Getting to Know the Minds Behind the Bryson Institute
High above The Attic, Philadelphia’s only independent LGBT youth center, literally on the top floor of the complex, is one of the hidden gems of Philly’s LGBT community: the Bryson Institute. Since 2001, the Bryson Institute has provided customized LGBT training seminars (everything from “Gay 101” to “LGBT for Healthcare Settings” to “Reconciling LGBT Individuals and Faith Communities”) for youth, professionals, parents and other communities.
I had the opportunity to talk with the Institute’s Director, Kelly Kroehle, MSW, along with Evan Thornburg, Bryson’s Education Specialist, and Phantazia Washington, a Transitions mentor, about their unique work and how it impacts not only the greater Philadelphia community, but also their own personal journeys as LGBT advocates and educators.
What was one of the most profound “a-ha!” moments that you’ve had when conducting a training?
Phantazia Washington: It was during a training we did for a group of teenagers in Kensington. I was telling my story. When I was done, this young man began to share his story, and our stories were so similar. For the first time, I was watching and found such hurt, strength, honesty, and endurance. I realized then that I learn just as much about tolerance, acceptance, and love from these trainings as the participants.
Evan Thornburg: After giving a full presentation to a group of foster parents, a fully-garbed Muslim woman immediately raised her hand and stated that she was an ally because who would she be to judge people for looking or being different as a woman of Allah who wears a burka? It was mind-blowing that day; it really broke down stereotypes and barriers in a lot of ways.
Have you ever encountered hostility or adversity during a training? How did you handle it?
Kelly Kroehle: When someone makes a sweeping generalization or antagonistic statement about LGBT folks, I try to ask them to identify the experience that is driving that statement. I definitely don’t believe that homophobia, transphobia, heterosexism, etc., come from a place of inherent malice. So much of it is rooted in experiences of confusion, fear, and hurt that simply were not given enough time or space to be processed.
ET: Oh definitely. I usually try to build a healthy amount of appropriate humor into my trainings for this reason. I set out to make a connection with the room so that everyone feels comfortable with at least me, if not the subject. When I have experienced outright hostility, one of the other participants confronts it, which is amazing.
PW: Unfortunately, many people still want to ignore LGBT people or issues, so we’ve seen our share of hostility. The key is to not over indulge; if someone says something offensive or misguided, I simply correct them politely for the good of the room.
What is the most gratifying part of working for Bryson?
KK: Hands down, working with the youth panelists who bravely come and share their stories at our trainings makes for an incredible experience, and for work that is so very unique in the realm of training and professional development. They bring endless amounts of inspiration to the table – whether it’s through creative ideas, strength and grace, or hearty belly laughs.
ET: It’s being part of something that is dynamic with so much possibility. What Bryson is doing as a resource and as an institution of training is revolutionary. We are at the forefront of LGBT inclusivity, helping others in a multitude of jobs and organizations come to a place of recognizing how vital being able to directly address the LGBT community is.
PW: It’s rewarding when people say that a training helped them understand their child or family member, or when a participant tells you that your story touched them, or when people thank you, hug you and tell you that they are going to affirm and support LGBT youth. That’s then you know that the making a difference; that’s when I’m most thankful for this job.
When you think of “LGBT Philadelphia,” what are some of the first things that come to mind?
KK: I don’t draw up a particular demographic or neighborhood – instead I immediately think of questions of visibility. In short, I think of a lot of laughter, I think of creativity, and I think of relationships. The community is bigger than could ever be represented in an answer, I guess. But it’s definitely a warm one.
ET: I grew up in LGBT Philadelphia since I was raised with two dads. As a kid I was privy to the world of older gay men who thrived in the arts, the aging radical fairies, original Action AIDS and Philly FIGHT members. Once I came out, I discovered young LGBT Philadelphia. I shopped for steamy novels and rainbow bracelets at Giovanni’s Room, sweated profusely at Pridefest, got tested while hanging out at the Attic, and danced gleefully at 12th Air Command’s teen night.
PW: Philly has such a diverse and tight-knit LGBT community. I think of all the wonderful organizations for LGBT people of all ages. I think of all the wonderful events throughout the year and all the great clubs and venues. When I think of LGBT Philly, I think of community.
For more information on The Bryson Institute, or to request a training for your organization, visit their website.