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‘There are other people like me’: New nonprofit connects LGBTQ+ youth with mentors

While the mentorship program is QUEERSPACE’s cornerstone, the organization also offers youth meetups and parent support.

Lily, center, and her parents, Heidi and Dan Mouw. This photo was taken the day of the court hearing to legally change Lily’s name and gender on her birth certificate.
Lily, center, and her parents, Heidi and Dan Mouw. This photo was taken the day of the court hearing to legally change Lily’s name and gender on her birth certificate.

For years, Heidi Mouw and her husband Dan did everything they could to shore up their oldest child’s often precarious mental health.

From an early age, Mouw said, “Lily had a lot of mental health diagnoses: major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder. She had really been struggling for quite some time. We were in the social services getting therapy, psychiatry, since she was in elementary school. Even when she was that young, she had suicidal ideation.”

When she was 13, Lily, who had been assigned male at birth, told her parents that she was trans. For Mouw, this news was a call to action.

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“When Lily came out and she was finally really open, I knew I wanted to protect her, to get rid of that discrimination,” she said. “I’d do anything for her.”

Mouw and her husband made an appointment for Lily at Children’s Minnesota’s Gender Health Program. “We got her on puberty blockers right away,” Mouw said. The next step felt nearly as important, she added: The family reached out to QUEERSPACE collective, a 2 1/2-year-old nonprofit that matches LGBTQ+ youth in the Twin Cities and St. Cloud with queer and trans mentors who support them as they navigate the sometimes difficult years of growing into their chosen identity.

Mouw and Lily, who is now 16 and allowed her mom to speak on her behalf for this story, first learned about QUEEERSPACE when they made a trip to the Twin Cities Pride Festival in the summer of 2021.

“A few months after Lily came out as female, we connected with QUEERSPACE,” Mouw said. “In hindsight, after she came out, we could see lots of little things from when she was much younger that we never picked up on, things that pointed to her being trans.”  She wondered if Lily’s mental health struggles were connected to her gender dysphoria. She hoped that connecting with a mentor could help her daughter somehow make her life a little easier.

The process of matching a young person with a QUEERSPACE mentor takes time, explained Nicki Hangsleben, the nonprofit’s executive director and founder. The organization, which also offers monthly meetups for LGBTQ+ youth and support groups for parents as well as a new workshop program connecting groups of young people with local artists, intentionally puts potential mentors through extensive background checks, screening interviews and trainings before matching them with mentees.

Lily and her parents went through the matching process, which included filling out a lengthy questionnaire about Lily’s interests and background, as well as an in-person meeting with Hangsleben.

Nicki Hangsleben
Nicki Hangsleben
“Nicki came to our house and had a little interview with us about what we were wanting,” Mouw recalled. After a few months, during which Lily was able to attend monthly hangouts with other LGBTQ+ youth, she said that QUEERSPACE, “sent a picture and a letter from a potential mentor.” As part of the matching process,  only Mouw and her family knew about the match, giving them time to review the mentor’s application and decide if they felt comfortable going ahead.

Mouw said that she and Lily appreciated this step, which leaves the decision in their hands — with no fear of hurting anyone’s feelings. With the first mentor candidate, Mouw said, “Lily said she didn’t think this is a good match for her.” QUEERSPACE then sent a second option, who, Mouw reported, “was absolutely perfect.”

While the mentorship program is QUEERSPACE’s cornerstone, the youth meetups and parent support are also central to the organization’s mission, Hangsleben said. QUEERSPACE also offers a training institute that offers training and consulting programs for youth organizations, educational institutions and corporations, including Bloomington-based Best Buy’s teen tech centers.

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“Since we started, we’ve matched 59 queer and trans youth with a mentor in our one-on-one mentorship program,” Hangsleben said. “We’ve worked with closer to 100 families. And now some young people are starting to get engaged in our youth workshop series.”

‘It was huge for her mental health’

Mouw believes that her family’s connection with QUEERSPACE has made a significant difference in Lily’s overall mental health. Her mentor, an adult trans woman, has the personal experience needed to provide support for Lily as she navigates middle school, high school and beyond. Mostly, Lily and her mentor meet for hangouts. Because Lily is interested in animals, the pair often make trips to SeaQuest, the zoo or other aquariums.

Spending time with her mentor, and with other queer and trans youth at the hangouts, has given Lily a new sense of confidence and a feeling that she’s not alone, her mother said. When Lily, “first started to question her gender, she didn’t really realize that there were others like her” Mouw said. When she first started hanging out with other young people who had similar stories, “she’d come back really emotional,” Mouw recalled, but her comfort soon grew.

“It was huge for her mental health. She had this feeling of acceptance and an ability to be her authentic self. She thought, ‘I can be who I am. I can make friends. People accept me. There are other people like me.’ It was just huge.”

The more she spent time with other young queer people, the better Lily felt, her mother said.

