A Refuge for Gay Students When Families Turn Away
The New York Times, Dec 8, 2004
by Samuel Freedman
PRINCETON, NJ - Ryan Kim had just delivered an order -- penne alla vodka and a Coke, as if he could ever forget -- when his creaky old car broke down for the last time. Without wheels, he would have to quit his night job at the Italian restaurant. And with the bus drivers on strike in Los Angeles, he would have to walk a 10-mile round trip every day between his day shift as a bank teller and his room in a Salvation Army residence, what passed for home for an 18-year-old who had left it.
At that moment in October 2003, Ryan surrendered to a corrosive thought: what if he just hadn't come out as gay? If he had stayed in the closet, he would have been two months into his freshman year at New York University, which had admitted him. He would be getting tuition money from his parents. He would still be the star student, the worthy son, instead of an outcast on the edge of poverty.
But he knew what his mind and body had been telling him since his was 5 or 6 years old, a set of inchoate messages that suddenly made sense one day in his junior year of high school, when the health teacher introduced the subject of homosexuality. He knew there was finally no choice in the matter.
Part of him felt proud that he had stepped forward as gay during his senior year at Highlands Ranch High School near Denver, endured taunts in the locker room and stood up as president of the school's Gay-Straight Alliance.
Part of him readily reckoned the price. His mother and father did not attend his graduation, despite all his A's and Advanced Placement classes, normally the guarantee of parental approval. He moved to L.A. a few days later, lying to his friends that he wanted to take some time off before college.
On a night a few weeks after the car died on him, feeling jangled and hyper and so hopeless, Ryan careered through the Internet, searching for a scholarship, for a way out. He landed on a site for something called the Point Foundation, an outfit that provides grants to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered college and graduate students. "I thought, maybe by some weird chance," he recalled. "And in the space of two weeks my life went to awesome."
Actually, it was more like six months. During that time, Ryan applied for the scholarship, made the cut to the finals, and found himself being flown to San Francisco for an interview with a dozen trustees. He simultaneously sent an application to Princeton. Back before everything fell apart with his family, he had visited the campus; as he lived amid the roaches in the Salvation Army room, those images of leafy quadrangles and Gothic archways seemed mighty appealing.
Ryan was sharing the memory last week as he sat in his dorm room during the break between macroeconomics and introductory Spanish. The fantasy had been made real. For each of his four years at Princeton, Ryan will receive $5,000 from the Point Foundation, in addition to financial aid from the university. The foundation also linked him to mentors -- Jennifer Hatch, an investment adviser, and Harvey Shipley Miller, an art philanthropist -- who did the things parents would normally do. They helped Ryan check into campus back in September, visited for Family Weekend, played host to him over holidays and fielded his phone calls about midterm grades and political cartoons.
Bruce Lindstrom founded the Point Foundation in 2002 with his companion, Carl Strickland, precisely with stories like Ryan's in mind.
Mr. Lindstrom himself had been scorned by his parents and siblings for 15 years after he came out in the late 1960's. Even in his late 50's and retired from a career in retail and distribution, he was struck by how often gay young people were similarly punished, often costing them the financial support to make college and graduate school possible.
Starting with $500,000 of Mr. Lindstrom's money, the foundation has now doubled its endowment by attracting donors; it currently has a $150,000 challenge grant from Michael Huffington, the onetime Senate candidate in California. The foundation awarded eight scholarships in its first year, 2002-2003, and 27 for 2004-2005, averaging $14,000 apiece, and has seen the number of applicants surpass 1,000. (The organization's Web site is www.thepointfoundation.org.)
Ryan Kim embodies the variety of factors the foundation seeks in recipients -- need, merit, leadership potential. From the time he first moved to Los Angeles, with $2,000 saved from an after-school job and his high school graduation tassel dangling from his car's rear-view mirror, he had entirely supported himself. He won designation as a "national scholar" from the College Board because of his scores on 10 Advanced Placement tests. He put together a Day of Silence commemoration at his high school in memory of Matthew Shepard, the gay man who had been beaten and left to die in Wyoming in 1998.
Beyond those accomplishments, Ryan bristled with the insistence that nobody should feel sorry for him. In his application to the Point Foundation, he recounted the high school graduation ceremony his parents skipped, and his decision to leave for Los Angeles a few days later. "In a way, I felt free," he wrote, "and as gruesome as the analogy, it was like being one of those animals that gets caught in a bear trap and has to gnaw off their paw to get away. I was hurt, but I was alive, and it was magnificent."
During the next year in Los Angeles, surviving on delivery tips and $10 an hour from the bank, eating 99-cent burgers that made his breath reek, Ryan worked beside a teller named Mercedes. She was the single mother of three children, the first born when she was 16, and was pregnant again with a fourth.
She told Ryan about how she had still managed to earn a high school equivalency diploma. She taught him all her favorite curses in Spanish. And she also shared a phrase in English, one Ryan came to adopt as a motto of his own:
"I will kill you if you pity me."