Episode 47: Juan Acosta, LGBTQ+ and Mental Health Activist
In this episode, Karen speaks with Juan Acosta, a young activist who has dedicated his life to fighting on behalf of the LGBTQ+ community, particularly as it pertains to the LGBTQ+ rights and its intersection with mental health, shares his story and speaks about his book, published together with Lady Gaga.
Intro Voices 0:05
Where do I go? It only happened once. I think I was singled out. The phone calls began about one month ago. What is hazing? Something happened to me when I was younger. I'm worried about my safety. He said he was sorry. Can someone help me? Where can I get help? Can someone help me?
Intro Voices 0:31
This is “You Matter”, a podcast for the NYU community developed by the Department of Public Safety.
Karen Ortman 00:37
Hi, everyone, and welcome back to You Matter, a podcast created to teach, inspire and motivate members of the NYU community who have been victimized in some form or fashion, and to identify resources both on and off campus that can help. I'm your host Karen Ortman, Associate Vice President of Campus Safety operations at the Department of Public Safety, and a retired law enforcement professional. Today, I welcome Juan Acosta, a young activist who has dedicated his life to fighting on behalf of the LGBTQ+ community, particularly as it pertains to the LGBTQ+ rights and its intersection with mental health. Juan serves on national committees, speaks at conferences and festivals, and has co-authored a book with Lady Gaga. Juan, thank you so much for joining me today on Your Matter.
Juan Acosta 01:29
Thank you so much for having me Karen.
Karen Ortman 01:31
My pleasure. So what was the catalyst for what has now become your life's work?
Juan Acosta 01:39
Yeah, so my life's work, mission and direction were really influenced by my own lived experience. I struggle with my own anxiety bt I've also seen many of my loved ones struggle, and I've always wanted to do more to help.
Karen Ortman 01:56
So, you're a relatively younger person, a little bit beyond college age. You've lived a lot of life and had experiences that many people endure over, you know, decades. What gave you the strength to push yourself in this direction to be a voice and to educate other people?
Juan Acosta 02:31
So really, it was just years of struggling and then as you said, I'm 23 now, but I feel like I'm much older than that. I come from an immigrant family. I'm a first generation professional, and I belong to the LGBTQ+ community so there's just many factors that impacted me and my upbringing that made it quite hard at times. It was hard at first and I felt lost on many occasions. It was wanting to do more for myself, and at the same time wanting to do more for others, and really facilitating accessing resources, and many of the mental health programs that are available. Not knowing where to go really was the catalyst to it. It just really made me want to get involved.
Karen Ortman 03:24
Yeah. Without providing any detail, can you speak to some of the circumstances that served as this catalyst for you like, what was your experience?
Juan Acosta 03:41
Yeah, so I grew up in a small town, named Woodland, California. Second grade was when I kind of knew I was different, you know, I felt that I didn't fit in with the other boys. In my school grade, I used to hang out with more girls and I just felt more comfortable hanging out with the girls than the boys. And it just made me an easy target for the other boys in my school grade. I was constantly being labeled things at a very young age. I used to go home and...a lot of the things that I was told and taunted with, I never told my parents because as first generation people in this country, my parents worked day and night to put food on the table. I didn't want to be another factor of their stress. I just wanted to just be me, but it was really, really hard. I'd go home and I closed the door in my room and I would cry to my pillow or I would cry in the shower and it was just something that I just really kept to myself and it was all for me not wanting to stress out my parents and just really wanting the best for me and for them and what I identified to be the best for them at that moment. It was me just kind of being away from them and just keeping all my feelings to myself
Karen Ortman 05:06
Must have been very lonely.
Yeah, it was definitely very lonely and it was hard and stressful. I felt like I was all alone battling all these different things. I would hate going to school, I would just always want to be out sick. My stomach would always hurt. It was just really difficult to be focused on my education when I had so many other factors I was worrying about.
Karen Ortman 05:37
So were there any resources that you sought out to help you with? Did you have family? Was there anybody in school that you could talk to? I mean, like extended family? I know your parents were busy working? Was there anybody that you could confide in and talk to about what was going on?
Juan Acosta 05:58
Quite frankly, no. And a lot of the reason was that because I was born in Mexico, these conversations surrounding mental health are not often a topic of conversation. We don't really touch on mental health. And thankfully, my family has grown to talk more about it, and throughout my advocacy work, but these conversations aren't really normalized. I know that even here in the United States, we are still battling that stigma that surrounds mental health. So a lot of the things that I was struggling with, I didn't know what to label them or how to identify them. I knew that I was in pain and I didn't feel comfortable telling anyone because I didn't feel comfortable coming out yet.
