S1E9: How Affirmation Helps Queer Youth Thrive Despite Ongoing Discrimination

As Pride Month comes to an end, we discuss the continued need for LGBTQ+ activism, the challenges facing youth today, and ways to radicalize pride in the fight for social justice with Cynthia Ruffin, the director of COLORS LGBTQ Youth Counseling. As director of this free therapy service, Cynthia has great insight into how these young people continue to experience discrimination and trauma in our country, and she urges us to find new ways to show up for the LGBTQ+ community.

Subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher | Google | Simplecast

Episode Notes

As Pride Month comes to an end, we discuss the continued need for LGBTQ+ activism, the challenges facing youth today, and ways to radicalize pride in the fight for social justice with Cynthia Ruffin, the director of COLORS LGBTQ Youth Counseling. As director of this free therapy service, Cynthia has great insight into how these young people continue to experience discrimination and trauma in our country, and she urges us to find new ways to show up for the LGBTQ+ community.

More about COLORS:

COLORS is a Los Angeles-based therapy service offering free, unlimited, LGBTQ+ affirming therapy to LGBTQ+ identified youth under age 25. Visit colorsyouth.org to learn more.

This year is COLORS’s ten-year anniversary! To join COLORS in celebrating this milestone visit colorsyouth.org, where they will be posting information about how to sign up for their upcoming event. 

Find out more about Cynthia Ruffin

Recorded June 7, 2021 via Riverside.fm. Released June 23, 2021. 

The Seed Field Podcast is produced by Antioch University.

This episode was hosted by Jasper Nighthawk and edited by Lauren Instenes. Special thanks for this episode goes to Melissa Batalin, Karen Hamilton, and Melinda Garland for their contributions.

S1E9 Transcript


[00:00:00] Jasper Nighthawk: Welcome, and thank you for joining us. You are listening to The Seed Field Podcast presented to you by Antioch University. 


With every episode of The Seed Field Podcast, we celebrate and share stories of those who embody the spirit of our founder, Horace Mann, as they win victories for humanity. I’m Jasper Nighthawk, and I’m your host.

Today we’re lucky to be joined by Cynthia Ruffin. Cynthia is an actor, playwright, director, puppet maker, and activist, and here at Antioch, she serves as the community relations and recruitment director of COLORS, a program at Antioch, Los Angeles, that offers free counseling services for youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and other diverse sexualities and genders. COLORS uses the acronym LGBTQ+ to communicate this diverse range of identities, and all of these identities under the umbrella LGBTQ+ are similar in still facing social stigma, discrimination, and the difficulty of living within a heteronormative society.

Cynthia’s work is really important because she connects these young people, people under 25 years old, with one-on-one therapy, support groups, and other resources. This gives Cynthia specific insights into the challenges facing LGBTQ+ youth today, especially after a year and a half of pandemic. I have a lot of questions, and I’m excited to get to ask Cynthia then, so Cynthia, welcome to The Seed Field Podcast.

[00:01:44] Cynthia Ruffin: Good morning, Jasper, thank you so much for having me here. I think this is going to be wonderful. Cynthia Ruffin, I just want to announce my pronouns, my pronouns are she, her, I also go by Queen if that works for you, so that is me. Thanks for having me.

[00:01:58] Jasper: That’s beautiful. We’re so happy to have you here, Queen. I will announce mine too. I use he and his pronouns. Before we dig in, I want to dig into the history of psychology and some of these specific challenges facing LGBTQ+ youth today, but I first want to ask about your story. What should our listeners know to understand how you came to be the director of COLORS?

[00:02:22] Cynthia: That’s so interesting. Well, my background is really in the theater. At the beginning, you announced that I am an actor and a playwright, and a theatre activist. Social justice theater is what I’ve been a part of in particular, and that work all began with working with youth in Los Angeles who are engaging in survival sex because it was the choice they had when they’ve gotten kicked out of their homes for identifying as gay, and/or queer, right across the queer spectrum.

Antioch is my alma mater. I have such a fondness for Antioch, so when this position came open, I thought is a really wonderful place to step in and continue doing the social justice work that I do, and to be able to add some a creative-leaning to that work as well, so it was really a natural stepping in and it was good.

