A look into transitional resources in Vermont


Marcus & Penny Pizer

Free time is hard to find for Marcus, Penny and Chuck Pizer these days.

Since cofounding the nonprofit organization Safe Harbor for Trans Teens from their South Burlington home two years ago, Marcus and his mother Penny have poured their time into bringing in transgender and questioning LGBTQ youth, who may otherwise be left without a family, shelter or food.

Penny alternates between fostering the youth [18 and under] coming into Safe Harbor and coordinating with other LGBTQ-focused nonprofits like Pride Center of Vermont to fundraise to add another bathroom, more bedrooms and space for additional kitchen cabinets.

But when asked about how many people Safe Harbor can support, Penny is reluctant to yield a number. “It gives a qualifier that people judge that it’s that much or that many [children],” she said. “It’s not as much about the number as it is the need. We have as many as there are needed to be here and as many as we can help.”

While going through a difficult and sometimes dark transition from female to male, Marcus conceptualized a “safe harbor” for trans youth who lacked the support he had from Penny and his father, Chuck.

“I was going to Outright Vermont for ‘Trans Group’ and was listening to other people [talk about] what they were going through,” Marcus said. “You feel connected, but at the same time I heard certain things that broke my heart, hearing people who haven’t been able to transition as safely or siblings not accepting. I said, ‘Alright, let’s do something and figure something out,’ and it sparked the idea for Safe Harbor.

For this installment, Basement Medicine will highlight select trans-affirming resources in Vermont and how they work to improve the lives of transgender and gender diverse people through counseling, group discussions and foster care.

Since starting Safe Harbor, the Pizers have been featured on WCAX and two documentaries: “Marcus’ Story” for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Vermont, and “Safe Harbor Welcome Home,” produced by Champlain College student Tyler Bradley.

Recently, Safe Harbor was interviewed by freelance writer Jaimie Seaton for her March 29 article, which began: “Homeless rates for LGBT teens are alarming…” Her article, which has been published with The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and The Chicago Tribune, revealed that LGBTQ-identified youth comprise 40 percent of Burlington’s homeless youth.

Marcus, an aspiring doctor and CCV student, says he welcomes the opportunity to help others with Safe Harbor, despite just learning how to handle the attendant anxieties and responsibilities which accompany this heightened level of publicity.

“It’s definitely something I did not expect,” Marcus said. “I didn’t really think of what’s going to come of it or what’s going to happen with it. We have so many thoughts and plans about where we can go from there. Just being able to have this out there and be speaking and be educating is something I’ve been so grateful to be able to do.”

At JSC and in Lamoille County, however, trans-affirmative resources are not as abundant or readily accessible as in Burlington for trans youth.

Biology and secondary education major Blair Koonz says accessible resources like the LGBTQ unit at the Brattleboro Retreat and physician Dr. Rachel Inker in Burlington are essential to aiding the mental and physical health of trans youth.

“It is important for trans people to have access to community resources and mental health care because many trans people experience discrimination in employment and housing,” said Koonz. “Without those resources, they will never be able to get the help that they need further preventing them from gaining employment or housing.”

One of those community resources in Burlington is Outright Vermont, an LGBTQ-advocacy and education organization established in 1989.

As Outright’s Director of Education, Dana Kaplan runs a Trans Group for youth from 13-22 on the last Tuesday of each month in addition to working with middle and high schools around the Vermont on developing inclusive curricula to open opportunities for trans youth.

“One of the things we recognize is that people have to feel safe in a space to be able to actually show up and get what they need,” said Kaplan. “Often times, that’s not a given for folks whose identities are on the margins.”

As a trans-identified person, Kaplan is conscious that many trans and questioning youth respond better when discussing their thoughts about gender, religion, sexuality and class with others who share their experience. “I think that so many times, trans people are put in the position of having to justify or explain or validate or prove their identities.

With a variety of identity-affirming programs and groups like Outright’s monthly “Gender Creative” group for youth 13 and under, and the aforementioned Trans Group, the organization allows for a safe space for adults and youth to explore and connect with other transgender and nonbinary people.



“Many of our programs are built on the principle of healthy adult role model and mentorship,” Kaplan said. “You are talking to a group of folks who have a shared affinity in terms of identity, and I think that’s really pivotal.”

Without his experience with Outright, JSC student Randy Raymond says he wouldn’t have been able to see the various experiences of other transgender youth.