Karen Ortman 06:43
So how did you manage? What did you do? Did this situation ever turn around for you while you were still in the, you know, public school system?
Juan Acosta 06:58
Not really, I really struggled in high school as well with my grades and it just really impacted like my overall performance in school. What really supported me was my advocacy work, I began my advocacy work at the age of 13, as well, a method to cope with my own anxiety and to really be involved in the community, but I didn't feel like I belonged. I felt that the only way I could belong was by giving back and just wanting to be a part of the solution to the community. When I began the advocacy work at age of 13 it was something that really made me feel good. It was something that I really prioritized. I didn't really have friends, I didn't really go out. I didn't feel like I had a normal childhood, but rather I was dedicated to try and support other people who were struggling, while at the same time I was struggling. Yeah, it was just a healing experience.
Karen Ortman 08:01
Wow. So at 13, how did this even start for you at 13? What gave you the the strength and the sort of ambition to start doing advocacy work? Where did that even come from at 13?
Juan Acosta 08:24
Yeah, so I found this opportunity, it was from a mentor, that they needed or they wanted a youth committee to bring advocacy and to prioritize a lot of the issues in the community. It was a way for me to find resources, but it was more so me telling myself that it was time for a change and that I didn't want to be sad anymore. I really wanted my life to change. For a lot of middle school suicide was definitely something that was on my mind at the time. I didn't want that for me anymore. I just really wanted to create change. I saw the opportunity and I took it and it was scary at first because, as I said, growing up as a first generation professional here in this small hometown, a lot of these spaces didn't feel comfortable to me. Eventually I just became comfortable with being uncomfortable. I really didn't have to just show up for others,t I really had to show up for myself as well.
Karen Ortman 09:30
Yeah. Wow. So you are you're a born leader, I would say.
Juan Acosta 09:37
Thank you so much. Yeah.
Karen Ortman 09:40
So you started your advocacy work at 13. What was that journey like for the remainder of your schooling? Did the advocacy efforts grow in terms of participants or outreach? What was the the lifespan while you were in in school of your found advocacy efforts?
Juan Acosta 10:11
So my advocacy efforts throughout my schooling remained and it remained up until now. I just graduated from college, San Francisco State University... ...and throughout my home schooling since middle school up until today, I remained doing that. It's something that I cannot emphasize enough, it really saved and changed my life. I've been able to have conversations with people who have similar struggles. I've been able to be a part of creating a change and providing resources for others. It's something that I'm truly proud of, but more so I'm thankful for. It's something I didn't have and I'm just so grateful that I'm able to be a part of that change and provide these resources for others.
Karen Ortman 10:22
Congratulations. Absolutely. So when did you become involved with Lady Gaga's Born This Way Foundation? And if you could share with our listeners, the history of Born This Way, what services do they provide?
Juan Acosta 11:20
Yeah, so Lady Gaga's Born This Way Foundation was founded by her mother and Lady Gaga herself in 2012, with the goal of creating a kinder and braver world. The foundation does a variety of work, including cutting edge research programs, and numerous campaigns and initiatives, including Be Kind / Be There, which is one of the newest partnerships with Jack.org, and that is to teach people the Five Golden Rules on how to support someone with their mental health. It literally takes five minutes to learn those five golden rules.
Karen Ortman 11:53
And so we're so, I'm sorry to interrupt, so the Five Golden Rules, what are they?
Juan Acosta 12:02
So if you go on Jack.org, you'll get a whole entire breakdown of them all but what we identified as the Five Golden Rules is same, say what you see, show you care, hear them out, and know your role, and lastly, connecting help by providing resources.
Karen Ortman 12:24
Okay. And who is it specifically geared towards? A specific audience?
Juan Acosta 12:35
We it's for anyone who doesn't know what to do. Oftentimes, our friends or family members might come to us and they're in severe emotional distress, or they're really struggling with their mental health, and sometimes, if you're not used to having these conversations you don't know where to start, what to do, or what to say. Part of really validating and being there for someone is knowing how to be there and how to provide the best support. This campaign in partnership really aims to do that; to provide the tools and the Five Golden Rules that we identify to best be to support others.
Karen Ortman 13:17
Okay. So can you say the name of the website where people can find the Five Golden Rules again?
Juan Acosta 13:25
Yeah, so if you go to bethere.org, you will be prompted to the campaign behind Be There.
Karen Ortman 13:32
So it's B, the letter B?
Juan Acosta 13:36
B, like be?
Karen Ortman 13:39
Okay, so, BeThere.org?
Juan Acosta 13:48
Karen Ortman 13:50
Can you speak to the book that you co-authored with Lady Gaga and how that came to be?
