A Bethel social worker rewrites their own story as they help queer youth find peace and belonging

A person with glasses, a pink and blue collared shirt, and a t-shirt that reads "PROTECT TRANS KIDS" sits on the edge of a bed.
Taylor Feightner, co-director of programming at Choosing Our Roots. Photographed Aug. 17, 2023. (Dev Hardikar/Alaska Public Media)

Taylor Feightner grew up in Oklahoma in a fundamentalist Christian church where neither their family nor their community accepted queer or gender-nonconforming people. After being outed by a childhood friend as a teen, they said their parents sent them to conversion therapy with their preacher. 

“It was hard because it’s someone who is in a position of authority, who your whole family respects, who you have respected your whole life, saying really dark, frightening, upsetting things about you,” Feightner said. ”And then telling you things like, ‘You’re better than this. You’ve been taught to be right and now you are wrong.’” 

For years after conversion therapy, Feightner again hid who they were from their family. But at 17, they said their parents found out and kicked them out of the house. At first, they found a home with the family of a close friend. But they said their behavior was spiraling out of control because they were struggling so deeply with self acceptance and self love. 

“Lots of self harm, suicidal ideation, drug use addiction problems,” said Feightner, “[I was] just desperately clinging to anything that could hurt me.”

Feightner said their grandmother is strictly religious, but eventually she was the only person in the family who looked past those beliefs to give Feightner a place to stay. 

“She said, ‘It’s not right how all of these adults have been treating you,’” said Feightner. “And there were no expectations. There were no questions. She said, ‘I love you and I want to take care of you.’ I probably wouldn’t be here if that had not been the safe place for me to return to.”

A blue backpack covered in pins next to a pink water bottle covered in stickers
Taylor Feightner’s backpack and water bottle, adorned with pins and stickers. (Dev Hardikar/Alaska Public Media)

Feightner is not alone in their struggle. Queer youth face high rates of suicide, self-harm, and housing instability. But that safe place with their grandmother and the freedom to make mistakes and recover helped Feightner survive and heal, along with a hefty dose of therapy and self-work. 

In 2021, they moved to Alaska and a year and a half ago they started working at Choosing Our Roots. It’s an organization that helps connect young LGBTQ+ people with housing and resources, with offices in Anchorage, Bethel, on the Kenai Peninsula and in the Mat-Su Borough. 

Feightner said sometimes their work means talking with young people to figure out a plan for safe housing. That might include placing kids with families who have a spare room, or helping them find housing grants. It can keep kids out of foster care and closer to home. For some it may mean they can stay in the Interior rather than moving to a city like Anchorage where they have no support. Feightner, who prefers the term queer, said they’ve found deep meaning as a queer person working with young queer people. 

“I all the time think, what would my life have been like if I had someone like me in it?” said Feightner. “And it feels like such an enormous blessing and privilege to be able to show up in that way for young people. Because there’s so many times — there’s so many reasons that I shouldn’t be here — that my decisions, my situation were so dangerous.”

Feightner didn’t get unconditional love and acceptance from their parents growing up. But they said their struggles help them understand the people they work with now. Feightner said the work they do is a way to rewrite their own story. It’s what life could have been like if they’d had support.

Feightner helps youth stay out of the dangerous situations they faced as a teen. And they help with things a parent or caretaker might. On a recent Wednesday they took a few teens grocery shopping in Bethel. And they work with youth one-on-one, helping them set life goals and figure out the steps to realize them. That might mean helping them create budgets, pay their bills or apply for jobs. 

Amelia Hanrahan, a therapist who works with trans, gender-diverse and queer people in Juneau, said these supportive relationships are deeply healing in both directions. And she said it’s just as important for young people to see queer adults in their community. 

“If they never see somebody in their life who’s like them, that absence is deafening,” said Hanrahan. “But if they do have somebody, they’re like, ‘Oh, there’s a path forward for me. I do exist in this world and my community.’ I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say it can save lives.” 

And Hanrahan said it’s common for queer people to have to find ways to re-parent themselves. She said she frequently works with people who have been kicked out of their homes or experience abuse or violence as a way to try to change behaviors related to their identity that parents didn’t like.  

“So for a lot of these people, they haven’t experienced the parenting that you would normally experience, especially during adolescence,” said Hanrahan. “And, so, as an adult, you have to learn how to do that for yourself.”

She said doing identity-affirming work with young people can be one way to heal. Hanrahan said she came out as transgender partly because of her work with young queer people. 

“Seeing kids who can be authentically themselves can sometimes help us unlearn the messages that there was something wrong with us, or that we were unlovable or abnormal,” said Hanrahan.

That’s a lesson Feightner is helping others unlearn through their work. Recently a young person opened up to Feightner. She also grew up in a strictly religious family that didn’t accept her and, like Feightner, she struggled with substance use. 

Feightner laughs when they call themself a queer elder at age 30, but they know it shows in their work. 

“There’s so much tragedy and there’s so much death and violence within the queer community,” said Feightner. “Having someone older, with a story that is similar, say that it gets better, it sounds so cheesy, but it does generate hope. It generates peace and belonging that most people I work with have never had before.”

In a few years, the young people Feightner works with will be adults. Feightner hopes they’ll have practical skills and the confidence that comes from being loved for who you really are. 

RELATED: Report finds that Dunleavy administration quietly removed policy protecting LGBTQ Alaskans from discrimination

Rachel Cassandra covers health and wellness for Alaska Public Media. Reach her at rcassandra@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Rachel here.

Previous article12 things student loan borrowers should know about the return to repayment
Next articleAnchorage man charged with robbing same credit union branch twice in 2 months