21-year-old Christopher Shropshire decided earlier this year to quit taking classes at his local community college — after just one semester — in order to work; he supports his unemployed parents with whom he continues to live. But, six years ago, when his parents discovered he was gay, Shropshire said all he wanted to do was escape the homophobic environment of his home.
“I was very depressed, really emotional and never wanted to be at home,” he said.
Often, the 15-year-old turned to the party scene. Especially during the two years after he graduated from East Hartford High School, Shropshire said, he spent most of his time in nightclubs.
He now juggles a job, his parents’ needs and a volunteer position: He has, he said, come a long way.
Shropshire entered the mentoring program run by True Colors, a nonprofit that aims to create a safe and healthy environment for LGBT youth across Connecticut, at age 16. After coming out a year earlier to friends at school and, soon after, being rejected by his parents, Shropshire said he needed a safe space outside his home and someone looking out for his future.
“They’re like your parents,” he said, later adding, “True Colors gives you their all.”
The mentoring program at True Colors matches volunteer mentors with LGBT youth, said Robin McHaelen, the organization’s director, in an email to the News. She added that LGBT youth use support from True Colors to determine how to live “in a world that does not always … affirm them.”
Shropshire did not always use the resources True Colors offered him, but he said that the coordinator for the mentor program sat him down last year and gave him some “tough love” in a conversation about taking better control of his life.
NEEDING TO ‘GET OUT’
While Shropshire found a tolerant refuge among peers at East Hartford High School, he said his parents made negotiating his newfound identity as a gay man difficult.
Shropshire’s parents could not be reached for comment.
Shropshire said he began questioning his sexual orientation when he was 14 years old. He sought support from a discussion group in high school, he said, and soon — unconcerned with gossip and comments — began to date a boy for the first time.
Shropshire said he did not come out to people beyond the group. But a year later, he and his parents had an argument after which his being gay became an established fact with which the three had to deal.
At the end of the fight, which was typical of their relationship, Shropshire said his parents escalated the situation by telling him to “get out and not come back.” Shropshire said he left to go to the home of his boyfriend, whom his parents previously considered merely a close friend. Around 3 a.m., Shropshire’s father arrived and discovered the reality. Shropshire was forcibly taken home.
“I went to the basement as soon as I got home, but he came after me,” Shropshire said. “My father came down into the basement and he yelled. He just yelled the worst words I’d ever heard. He was calling me a faggot, everything — the worst names he could think of.”
Shropshire’s home situation steadily deteriorated as what he said his parents called his “flaw” and “sickness” served to mark him as a target in their eyes. His parents brought his sexuality into any and every aspect of his life, blaming it for everything from his attitude to his messy room.
Although Shropshire said his relationship with his parents had been tense prior to his coming out, he said that the friction now reached new heights: “Suddenly, my mom was throwing shit, we were getting into fist fights,” he said.
Shropshire said that he began looking for a way out — physically escaping the house and emotionally fleeing his parents’ negative energy. For some time, he added, beginning at age 15, this involved sneaking into nightclubs and partying.
“I was doing things I had no business doing,” he said.
McHaelen, director of True Colors, said family response is critical to LGBT youths’ development. Nathan Thomas, who was later Shropshire’s True Colors mentor, said that he agreed about the significant role of the family to Shropshire’s case, especially due to problems with his mother.
“The mother especially was so much of an issue in the household, trying to shut Chris down,” Thomas said. “There was definite homophobia.”
Shropshire said he needed “somebody who wouldn’t give in” and could oppose his over-active social life with a form of guidance he could see as genuine.
When Kamora Herrington, director of the True Colors mentoring program, spoke at a session of Shropshire’s high school support group, Shropshire said he discovered a new option. True Colors became the equivalent of his parents in terms of his development.
“[Herrington] just came to our class and said ‘I’m a lesbian, I’m African-American and I’m here to talk about True Colors’ in this bam, bam, bam way,” Shropshire said. “She really knew how to speak to us as urban kids. She knows our issues.”
Herrington referred Shropshire to the mentoring program she runs at True Colors. Shropshire’s internalized homophobia and lack of parental support made True Colors seem like a potential source of help for him, she said.
Shropshire joined the program and soon, he said, found a community in which he could speak about sexuality-related issues he did not yet feel comfortable discussing with others.
During his senior year of high school, Shropshire was assigned Thomas as his True Colors mentor.
The two were in touch regularly, Thomas said, but he added that Shropshire displayed some resistance to being helped. For example, Thomas added, Shropshire did not seem open about sexuality issues beyond those related to his family. Soon after Shropshire completed the mentoring program, Herrington said, Shropshire did not come to True Colors for two years.
“He explained that True Colors was for kids and he didn’t need us,” Herrington said.
After two years of absence, Herrington said Shropshire contacted her to request a conversation. Herrington said she thinks “club drama” and a realization that he was making unhealthy choices spurred Shropshire’s return.
Shropshire said that when he spoke to Herrington, she convinced him that he needed to do positive things in his life.
“She cared,” he said. “That’s what True Colors is about: some kids get themselves in trouble, but they say ‘That doesn’t mean we’ll stop loving you.’”
With Herrington’s help, Shropshire said, he applied to community college. But there was another hurdle to overcome beyond his lifestyle: his parents.
Shropshire said his mother refused to give him the tax and income information he needed to fill out a FAFSA application for financial aid. Because he was under 21, Herrington said, Shropshire needed to either be emancipated — and thus become legally free to conduct any business without a parent or guardian — or become a ward of the state to submit his form without his mother’s information. Herrington said True Colors advocacy succeeded in getting his forms accepted.
Still, Shropshire has had to “put college on hold” to work full-time for his family’s financial security. True Colors, he said, played an integral role in helping him write a resume, practice interviewing and identify an employer. When he got a job at Urban Outfitters, he said, they celebrated in the office with glitter and music.
All of his best friends now, he said, are part of the True Colors community. In addition to hisjob, he volunteers with the organization and recently designed a workshop on the importance of allies within the LGBT community that Herrington said incorporates much of his own experience.
“Rather than those two years negatively marking him, we have allowed him to own those experiencesx as important life lessons,” she said.
Correction Dec. 7 An earlier version of this article misstated the name of Christopher Shropshire’s volunteer mentor at True Colors, the LGBT youth advocacy nonprofit. His name is Nathan Thomas, not Nathan Taylor.
Click here for more information on True Colors and its work in New Haven.