Juan Acosta 13:59
Yeah, so a little background on my work with the Born This Way Foundation is that I followed the Born This Way Foundation from the beginning because I believe in its mission, and I want it to be a part of that. I became really involved with the Foundation in 2017, as one of the 15 inaugural Channel Kindness reporters, and I was one of the 50 Channel Kindness reporters who were chosen to contribute to a story about kindness and bravery in Lady Gaga's Channel Kindness book that's due for release this upcoming September 22. The book is really a collection of those inspirational stories written by young people as well as personal notes of empowerment from Born This Way co-founder, Lady Gaga, which people know. Within the pages of the book, you'll meet changemakers who found their inner strength and prevailed in the face of bullies. It's really a book that aims to inspire kindness and bravery and that shows concrete and real life stories about youth, and young changemakers who really have dedicated a lot of their time to emphasizing this sentiment of kindness and bravery and real change.
Karen Ortman 15:17
Sounds like an important an important book for many who will benefit. So you mentioned that you were a contributor on Channel Kindness.
Juan Acosta 15:33
Karen Ortman 15:34
So explain what that is.
Juan Acosta 15:38
Channel Kindness is a digital platform created by Lady Gaga's Born This Way Foundation. It's a place where young people tell their stories of kindness, resilience, and community. There are many people who could just go and lend their voice and really share what they see in their community. Channel Kindness for me, it really counterbalances a lot of the news that could be quite heavy at times, and a lot us forget that there are real stories of kindness and feeling that there are people doing great things. Sometimes all of those great stories are overshadowed by a lot of negative or heavy news that, although necessary, it can be really overwhelming. So the Channel Kindness platform is really aimed to just share stories of kindness and resilience that could really just uplift spirits and remind people that humans are doing great things.
Karen Ortman 16:42
How does one access Channel Kindness?
Juan Acosta 16:46
Yeah, so you can go to channelkindness.org and you'll find numerous stories of kindness, resilience, people building safe spaces, and more.
Karen Ortman 16:57
Okay, you were involved in a LGBTQ+ Pride Proclamation. You drafted it in your hometown of Woodside, California. If you could share the background of this proclamation, how you made this happen? I'm sure it'd be very interesting for our listeners.
Juan Acosta 17:22
Yeah, thank you for this wonderful question. This is something that I'm proud of and that is really so so close to home, quite literally, but also emotionally. Growing up, as I mentioned, I didn't feel like I fit in in my hometown, I was really insecure. As I got older, I was constantly being called down. And I feel as if I didn't come out, but rather I was cornered into doing so by people calling you names. And there wasn't any message of acceptance by the community. So, I eventually gave myself confidence in my spirit. I was proud to walk down the street in a leather jacket and some huge sunglasses.
Karen Ortman 18:03
Juan Acosta 18:05
It was something I was just like, you know what - this is me, I'm gonna just show it and be proud of it. But prior to moving to San Francisco where I continued my higher education, I wanted to do something for the LGBTQ+ community and for those who are struggling behind closed door because I didn't have that. I took it upon myself to email city officials to get them to add LGBTQ+ Pride Month to their upcoming city council meeting. I was quite hesitant and I didn't think they'd reply but, to my surprise, they did. Someone had also emailed them before, however, I was told that there was no language drafted and that they needed it. So I was 21 at the time Karen, and I stayed up all night to draft it and send it off to them because I wanted this done. I was not going to have the language not being drafted be a barrier.
Karen Ortman 18:59
So you did it!
Juan Acosta 19:01
Yeah, I stayed up all night. There was a public comment session in City Hall and this effort was in fact very controversial. There were many clashing viewpoints. It was really intimidating because when I had to speak up at the podium in front of all this video, officials, and people with opposing views standing behind me, it was just really hard to be vulnerable.
Karen Ortman 19:29
...and really be out there and exposed.
Juan Acosta 19:31
Yeah, it just even more of a light, right? Like it's a huge, it's either a spotlight, or it's like a target light ,one or the other. I was 21. I was really scared and I just reminded myself why I was doing it, right, like the mission and the meaning behind all of this was to to really support others so I had to ignore my own doubts and fears and just really pushed for this and really present them with concrete facts as to why we needed this message of acceptance. A similar attempt was made in 1998, I believe, and it was voted down by the Woodlands City Council. For the first time ever, and making history, the City Council passed this through. It was such an honor.
Karen Ortman 20:25
Well, good for you. I'm proud of you. That's great work.