[00:03:14] Jasper: What had been your kind of activist interventions with people who were engaging in survival sex, because they had kind of been pushed to the margins of society?

[00:03:23] Cynthia: Ah, very good. What we did, essentially, what we ended up doing is we ended up creating a volume of work, we created a collection of plays, that were about them telling their stories, and I really strongly advocate for people being able to tell their own stories. So often, history is rewritten with one lens in mind, and when we allow people to actually tell their own stories: one, we get to really see the diversity of stories that are out there, we get to really learn what’s happening to people.

That work with the street youth started off as: one, the outreach part of it, the outreach part of being there, being with them saying, “Hey, what’s going on?” Buying someone a cup of coffee. Knowing that if I want to buy a cup of coffee and talk to them for an hour, that takes it away from an hour of the potential of making money, and so what does that mean? How do I get them to come to me? What do we do in terms of providing incentives?

If I’m going to take you off the street all night long and being on the street all night is what might get you a hotel room, someplace just to lay your head, then I’m going to make sure that incentives happened. I’ve got a gift card for 25 bucks for you, that you can go to Target and get some clean clothes and get something to eat or maybe even get a hotel room. 

But essentially, we were sitting down and it’s a really wonderful narrative storytelling techniques. We can sit down and really talk about your own story, from your own point of view. We’re really looking at how do we heal by telling our stories, and how do we heal by sharing our stories with each other and community, and then what does a community have the power to do? Once they have heard those stories, how can they uplift that message and take it even further? That’s what we were doing. We created a book called Surviving Friendly Fire.

[00:05:11] Jasper: That’s such wonderful work, and I love your emphasis on story and helping people tell their own stories, and to me that that kind of seems like it ties back into your work, directing this counseling center where you’re connecting people with therapy, which talk therapy has so much to do with exploring your own narrative and finding your own stories. I wanted to ask about the history of LGBT affirmative psychology, because this is something that only started at Antioch, Los Angeles in 2006, and only 20 years ago was when the American Psychological Association released their guidelines for psychotherapy with lesbian, gay, and bisexual clients.

Could you tell us what LGBT affirmative psychology is?

[00:05:58] Cynthia: Absolutely. It’s really important, I think that you mentioned that. Antioch only started doing this program in affirmative therapy practice for LGBTQ individuals 15, 16 years ago, and we were the first in the country to make that happen when that did happen, and we’re still one of the few in the country that have a specialization in LGBTQ clinical psychology, so it was really groundbreaking, and it really changes the landscape.

LGBT affirmative therapy, there are two real strong tenants of it. One is that the therapists themselves, they really get to look at their own internalized homophobia. A lot of people say things like, “Oh, if you’ve got a gay therapist, and you’re good.” If that therapist, if myself, as a lesbian, I haven’t really done the work of looking at my own internalized homophobia, which is really strong and active in the ways in which we let ourselves be truly authentic in the world, then we’re not going to serve our clients because we’re going to put that idea on them.

The other thing that’s really important is looking at our own implicit bias. Everybody walks in the world with implicit bias about who somebody is by virtue of what they look like, by virtue of how educated they are. We have ideas that we walk around with, we think that we know this person or that person, “Oh, I know you because you came from here. I know people who come from there, kind of thing.”

We really have to check all that stuff for ourselves as therapists, and I say ourselves, as therapists, and I’m not a therapist, let’s make that clear. I run the program, but I don’t deliver therapy. I believe in therapy tremendously. Quite literally, us as therapists, as teachers, as doctors, as nurses, really, when we walk in to see our clients and our patients, we’ve got to walk in with those things checked at the door, our own internalized homophobia, our own implicit bias, and we’ve got to engage in work that affirms the identity of the people that we’re working with.

We’ve got a young person who comes in, a young gay man comes in for therapy, we’ve got to be at a place where we can affirm him when he walks in because outside of the counseling room, he’s got to deal with the oppressions of being a gay man all the time. When he comes into the room with us, he’s got to be able to have a place where he can sit and tell his story and walk through what his issues are, and do so in a way that does not make him feel shame, bad about who he is, beating on himself any more than he probably is already doing. He’s got to be able to find a safe place where you can be affirmed.

