Kent State student gets creative in helping LGBT youth

Sophomore chemistry major Irene Altieri, pictured on Friday, Nov. 4, 2016, started the “It Gets Better” booklet through the LGBTQ Student Center. Altieri and other interns at the center have written “It Gets Better” letters and delivered them to local high schools to try to help young LGBT students with the coming out process.

Samantha Karam

A Kent State student is looking to offer awareness and support for the LGBT community through their own initiative.

Irene Altieri, a sophomore chemistry major who identifies with the pronouns they, them and their, said that LGBT students “really didn’t have anything public that we could use as support.”

Altieri added that when they were in high school, no one discussed gender and sexualities that differed from the norm.

Altieri said most of the resources and support came from Tumblr, a blogging and social media site.

Having feeling a lack of support, Altieri started the “It Gets Better” booklet — a collection of 10 anonymous letters, hand-written by LGBT college students and faculty. Altieri shares the booklet with LGBT youth who are struggling on coming out and accepting who they are.

“It’s really nice to feel that relief (of support), and we just want to bring that to other people,” Altieri said.

Altieri said they’ve known since third grade something was different about themselves. They identify as a genderqueer sapphic, which means they don’t identify with either gender and are attracted to people with female body parts.

Before coming out in high school, Altieri said they used to attempt to smother their sexuality and gender identity, and went through a deep depression because of it.

“I hyper-feminized myself thinking that maybe it would reverse what I was feeling,” Altieri said. “I dressed really feminine and grew long hair. I dated guys, hoping it would make me feel straight.”

They came out to their friend group during their junior year of high school, but didn’t come out to their family until last year.

Last October, when Altieri came out to their mother, their mom said she always knew, but it just took her a while to accept it. Altieri came out to their father last April.

Altieri’s father died of multiple sclerosis a month after they came out to him.

They said their father had a multitude of health problems for years, and Altieri was glad they got to tell him about their identity before he passed. Their father supported them.

Altieri’s brother recently came out as bisexual. Altieri said they think their own coming out made it easier for him because he knows that there’s someone close to him going through a similar thing.

“He’s taken the whole LGBT thing and ran with it,” Altieri said.

Though they have supportive family members, Altieri said they still struggled a lot with coming to terms with who they are. Altieri said they’re still trying to cope with the anxiety and the stressors they’ve faced throughout the years.

Katie Mattise, the program coordinator for Kent State’s LGBTQ Center, said there is still a lot of hate and fear directed at people who identify within the LGBT community.

“When you’re in high school — maybe just starting to figure things out or already have it figured out — all those negative messages can be really impactful and cause some turmoil,” Mattise said. “The ‘It Gets Better’ project is a way to show that there are other people like you. You’re not alone. There’s nothing wrong with you.”

The LGBT community is more likely to suffer from mental illness, Altieri said, because of the emotional and mental burden that derives from coming out.

As they grew to accept who they are, Altieri’s depression faded. As it faded, however, anxiety set in.

“The way I visualize it (is as) if you’re taking a bottle of pop and shaking it up,” Altieri said, “When I have an anxiety attack, it’s like someone opening that bottle, and I just explode.”

Altieri is still trying to cope with their anxiety. In addition to helping themselves grow to accept who they are, Altieri helps others as well.

There’s an online It Gets Better movement, Altieri said, which sparked their initial idea for the booklet. But as far as they know, this is the only booklet of its kind.

Altieri said they’ve already brought the booklet to Hoover High School in Canton. They plan on going back to Hoover in March.

The booklet is important “because it is shared with middle and high school students (who) are part of gay-straight alliance groups,” said Ken Ditlevson, director of the LGBTQ Center. “These students oftentimes don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel when they are living in silence — or even worse — are being stifled by unsupportive family environments.”

Later this month, Altieri will bring the booklet to Cuyahoga Falls High School, which reached out to Ditlevson.

“The book and letters give hope that life does get better,” Ditlevson said. “It encourages students to stick through it all, and to get to college where they can be themselves and be accepted and loved.”

Mattise said the booklet motivates LGBT youth to embrace who they are and grow to accept their identities. People of multiple sexualities and identities wrote letters included in the “It Gets Better” booklet.

“I love the fact that so many different voices and stories can be incorporated,” Mattise said. “There’s got to be at least one part of one letter that can connect with someone.”

Altieri said the booklet has received positive feedback, and (has helped) students. They said the “It Gets Better” booklet would have impacted their life in a really positive way.

“I’d feel like it would be okay to actually feel this way, and I wouldn’t have had to stress out about it as much as I was. That feeling is worth a lot,” Altieri said. “Sometimes there’s just this feeling of an anvil on you being lifted — and that alone can mean the world to someone.”

Samantha Karam is a diversity reporter [email protected].