DULUTH -- Kathy Hermes sat behind a table covered in condoms. Children flocked to the brightly colored packages in all shapes and sizes. To them, she offered pens. They think they’re candy, she said during a resource fair at the Dr. Robert Powless Cultural Center.
Hermes directed the other table visitors to the Lutheran Social Service pamphlets for a clothing closet, a health center and HIV awareness. One of Hermes’ roles at LSS is HIV-testing outreach.
She’s also the Duluth area educator for National Safe Place and the coordinator at Together for Youth, a weekly support group for LGBTQIA2S+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning, Intersex, Asexual or Ally, 2-Spirit).
Part of her duties is to facilitate workshops and present to schools, hospitals, the judicial system, therapists, community groups and more about “the right to pee when you need to” and the importance of nonbinary gender and sexual identities.
And there’s a difference.
“Sex is below the belt. It’s genital structure,” Hermes said. “Gender is above the belt, it’s what your brain tells you about yourself.”
And gender expression is how you choose to present yourself to the world, she said, displaying a photo of Brad Pitt wearing a dress during PAVSA’s training for sexual assault advocates.
Speaking to an audience like this is easy, she said, but there can be some tough crowds.
And these are uncertain times.
During December, Duluth banned the use of conversion therapy, the practice of attempting to convert gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer youths into heterosexuals.
But on a federal level the past couple years, the U.S. military no longer accepts or allows transgender people to serve, “sexual orientation” has been removed from its anti-discrimination guidelines, and there are three upcoming Supreme Court cases related to employment discrimination and LGBTQ people.
Tension can arise in a binary culture that believes there are two choices for sexuality, gender identity, etc., a belief that you are either 100% one thing at all times — masculine/feminine; gay/straight. But the reality is, humans are naturally nonbinary, which acknowledges the gamut of representation — pansexual, genderfluid, intersex and more, Hermes said.
She presents to audiences for training purposes, and sometimes, she is invited after complaints of microaggressions or bullying. Oftentimes, attendees are new to the information, overwhelmed or simply not receptive.
Hermes was a teacher for 20 years, and that experience has helped her “persist when the energy coming at you isn’t kind,” she said. “It’s hard to tell people who have all the privilege in the world, just doing what they’ve always done is hurting people in little bits by whatever words or actions they’re using.
“They’re not bad people, they’re just people who have generally not been informed otherwise.”
“A lot of time when we try to come out and try to be something other than the quote-unquote norm, we get treated like we're not human.”
Khayman Goodsky of Duluth works with Hermes as a paid facilitator at Together for Youth.
“A lot of time when we try to come out and try to be something other than the quote-unquote norm, we get treated like we’re not human, which I don’t think is OK,” Goodsky said.
Goodsky always felt different as a kid, but that “different” felt normal. In middle school, Goodsky was told that wasn’t normal, and in college, there was an introduction to language that fit.
Goodsky identifies as two-spirit. In the old days, two-spirits conducted ceremonies and were given roles of care for orphans, youths and elders. Today, “two-spirit” can be described as openly queer, transgender, not straight.
“For me, it’s spiritual, where I feel like I’m male and female, and I have those two spirits within me.” Goodsky acknowledges this in pronouns: “she/he” and “they.”
Goodsky started attending Together for Youth at 19, and when they moved back to Duluth after college, Hermes asked Goodsky to volunteer. Working with the youths now, Goodsky said it’s amazing to see they have the language early on to describe their identities and experiences.
Of Hermes, Goodsky said she “fights for our youth to be safe, to be heard, to be understood, to be accepted, to be loved.
“Wherever she goes, she tries to make space for everyone to feel safe, and that’s life-saving.”
Hermes grew up in Annandale, Minnesota, about 30 miles from St. Cloud. She moved to Duluth in 1987, and she’s “part of the diaspora of queer people” who don’t think they can live safely or authentically in or near their hometowns, she said.
After settling in the Twin Ports, Hermes recalled parking outside gay bars, observing the crowds before entering. When she did eventually go in, she sat alone “feeling safe” with other queer people.
After teaching at Marshall School, she started working in the transitional housing program at LSS. She took over as the Together for Youth coordinator about 10 years ago. Her work extended to HIV education and National Safe Place, a program for young adults in need of shelter or safety.
Her time is divided between administrative work, strategizing outreach and one-on-ones with Together for Youth attendees. She answers questions about hormone therapy, binders (chest compressors) and gaffs (undergarment compressors).
And while program hours are from 4-6 p.m. on Wednesdays at the Center for Changing Lives, much of what she offers is emotional support.
Today, queer kids receive messaging that it’s OK to be queer, and that people hate them for who they are, Hermes said. They can carry bullying or microaggressions from home, school, the doctor’s office, and in combination with other factors, this can lead to self-harm, self-medicating with substances, or suicidal ideation.
“If a teenager is queer or not, they all need support, and that’s what we try to offer,” Goodsky said.
There are similarities in the youths Hermes works with today and those she taught at Marshall. “They’re hilarious and creative and cranky, and they just want to be loved,” she said.
Together for Youth started in the mid-’90s. The agenda is loose, allowing kids freedom and space to interact after school, but there’s also a community component.
PAVSA has spoken to them about sex-trafficking. Leadership Duluth is working with the kids to identify ways they can feel safe and comfortable in the outdoors. They attend public events together — Christmas City of the North, canoeing and hiking at Wolf Ridge, the Twin Cities Pride Festival.
Goodsky hopes Together for Youth can expand to two sessions per week to allow the teens more interactions with each other and safe adults.
Overall, Hermes is optimistic about the future with today’s youth. Gender and sexuality are not issues for them, she said. Young people are still being taught to be homophobic and transphobic, but they are being influenced by their peers.
Along with LGBTQIA2S+ cultural competency, Hermes hopes for a shift toward sex ed for people of all gender and sexual identities, and for the day when this is not a pressing issue.
“Hopefully, it will get to the point where we don’t need to talk about it anymore because nobody’s afraid of people who are queer," Hermes said. “Because we’re all kind of queer."
Ways to support LGBTQIA2S+ community
- Crush the binary and normalize people of all gender and sexual identities.
- Start seeing elders and youths.
- Believe children.
- Learn about harm reduction.
- Educate yourself on pronouns, microaggressions, gender and sexuality terms.
If you’d like to support Together for Youth members, do so with grocery store or gas gift cards. Email Kathy.Hermes@lssmn.org or call 218-529-2224.
- The Gender Book, a colorful book that illustrates the beautiful diversity of gender: thegenderbook.com.
- Transgender Survival Guide: transgenderteensurvivalguide.tumblr.com/post/174004961680/lee-says-the-word-transgender-is-an-umbrella
- A look at microaggressions: jmu.edu/uwc/tutor-resources/Microagressions.pdf
- Ground rules + tools to productive discussions about diversity and equity: ucar.edu/who-we-are/diversity-inclusion/community-resources/ground-rules-tools
- The Gender Elephant: https://ccgsd-ccdgs.org/gender-elephant/
- Remake pronouns 101: transstudent.org/remake-pronouns-101-2-3
- #IllGoWithYou: An Ally Project: illgowithyou.org/2