[00:08:42] Jasper: Yes, and that’s such an important thing to be able to give to somebody, but it also seems to me like, with psychology, you not only have the internal biases and maybe unexamined biases of the psychologist, you also have this field that has a history of really oppressing LGBTQ+ people. Until 1973, the American Psychological Association said that being homosexual was a disorder, and there’s a long history of using shock therapy, or even today there are these conversion camps, so-called.

[00:09:17] Cynthia: Absolutely. I hear you 100%. Sorry I don’t mean to cut you off, but it’s so important because that then is a lot of what we do in terms of outreach. So why do you need somebody to do outreach for something like this? Well, because traditionally, the field hasn’t been a field that has welcomed us. People feel extremely hesitant to go and look for a therapist, because conversion therapy is a real thing. It’s a real thing that is still practice and more than half of the States in the United States, and there are still pockets of it in places here like California.

Now, I’ve had clients that have come to us, parents that have talked to me and said, “We were in therapy at this place, in this city and it was awful and this is what they were doing to my child.” That’s conversion therapy right here in California where it’s illegal. People are hesitant to come and we have to come and help take the stigma off of mental health and mental health services.

[00:10:19] Jasper: Well, I wanted to ask you about the youth aspect. COLORS treats – is set aside for folks who are under 25. Why is it so important to reach youth who are dealing with being LGBTQ+ in a society that doesn’t always accept them?

[00:10:35] Cynthia: Well, you know what, statistically, the importance of reaching out to our young people while they’re still young is that all of the empirical research is supporting the idea that if a person, if an individual, might have mental health issues in their future prepubescent and pubescent times are when they’re really going to start to exhibit any signs of that. Our kids from age 11 to 15, that’s when they start showing any symptoms that they might have future issues. That’s the first thing.

We reach out to our youth and we support our youth when they’re young and their brains are still growing, their bodies are still growing. That is when we get a higher likelihood of having them walk into their adulthood as well adjusted and happy and healthy community members. The second thing is that there is still so much stigma. Jasper, you were mentioning it just in the introduction, there’s still so much stigma on mental health in general and then mental health for a marginalized and intersectional community like our LGBTQ community.

Many people won’t go and look for support when they need that support. Especially when we’re looking at LGBTQ youth, so much support that a young person gets at home they might not get at home because they identify as LGBTQ. That was one of the interesting and saddest things about this pandemic that we’ve gone through over the last year is, here in Los Angeles, and in most of the country, we got that stay-at-home order in about March of 2020. Well, for gay kids, for kids who are identified as LGBTQ, staying home is not necessarily safer than being at school.

Sometimes the school is the only place that they can be authentically themselves. It’s the only place that they can be gay. If now they’ve got to stay home and grapple with potentially an unsupportive family, that makes it really, really hard for them. We really have to do that work of reaching out to them where we can get them and when we’re getting ready to be back in schools and stuff like that again. We can reach out to the kids at school where they’re free to be able to express themselves the way that feels right to them. I don’t know if I answered your question. I am so sorry.

[00:13:01] Jasper: No, I feel like you totally did about the challenges that youth face and the importance of reaching them. I know for myself I never did any therapy until I was 24 and when I did, it felt so personally transformative to be able to address these things that had been lurking under the surface.

[00:13:21] Cynthia: Be able to have someone just to talk to about those things. Talk therapy, it’s so strong as a modality because the opposite side of talking about it is really just keeping it in and smashing it. I think we know that if we just smash our feelings then at some point they explode and they’re going to come out in some form or fashion. The way they come out for our youth is unhealthy sexual behaviors and sexual practices because that’s where they think they’re going to get love and affection, unhealthy practices in terms of alcohol and drug consumption.

A lot of the time they just want to get out of their heads. They’ve got voices, everything telling them that they’re awful. It’s easier to just go take drugs or drink and get out. That’s what happens. We ended up switching over to bad habits that aren’t going to take us to where we want to be in life. That’s why it’s so important to do that. 

The other thing is getting that information. If you don’t get good information then you start getting information from your friends, from the locker room, from the web. The web is great for some information, the web is not so great for other information. Stuff like that. It’s important for us to talk to our young people when we can. When they’re young and they’re growing and they’re really making their ideas about who they can be in their futures.

