakdown of barriers as they rejected traditional roles and began to fight for and embrace their individuality and rightful place in society as equals. My personal belief is that through honesty in living one’s life, stereotypes will continue to weaken and ultimately (I hope) individuals will be accepted on their merits rather than preconceived roles in life.
When you were a missionary, did you ever encounter young men and women in the closet? Did you reach out to them in any way?
As a missionary in Brazil, I was still under the impression that this “difference” or “weakness” could be worked out through prayer if I dedicated myself fully to the task at hand. As such, I was either completely oblivious to sexual identity or chose not to face it for fear of my own struggles with my identity. I have no doubt that I came across some young men and women who were struggling with their sexual identity, but given the Mormon church’s view on homosexuality at the time of my mission, I’m not sure I would have known how to offered much help, other than to do what I was doing at that very moment – praying for these feelings to simply go away.
You used to work with the Trevor Project. What are some alternatives to suicide people should look for? What about things beyond seeking therapy that will help someone feel better?
I worked with The Trevor Project for five years, from 2001-2006. I am so fortunate to have worked with the founders and some very passionate board members in the establishment of the organization’s infrastructure and programs. Suicide should never be an option. There are so many resources available today for young people and adults. Whether someone struggles with depression that may require professional counseling and treatment, suicidal signs can identified and as a result, it can be avoided. The first step is to attempt to find a caring individual – a family member, a friend, a teacher – with whom you can confide. If this isn’t possible, there is always The Trevor Project, which is toll-free and anonymous. They also have options for writing in anonymously. Communicate with others who care for you and love you unconditionally. Look for a local LGBTQ center or contact PFLAG (Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays), which is comprised of adults who have a family member who is LGBTQ. You may be surprised to know that you’re not alone and that there is so much more to look forward to in life – take it one day at a time.
Aside from therapy, if you’re of junior high or high school age, there is no better way to feel better about oneself than to engage in your school’s Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) or the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). Even if you’re not comfortable joining this group, you’ll find someone within this group, including a faculty member who will be supportive. If you’re an adult, find a local LGBTQ Center. They typically have individual and group counseling and you’ll find a community of individuals who know exactly what you’re facing. I hear over and over again that engaging as a volunteer with a local charity not only provides much-needed support to the charity, but provides you with a network of caring individuals brought together through a common cause.
When students apply for a Point Foundation scholarship, what do you look for? How successful has your scholarship program been? What do the scholarship winners go on to do after college?
Point Foundation looks at a number of factors when considering recipients for its highly competitive scholarships. However, there are three specifics areas to which we pay special attention: 1) academic excellence, 2) leadership/community service commitment – within the LGBTQ community, as well as society as a whole and 3) need, which may be defined as financial or emotional. Success can be interpreted in a number of ways. For us, success is seeing an individual able to attain a higher education at the institution of their choice and eventually entering the workplace, while giving back to society through continued community service. We’re very proud of our current class of 76 Point Scholars and our 145 alumni who have gone on to serve as educators, award-winning filmmakers, doctors, lawyers, artists and even elected officials.
The website mentions advocacy. What are you working on politically and in public speaking throughout 2013?
Our scholars are engaged in numerous advocacy efforts. We empower them, and encourage them through their required community service projects, to seek LGBTQ causes that are important to them personally. And they are often asked to speak at conferences throughout the country in their capacity as leaders. As an organization, I have spoken at a number of conferences across the country this past year, including Reaching Out MBA, the Hispanic Black Gay Coalition Youth conference, Utah County Sexual Health Symposium and later this month I will give a keynote speech at the Center for Excellence in School Counseling and Leadership’s (CESCaL) annual conference. Politically, we participate in Equality Caucus meetings in Washington, DC and hope to further engage in issues surrounding higher education among the LGBTQ community.
When President Obama spoke about the LGBTQ community in his inaugural address, was there anything you think he should have added? Do you think he is going to be able to fit progress into his agenda pretty well as much as possible, or might that be something that may take several administrations?
I have had the privilege of attending a Presidential Inauguration twice – once when I worked in the Clinton Administration and this past month’s Presidential Inauguration for President Obama. When I worked for the Clinton Administration, we had what I believed the most LGBTQ-friendly Administration to date. Simply knowing that we had someone who recognized us as a community made me proud and gave me hope for the future. But never did I believe that in my lifetime, I’d hear our President vocalize his support for gay marriage and stand behind our community’s fight for equality. Listening to President Obama equate our fight at Stonewall with the fight for equality at Seneca Falls and Selma, in my opinion, gave the LGBTQ community the very clear message that there is no turning back on full equality, which he said when mentioning our journey as a nation. He clearly laid out his agenda for his second term and now it’s up to us to continue the momentum. I could not have asked for more in his address.