Juan Acosta 20:28
Karen Ortman 20:29
In addition to the proclamation, I know that you have you've earned many prestigious awards for your efforts. Governor and First Lady Service Award and the Presidential Service Award. Tell us about those. What was the contribution for those awards? And when was the recognition, I think you should brag about it.
Juan Acosta 21:05
So these awards actually happen when I was in high school, early high school years. It was really attributed to the work I did for my community. By the age of 15, I had accumulated over 200 community service hours and attended numerous leadership camps. I had conversations with congressmen from my local communities, and it was something that was really impactful. I was really young so I didn't really see the impact that it all had. I also hosted a local television show in my hometown of Woodland, California, it was called Teens On the Move, that was aired weekly on our television channel. My mentor surprised me, she just told me like, hey, like, you are getting an award from the Governor and First Lady and also a Presidential Service Award. It was just really all attributed to that service I had done. I really want to emphasize that. I never thought when I began my work that people even received awards for doing stuff like this and it was just out of my genuine concern and my genuine love for this type of work. When I received those awards, it was not just my moment, but it was a moment for my whole family. They gave up so much back in their country to come here and to provide these opportunities for me. So yeah, it was really a milestone that impacted everyone.
Karen Ortman 22:46
If you could address, from your perspective, why you think it's important to talk about not only LGBTQ+ issues, but as they relate to mental health? I think it would be very impactful for listeners who are either struggling, know someone who is, or maybe know nothing about it and you're going to educate them and in a moment, but if you could just touch on that?
Juan Acosta 23:18
Of course, thank you for that question. So for me, it's always been really important that when we talk about mental health we acknowledge intersectionality. We must keep in mind the numerous factors impacting someone. I always say the mental health system should not be a one size fits all, because we all experienced different things. The LGBTQ+ community have historically been targeted. This is even more relevant when we talk about people of color and LGBTQ+ community. We know that LGBT youth seriously contemplate suicide almost three times the rate of heterosexual youth so talking about both is crucial and could save lives. Oftentimes, world LGBTQ+, like in my experience, don't speak about these issues and don't know where to go to get these resources, especially if they're not out to their families, right? So having resources available to them that they could access on their own is so important.
Karen Ortman 24:21
I agree. Thank you.
Juan Acosta 24:24
Karen Ortman 24:26
Can you speak as a college graduate now, who went through all of the experiences that you spoke of, can you speak to resources that you have since discovered as an older person in the LGBTQ+ community, or that you've discovered or you've maybe accessed as a younger person after you learned about them? If you could speak to these resources that you could share with our listeners, and how they might find them, that would be really great.
Juan Acosta 25:12
Of course, thank you. Yeah. So a lot of the things that I've really learned throughout my work that have been really helpful are a lot of the lines that are available, like the Trevor Project and the Trans Lifeline, those really support LGBTQ+ views. I've also been really glad to be involved right now and am currently one of the assistant managers for the California warm line, or warm lines are not exclusive to California, there are so many warm lines throughout the United States.
Karen Ortman 25:43
Are you saying warm?
Juan Acosta 25:45
Yeah, warm line. So the concept of a warm is that we provide support, and it's usually peer support for people who are struggling and it's right before the crisis, because a lot of this mental health conversation surrounds people who are already in a crisis. And what we has been identified is that we could prevent a lot of that if we provide resources to people before they get to that crisis. And that's what warm lines are.
Karen Ortman 26:14
And you're saying WARM?
Juan Acosta 26:18
Karen Ortman 26:19
Can you share how one could access a warm line?
Juan Acosta 26:26
Yeah, so you could just Google warm line that might be local to you, I know NYCWell is a warm line that operates from New York but it's open to everyone nationwide, so that's a great warm line. The one I currently work for in California is only for the state of California. But just like those, there are many others that might be local to you. So, literally, a simple Google search can provide that. Okay. You can also find more resources on BornThisWay.Foundation that aim to support LGBTQ+ youth.
Karen Ortman 27:05
Great. Wonderful information. Is there anything else that you want to share that I didn't ask you?
Juan Acosta 27:14
No, I think I'm good, but I really want to thank you Karen, for for this platform that you have and the way you're utilizing it to really uplift and have a lot of proactive conversations that are oftentimes not touched on.
Karen Ortman 27:27
Oh, it's my pleasure. I'm happy to provide whatever information I can. And thank you. It was a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you to my guest Juan and to all of our listeners for joining us for today's episode of You Matter. If any information presented today was triggering or disturbing please feel free to contact the Wellness Exchange at 212-443-9999 or NYU Department of Public Safety and their Victim Services Unit at 212-998-2222. Please share, like and subscribe to You Matter on Apple podcasts, Google Play Tune in or Spotify.