[00:14:44] Jasper: Well, I wanted to circle back to a point you made about children growing up sometimes in homes that don’t affirm their sexuality and where they may have to remain closeted, or if they come out they can face discrimination even in their own homes. When I was researching for this episode, I went and found a poll that showed that back in 2001 only 40% of Americans said that they thought gay or lesbian relations were morally acceptable. That was when I was 11 and starting to figure out my own sexuality and I definitely felt the oppressive anti-gay nature of our society.

I found that that same poll given last year said that 66% of Americans thought that this was morally acceptable. That’s still a depressingly low number in some ways, but also a major turnaround. I wanted to ask you, what is it like for kids to grow up in homes that are part of that. Now, I guess 34% of people who still think that it’s morally unacceptable to be LGBTQ and what challenges do you see closeted kids facing?

[00:15:58] Cynthia: Oh my gosh, so much. You’re your first part of this question was, what kind of childhood are those kids having or what is it like for them? It’s awful. It’s really a young person being told that everything about who they are is wrong. Then to be at home and not express your full self gives us a child who’s depressed, who’s suicidal, has suicidal tendencies, suicidal ideation. A child that is looking for places to connect and probably finding the wrong places to connect. Then you’ve got a child who’s then vulnerable to predators. 

And what’s happening right now when you’re talking about the change in those numbers where we’re at 65. A little bit depressing because it would be great if we were a lot higher than that, but the good thing is that we are evolving. More parents are calling us at COLORS now than ever before. It had to be the child that would look around online and see, is there anywhere that I can go to talk to people that might be like me? Now, their parents are helping them. The parents were calling about their 12-year-old, about their seven-year-old, about their five-year-old who they’re saying, “I think my child is gender-expansive. I’m not sure.”

They might not be using that language because parents might not know that language quite yet. “I think my kid is a little bit different. I’m not sure what to do, but I’m thinking my child is a little bit gender-expansive and I need some support in terms of how do I support my child and my child needs support in terms of how do they walk into their lives as well as well-placed in that and fully affirmed.” That evolution is really nice. It’s so great to have parents calling to say, “I want to be there for my child. My child is awesome. Can you help me step forward in a way that will help?”

[00:17:59] Jasper: Well, I wanted to ask you about, how COLORS has evolved over the last 10 years? That’s very interesting to hear that you’re having more and more parents reaching out proactively and saying, “I want to get my kids some help.” I wanted to ask, how has the need for services changed over the time that you’ve been working at COLORS? Also, how has it changed over the last year and a half of pandemic and lockdown?

[00:18:21] Cynthia: Whoa, hugely. I’ve been at COLORS for three years and in those three years, we’ve seen really wonderful growth. COLORS has been around for 10 years, this is our 10th anniversary, wo, wo, wo, wo, wo, which is really amazing. We’ve started offering services at a new site. We’re at Santa Monica College as well, which is great. That’s the stuff we want to be doing. We want to be collaborating with community partners exactly in that way.

Then you asked what the growth has been like over the last year? Wow, crazy. Like I said, if kids aren’t at school, they don’t have a safe place to be if they don’t have an affirmative household. We’ve gotten a lot more calls for service from young people now who are stuck at home, or even people who are a little bit older, people who are in their 20s maybe not living at home anymore and having to deal with things like, “Well, I don’t have work or school anymore to go to. I’m stuck at home just dealing with what’s in my head and needing services.” So at COLORS we’ve doubled our services in the last year. It’s been huge. 

Luckily during interesting times like this when people have to make shifts and changes a lot of people go back to school. The happy thing is that we also doubled the number of students trainees coming to us and wanting to use COLORS as their internship training site. Which is great. At COLORS, our client number doubled an then we were able to meet that demand because we got a lot more trainees and associates stepping up and wanting to have their internship happen at COLORS. So it’s been great. 


[00:20:07] Jasper: Hi, I’m going to cut away from the interview for a second here to invite you to consider whether you or anyone else in your life could benefit from LGBT affirming therapy. If the person needing help is under 25 and lives in California, please visit colorsyouth.org or email [email protected]. This therapy is here for you, it respects your privacy, and it is free. Even if you are over 25 or don’t live in California, you can visit COLORS’s LGBTQ resource page to find many national organizations that are here to help. That’s colorsyouth.org. Mental health is vitally important. If you or someone you know needs help, please reach out.


