Kathryn Gonzales is a trans woman working to help Central Texas’s LGBTQ-plus youth find love and support.
By Mikaila Rushing, Photos by Riley Krauss and Mikaila Rushing
As a kid, Kathryn Gonzales loved playing with Tonka Trucks and dolls. She admired her grandmother more than anything and wanted to be a superhero.
At 32-years-old, she is now the operations and program director at Out Youth, a place where youth of all sexual orientations and gender identies can be themselves, and while her hobbies may have changed with time, her desire to save the day certainly hasn’t.
Despite being assigned male at birth, Gonzales was socialized in a gender-neutral home environment.
She distinctly remembers clambering into the front seat of her mother’s white Honda at 7 years old while her younger sister climbed into the back.
“You know, if you ever wanted to be a girl, that would be OK,” Gonzales’ mother told her. “We would still love you.”
At the time, Gonzales didn’t know what she meant. Throughout much of her teenage life, she assumed she was gay, but she found that label just never truly fit. It wasn’t until she was 19 and she watched The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert that she knew she identified as a trans woman. After that day, Gonzales began the journey to fully accepting and presenting her authentic self as a trans woman.
She first joined Out Youth’s efforts in 2005 as a volunteer American-sign-language interpreter for the organization’s deaf lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth at a rally at the Texas Capitol. Multiple ear problems and surgeries when she was a child left Gonzales with permanent hearing loss, so she decided to study American sign language, and is now fluent. While she was attending the University of Texas, studying film and business, Out Youth contacted her, as the organization was having trouble finding volunteer translators. Gonzales was Out Youth’s saving grace.
After graduating from UT, Gonzales reinvigorated and rebranded a program at the Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival to create the Queer Youth Media Project, which partnered with Out Youth to help teach LGBTQ-plus kids how to tell their stories through film.
When she went back to UT for her master’s degree, she began working part time as Out Youth’s resources consultant in 2011. In early 2015, she was promoted to operations director, and in September 2015, Gonzales was given a full-time position as the operations and program director.
Out Youth is a nonprofit organization that works to serve Central Texas’s LGBTQ-plus youth. It provides counseling, support groups and safe spaces for more than 770 members. The organization also runs the Texas GSA Network, which both registers and supports public and private gender and sexuality alliances throughout the state. The network also partners with the Kind Clinic for HIV testing and hormone-replacement therapy.
The central function of Out Youth, however, can be seen at the organization’s headquarters, a quaint blue house off Airport Boulevard. In front of the cracked orange front porch, a sign reads, “In this house, we believe: black lives matter, women’s rights are human rights, no human is illegal, science is real, love is love, kindness is everything.” In the largest street-facing window, a multitude of drawings depicting positive LGBTQ-plus messages is on full display. In the front room, a white polyester couch that has messages scrawled across every inch in colorful markers reads, “You are amazing and loved,” and “Be who you are! No shame!” Even the walls of the old house offer reassurance, with a variety of sticky notes about, like treasures that read, “I am so glad you’re here!”
This is the drop-in center where kids in need of a safe space can turn to and gather together a few evenings during the week.
On her first day at Out Youth in September 2015, Gonzales learned her first important lesson. She ran a group discussion for the first time, and sixteen-year-old Andy Ortiz raised his hand.
“Well,” Ortiz said, “the youth were hoping you could help change the way adults talk about Out Youth.”
He explained to her that while the technical aspects of Out Youth are all well and good, such as the counseling, group sessions and health services that are often mentioned, they can be kind of intimidating, serving to make Out Youth sound quite clinical. He admits that when his mother first brought him, he’d been afraid he was being taken to a hospital from how she’d described it. He’d been surprised to find that instead, Out Youth was simply a little blue house full of people who wanted him to feel comfortable being himself. And, he says, he thinks that should be better reflected in how the organization is described.
“This is a family first,” he told Gonzales.
And Gonzales still carries his words with her more than two years later.
Her day-to-day tasks often involve putting out fires, as she describes it. Often, she is answering calls for assistance from kids using the GSA Network, or calls from people in the Austin community who simply don’t know who else to call because there is no LBGTQ-plus community center, or tackling small things, like making sure the Facebook page is being operated correctly by an outside system.
She admits that, initially, one of the most difficult things to embrace about her new job was the lack of rest that comes with it.
“I wish I would have known I’d never sleep,” Gonzales says. “For the first year, you will not sleep. You will go to sleep. But you will not rest.”
Gonzales explains there are times of tragedy and trauma, and moments in which there is so much joy and celebration. But she does her best to make the most of it.
“I work 24/7,” Gonzales says, “and I wouldn’t have it any other way because that’s how families work. You don’t clock out of being a family.”
And her effort and attitude are clearly noted by the members of Out Youth. When she walks into the room, everyone greets her and several clamor for her attention, eager to tell her about their day, their troubles and their celebrations.
“If Out Youth didn’t have her,” says Bek Milstead, a current Out Youth member, “Out Youth wouldn’t be Out Youth. It would be a different place.”
In trying to protect the youth of the organization, Out Youth often has to advocate for the members of its growing family and those beyond. At Out Youth, there are several in-house advocacy programs, such as the name-and-gender-marker assistance it provides. Because several members of Out Youth’s staff, including Gonzales, have gone through the process before, they are able to help members by describing what forms they need and how to fill them out and, if they want, even escort them to the courthouse. Out Youth also participates in community-wide events like Pride, Ride for AIDS and panels that promote the education and wellness of the LGBTQ-plus community.
Gonzales and several others have also spoken at a Senate committee hearing, advocating that SB3 should not be passed. The bill aimed to prevent transgender individuals who cannot change their legal gender marker from using the bathroom of their identified gender on state-owned property.
“Her ability to support the youth at Out Youth with all of her heart I think speaks volumes for her character, given that she was just as under attack in the state of Texas,” Nathan Michaud, the vice chair of Out Youth’s board of directors, says of Gonzales.
SB3 did not pass, but the fight is predicted to be far from complete. And, as Gonzales lays out, regardless of any legislation, Out Youth’s fight is far from complete as well.