“Saben [Littlefield, former Outright education manager] was the first person from Outright that I had met,” said Raymond. “He was head of youth activity and event planning services; being one of the first trans individuals I met, he just really helped to open my eyes to what the trans community really was.”

Raymond appreciates that JSC provides access to supportive mental health counselors, though he says having actual trans-identified adults on campus is necessary to providing real trans mentorship. “They help not only to guide the individual, but also to help them see situations from as many different angles as possible. It’s kind of like a difference between sympathy and empathy.”

A study released in January of 2014 by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention [AFSP] and a survey through the Williams Institute at UCLA revealed that out of 6,000 transgender and gender nonconforming respondents, 41 percent said they have attempted suicide in their lifetime.

The highest rate of attempted suicide was found between ages 18-44 [45 percent], attributed to their experiences with rejection, discrimination, harassment and violence.

Trans-affirmative mental health counselor Christopher Janeway is aware of the anxieties and social pressures like discrimination that affect many trans people who he sees. “There [are] so many unknowns and to be able to sit with someone through that and say it’s okay to not figure this out right now,” said Janeway.

“At the same time, it’s been amazing to witness when I get to work with somebody over a longer period to watch an individual go from very isolated… to watch that person come out over time and transform and become happier, more confident and be able to deal with the challenges that come as well.”

The Burlington-based counselor, who facilitates Outright’s “Trans Parent Group” for adult caregivers and families of gender diverse youth, allows his clients to find their own paths along the gender spectrum.
“Often, people have had a hard time putting words to what it is that they felt,” said Janeway. “I think therapy provides a place to do that and to try out your story and allow that story to shift and change as you grow and experiment.”

Aside from obtaining testosterone from Equality Health Center in Concord, New Hampshire, JSC English and education major Shane Wyman’s small town upbringing in New Hampshire often limited his access to other trans-affirming resources.

And though coming to JSC has expanded his network of trans-friendly resources, he hopes to see improvements with how the college’s facult and staff address issues like gender dysphoria and its symptoms and how trans resources are advertised around campus.

“There’s resources for just about everything around campus, except for LGBT issues,” said Wyman. “I think that our student population could definitely benefit even if it’s just hanging some posters with the contact list on it for the Trevor Project.”

“Even down by the Badger Bullet board because a lot of these resources are in Burlington to make them more known to our students would definitely benefit us,” he said. “Having these resources available to us can really be life or death.”

Aware of her role as an LGBTQ resource at Safe Harbor, Penny says it is critical for transgender and questioning youth to have a safe and nonjudgmental living area to grow into their identities, so that “life or death” scenario never becomes reality.

“There seems to be a connection problem, because I think [trans people] are having trouble connecting with themselves; there’s the locking yourself in the room and that social media underground piece where you don’t know what’s going on,” Penny said.

“Before they even get into talking about being transgender, they have to be safe,” she added. “That’s the big thing; Marcus wasn’t safe. For whatever reason with what was going on, Marcus was not safe, and we needed help, which was really a group of people to help and keep a watchful eye.”

Unlike Outright Vermont and the Pride Center of Vermont, Safe Harbor exists not as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit but simply a nonprofit. This way, Penny says, the human element stays is not lost.

“I want to maintain that we bring in who needs to be here, and I don’t want to become such a nonprofit that we’re not able to stick with the mission of really serving people who need help,” she said. “I do want to limit the bureaucracy, but, unfortunately, you’re stuck between not having [money] and needing funding.”

For now, the Pizers are comfortable with a more grassroots approach to helping trans and questioning people via phone calls, emails and texts.

Safe Harbor currently coordinates with Outright and the Pride Center of Vermont to form what Chuck and Penny see as a complementary position of helping as many people as possible from anywhere in the country.

After last year’s 22nd Ally Dinner at JSC, where Safe Harbor received Outright’s Bill Lippert Award to honor their contributions to helping trans youth in Vermont, Penny said her family was able to publicly acknowledge who they are as a family and begin to make a difference for other families, also.

“It got us to recognize that we needed to do better and help families and youth who really needed to tell their story and be safe to tell their story and not be judged,” Penny said.

Penny will continue her work as an ardent LGBTQ advocate everywhere from the media to Vermont’s Department for Children and Families (DCF).

Meanwhile, Marcus is focused on existing as a teenager who happens to be transgender and cofacilitate a foster home for transgender youth. “We’re ever-growing, we’re taking it step-by-step, and we want to make a difference,” Marcus said. “But, we also [want] to help other trans adults and trans youth figure out how we can stand together in solidarity and change the way people think.”