We’re talking right now during LGBTQ+ Pride Month. I wanted to ask about your thoughts about the purpose that these pride celebrations which are celebrated on the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, and what purpose do these serve today in 2021? What can a truly radical pride look like moving forward?

[00:21:33] Cynthia: I love that, I wrote a piece earlier this month, actually late last month on just that, on radical pride, and what radical pride looks like. Quite honestly, radical pride looks like the ability to stand into the fullness of yourself even in the face of the onslaught of violence and discrimination still being heaped on the LGBTQ community. One of the ways we can look at that so specifically right now is in what’s happening in the trans community. The trans community is being hit at all sides right now. The violence against trans women in particular and even more particular trans women of color is at an all-time high.

With the rhetoric of our last president has opened up people to thinking it’s okay to be abusive in the ways that maybe they have been in the past, so a little bit of resurgence of that really ugly energy.

[00:22:42] Jasper: Abusive not just on a physical level of finding somebody on the street and harassing them, but also on the level of using the levers of power in the state governments that are sponsoring these bills, making it illegal for you to participate in sports, or illegal for you to go to the bathroom without having to be in a room full of men if you’re a trans woman.

[00:23:04] Cynthia: Exactly, if you’re a trans woman, so all of that. With those things that are still happening, and we’ve talked about recreative therapy, things like that still happening, it is important, one, that people see us, that people see us in the world and people see us in all of our grandeur and beauty, from the most outrageous drag queen to maybe the most conservative of us. We are all here. There’s an old say, “we’re here and we’re queer.” They need to see us in order to be able to celebrate us.

There’s that whole celebration versus tolerance, you tolerate a bad toothache, you don’t tolerate a person and tolerate their personhood. Just the idea of being able to be seen and be celebratory, I think, is really important and it’s powerful. One of the things that happened last year was because we were in the middle of a pandemic, we were in the middle of crazy political upheaval and racial injustice and reckoning and protests in the street. Last year, when our pride celebration got canceled here, people took to their streets in another way and people took to the streets in protest.

The Pride parade that ended up happening was more of a protest parade, people got up and talked about what’s happening in our community and what we need to do different to change these things. People still got out in the street and exercised their right to absolutely be. Those ways will evolve the ways in which we celebrate, for sure, but I do think that it still needs to be there. The other thing, for me like Black History Month, there’s no Black History Month, I’m Black 365 days a year. Same thing with pride.

I guess this is a great month to celebrate and be outside, shaking your booty in the sunshine, but truly, I’m proud all year long and that’s radical too. It’s radical to be proud at Thanksgiving dinner with my family. I’m proud to be at a conference, not necessarily an LGBTQ conference, but there, I can exercise my pride as well, I can do things and I’ll introduce myself with my pronouns, letting people understand that this is who I am, yes, I am proud in who I am and therefore, inviting other people to join me and be proud as well.

That, I think is what makes it radical about being able to continue to stand up in the face of everything that’s being heaped on us as a people with really intersectional identities.

[00:25:52] Jasper: I love that encouragement to kind of bring the energy and the celebratory nature of pride or of Black History Month, of all of these different things into our everyday lives. I think that that is truly intersectional to see the ways that they fit into every moment of our lives.

[00:26:13] Cynthia: It’s really pushing back at those conservative movements that really embrace things like reparative therapy still. It’s just gently push weights as Yin Yang. I think it was the Dalai Lama, who said once when he was asked about war, and that he said, “War is just, it’s what it is, it’s just one of the things that we have in life. What we have to do on our side is be active agents for peace, so that we are always pushing back on it.” The idea that we can get out for things like Pride Month, and just express our pride in ourselves, our celebration of ourselves and who we are, is that push back against the conservative movement that would seek to erase us entirely. We get to push back and be.

[00:27:05] Japser: We like to end our interviews by asking with a suggestion of actions that we can take into our everyday lives. I wanted to ask you, what are some of these actions that we can take to push back against the people who wouldn’t allow us to express who we want to be, but also more specifically, just to really support and make feel supported, the youth, in our families and communities, who are maybe still figuring out who they are, who they’re attracted to, while navigating this society that can be really cruel and violent to folks who identify as LGBTQ+?