“Honestly, Lily just bloomed. She became happy. Just hearing about what other kiddos like her are going through at the monthly hangouts and how they are handling the bullying has been really helpful for her.”

At school, Mouw said, Lily’s increased confidence has been apparent. “She blossomed and started to gain friends and wanted to participate in things to the point that she was able to stop taking her antidepressants. She ended up losing the major depressive disorder diagnosis.”

Lily’s relationship with her mentor has helped on another level, Mouw added. As a trans woman, the mentor has been able to offer answers and support that Mouw and her husband just can’t provide.

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“I can be as supportive as I can be but I can’t answer so many questions about what it is like to be a trans woman,” Mouw said. “I don’t have those answers. Knowing that she has someone who is safe that she can ask those questions puts me at ease.” The relationship has been, she added, “beneficial for Lily, whether it’s talk about transitioning or about different experiences, like challenges she encounters in the world.”

Mouw said that QUEERSPACE’s extensive sign-up and orientation process helped her feel comfortable with the idea of sending her daughter off for hangouts with another adult. A final face-to-face meeting with Hangsleben  and Lily’s mentor helped Mouw feel like they had all the bases covered.

“It was this big group meeting,” Mouw recalled. “We went over all the ground rules: The mentor can never take Lily back to their house, never is there gift giving. When we all got to meet each other, it was great. And for the first few months they would check in with me, too, to make sure I was feeling good about how things were going.”

Since Lily’s been matched up with her mentor, Mouw said that and her husband have also taken part in trainings for parents and other caregivers on, “suicide prevention and how to advocate for school rights. The trainings have been really helpful to me Lily’s dad. We don’t feel so lost and alone anymore.”

The challenge for queer youth

Hangsleben’s mom is gay, and she said she spent her childhood “surrounded by queer folks.” So when she came out as queer in the late 1990s, she said had, “this huge network of support. I grew up with a lot of LGBTQ+ mentors. It was a totally privileged experience to see healthy, thriving queer adults growing up.”

As Hangsleben grew into an adult, she went to business school, earned an MBA in international business development and built a career managing complex programs for businesses around the world. That career focus kept her away from home, but during the pandemic, “when everything stopped,” Hangsleben, who grew up in south Minneapolis, said she realized that she needed to do something different with her life. “I took a step back and wondered, like other people, if there was something I can do a little bit closer to home.”

QUEERSPACE was launched in response to a need, Hangsleben explained. She’d been reading reports of harassment and suicides among queer youth in Minnesota, and she decided to use her business acumen to create an organization dedicated to smoothing the rough adolescent years for young queer people. “We were seeing the struggles youth in our community were facing,” she said.

One thing that Hangsleben noted about the Twin Cities is the fact that the number of young people who identify as LGBTQ+ is growing.  “The Minnesota Department of Education did a survey in 2022 and reported that almost 40% of eighth grade students in Hennepin County identify as asexual, bisexual, queer and pansexual,” she said.

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She believed that there was a need for an organization that could support the mental health of these kids and their caregivers. She also wanted to support companies and organizations in learning how to more compassionately work with LGBTQ+ youth and adults. “We want to build the capacity of other youth organizations of how they can better support queer and trans youth and the broader LGBTQ+ community. We believe if you can help create these inclusive spaces then young people in our communities can take up space and be their authentic selves.”

Even today, when gay marriage is legal and when many people say they support LGBTQ rights, coming out can still be a struggle, Hangsleben said.

“Coming out is always challenging,” she said. Her own personal experience attests to that: “It feels easier now than it did when I came out on the late ’90s, in the pre-internet days.” Still, discrimination against queer people exists, and families have every reason to worry about how the young people they love will be treated.

“You never know how folks are going to respond,” Hangsleben said. “When you come out and say, ‘This is who I am,’ and you take that risk, it can be scary and challenging but also really freeing.”

Mouw and her husband were definitely concerned about how Lily would be treated during her gender transition and into her young adulthood. “At first, that initial worry about what the world was going to say to her was really rough,” she said. But it turned out that in many ways, Lily’s coming out as trans actually made her life easier: “Up until she came out, she was pretty heavily bulled at school for some reason. When she came out, the opposite happened. Everyone around her was like, ‘That makes sense.’ She stopped getting bullied.”

Still, Mouw continues to worry. Lily’s faced some pushback from other family members, and when she moved to high school, she encountered more bullies, but the support from her mentor and the kids she knows from her QUEERSPACE hangouts has helped her make it through.

And somehow that support for her daughter has helped ease Mouw’s fears.

“It’s that support that brings the amplification down,” Mouw said. “It says, ‘It’s OK, Mama. We’ve got her.’” Mouw and her husband continue to do all they can to hold Lily up, but it feels helpful to know that she also has found this additional source: “A lot of parents want their kids to have other supportive adults in their lives. This is what Lily has, which is absolutely, wonderful, considering we’ve lost some of the other adults in our lives. It’s been this tremendous, important help.”