[00:27:42] Cynthia: I would say one of the first things we can definitely do is, educate ourselves. Educate ourselves, especially people who are, both parents and allies and people who identify as part of the LGBTQ community, educate ourselves on what’s happening, what are these crazy policies that people are talking about? Know what’s going on. 

Then also educate ourselves in terms of how our community is evolving, things as simple as gender pronouns, a lot of people are still saying things like “I don’t get those gender pronouns things. They, how am I saying they if it’s one person? It doesn’t work in my head grammarly, it doesn’t work so well,” but these are pronouns that we use all the time. If you’re looking at somebody over there, you don’t really know their names say, oh, that person, no, no, they picked it up later, they’ll pick it up this afternoon. They is already a word that we use. What I jokingly like to tell people sometimes is, it’s just like, it’s okay, you’re going to die soon, and then the language is going to change. Maybe you step in and play along with changing language, or you’ll become Jurassic.

The nature of language is that it changes, all of the words in the dictionary are words that have evolved. And other things like little things, write letters, write letters to Congresspeople, post things, post on your Facebook, post on your Instagram, let people see that you’re an ally. Don’t be an ally silently. There are many ways, some people will be an ally and be in the streets and screaming and yelling, some people are a more quieter ally.They can post things on Instagram or Facebook. 

Speak up. Speak up. When you hear people saying disparaging things about people who are gay, if you’re not a person who identifies as part of the LGBTQ community, or you’re not clockable, you walk in and people don’t necessarily know that you’re gay, and might say, disparaging things in your presence, speak up just even as much as, “Oh, that’s offensive, what you just said.” Let people know because then people start to see that, “Oh, all right, this kind of language isn’t socially acceptable, maybe I should learn and learn and do something different myself.”

[00:30:11] Jasper: I love all of these suggestions that you’re giving because it seems to me like you’re saying, be a little bit more of an activist, just an inch more of an activist in different areas. It seems to me like there’s often a narrative that people have of like, “Well, I can’t quit my job and become like a full-time organizer on the streets so I don’t have a space to be an activist,” and you’re saying, “No, it’s really it’s just training that muscle to speak up in that situation or training yourself to spend an hour a week writing these letters to your Congressperson?”

[00:30:45] Cynthia: Exactly, because everybody isn’t the in-the-street activist, that just doesn’t work for people. Some people just don’t like crowds, in general, and they would never go out to big street protests. That’s not for everybody but there are other things that we can do. The last thing I don’t want I fail to mention is donate. Donate money, COLORS, even we survive because people donate to us. Finding the organizations that mean something to you, that you really enjoy what they’re doing, you think what they’re doing is meaningful give them some money, donate, build, give them $5, give them $500, all of that stuff, it just works so well.

[00:31:26] Jasper: Absolutely. Well, there are worse places to leave something than give us money. It’s been so great talking with you, Cynthia, thank you so much for coming on here.

[00:31:38] Cynthia: Thank you so much, Jasper. It’s been a really great conversation and thank you for spearheading and doing this work. Antioch is a social justice institution and the more and more we can engage like this, like you speaking to people who are at Antioch who are doing really awesome things in the community, that are really pushing for the social justice agenda that Antioch is all about is really a great thing so kudos to you for like leading this charge on this.

[00:32:07] Jasper: Oh well, thank you.


The COLORS 10-year anniversary celebration will be held on July 17. The live stream link will be posted at colorsyouth.org. Also, visit this website to find out more about COLORS and its therapy offerings. 

If you want to learn more about the MA in clinical psychology with the LGBT affirming psychology specialization, we’ll post a link to more information in our show notes. 

We post these show notes on our website along with full episode transcripts, prior episodes, and more. Find these at the seedfield.org. 

The Seed Field Podcast is produced by Antioch University. Our editor is Lauren Instenes. A special thanks to Melissa Batalin, Karen Hamilton, and Melinda Garland.

Thank you for spending your time with us today. That’s it for this episode. We hope to see you next time and don’t forget to plant a seed, sell a cause, and win a victory for humanity. From Antioch University this has been The Seed Field Podcast.