An Interview with Nathaniel Gray, Founder of The Proud Path
Lydia Liebman (LL): What inspired you to create The Proud Path?
Nathaniel Gray (NG): After spending most of my 20s being a musical theater performer/waiter/bartender in NYC, I felt the need to find something that wasn’t in the service industry as my “survivor job” between gigs. I had always loved kids, so I began babysitting and tutoring in Park Slope for a few families. Over the span of the first year I felt this tug on my heart telling me that I should devote more time to working with children; I love their curiosity, innovation, and unbridled creativity all while learning about who they are. One of the kids was a young boy who reminded me of myself a bit at his age. I had an engaging chat with his mom about our similarities and said, somewhat cautiously, “have you given any thought that he might be gay?” She said that she had given that some thought and would be endlessly supportive, which made my heart leap.
Over the next few months I couldn’t stop comparing his hypothetical coming out to mine. He had a neighborhood, a family, a city, and even a gay babysitter (or ‘manny’ if you will) all of whom support the LGBTQ+ community. I did not have that. That’s when I had an epiphany: If he comes out, he still has to figure it out alone. He will wrestle, like all LGBTQ people do, with his existence and the long history of oppression our country and world has levied against queer people. He will see in media the vitriol that is hurled at LGBTQ+ people under the guise of politics, religion, cultural beliefs. How can I mitigate the isolation and despair that could happen, even to someone so accepted? And so The Proud Path was born.
LL: How has your own background prepared you for your current role?
NG: I was raised by two Marines in a town of about 4,500 people in the Bible Belt of southern Ohio. The men in my family all worked in construction or maintenance. In that same little town my dad and all five of his brothers grew up and had at least 2 children each. Our family alone was a sizable percentage of the population. I played every sport, begrudgingly, and didn’t even know that gay people existed in reality until I was probably 15. My parents had always been supportive of me, helping me get into an exchange student program in high school, listening to hours of saxophone honking and car rides full of loud singing. But being gay was the first thing about me that I knew they wouldn’t support.
I came out at 17 during my senior year, first to my mom. It didn’t go terribly, but it isn’t a pleasant memory. I cried; she asked a lot of questions that I didn’t have any answers to; I was so afraid. And she said she loved me, which is the most important thing a parent can say after their child shares their identity with them. Telling dad was interesting. He cried (a common response among the men in my family to just about anything to do with their kids) and I cried in turn. He said he was afraid because I was moving to NYC and he knew gay men in NYC could contract HIV and die. Looking back, they really did the best they could having zero awareness about, experience with, or coaching on raising a queer child.
Almost all of the work I’ve created from The Proud Path is born from this point. My parents, and most all parents, want to know how to support their kids. But without the tools, they just can’t. I think about how much heartache could’ve been saved, how many hours of therapy I worked through, about how truly suicidal I was at 15 and ask, “what would’ve alleviated this?”
Professionally, after having the epiphany about the boy I babysat, I started working toward my MSW, using every class assignment to focus on queer adolescence. I read and learned and asked questions to get as close as I could to understanding what coming out really is. As a part of my Master’s degree I interned with two pillars of the queer social justice community in New York City, the Hetrick-Martin Institute and the Ali Forney Center. They work primarily with homeless LGBTQ+ young people, a portion of the queer community that is vastly underserved. My MSW education kicked in and I started making connections between family acceptance and the likelihood of LGBTQ+ young people being homeless, abused, and/or suicidal. All of this fanned the flames for me and I still think about those young people every day.
LL: How was the curriculum formulated?
NG: While working at a private school, I was tapped to build a training for teachers about LGBTQ students. Having a theater background, I really got into it. I wanted people to be as uncomfortable as I felt at 15 going to church 4-5 times a week while the pastor regularly hurled judgment at queer people. And somehow, it worked. I was asked to present that same training at a few other campuses as well as at a national conference for the private school’s leadership teams. It was so transformative for me to get that opportunity. I began working with the education department of the school to formalize my training into webinars for all teachers to learn from. While doing that work, I stepped away from the school for reasons out of my control. It was a little devastating, but my support network said, “great, now just do it for you. Build it. You can!”
So I started sewing together my own research with the family dynamics and system theories I was learning at school. I posted a few questionnaires on social media to find out the pain points of other LGBTQ adults. Then I just wrote stream of consciousness and began pairing up ideas that belonged together. With a lot of guidance from friends, I realized I had several courses that parents needed ranging from defining all the letters in LGBTQIA to accepting that the child you thought you had is no longer there. I asked friends in my social circles with children very pointed questions.
These next level thoughts are what I realized needed to be fleshed out and formalized. So did I write all the curriculum myself? Sure I guess. But did I do it on my own? Absolutely not. I was guided by peers, kids, stories, and parents who were gracious enough to open up to me.
LL: What does a typical course entail? How long do you work with families?
NG: I have two approaches to working with families: One-on-one coaching calls to navigate the family process post-coming out and curriculum for parents to guide themselves along The Proud Path.
The coaching/mentorship I have found to be something between therapy and case management. I currently work with the mom of a 9 year-old trans daughter (meaning she was identified as male at birth and identifies as female). The sessions often begin with the mom needing to just purge all the feelings and fear and anger at society. This is so valuable because I have found that parents who keep it all inside just add to the tension in the home. After that we talk about behaviors or experiences of her daughter and I apply my lens as a queer counselor to help the mom empathize with how her child likely feels. Then we do the case management. This is the nuts and bolts of navigating the process of having a queer child. For this mom, we are currently undergoing the process of changing the gender marker on her child’s passport. Here’s a rundown of what that looks like: Therapist diagnoses child with Gender Dysphoria (being trans is still considered a mental illness), a doctor codifies that diagnosis and starts the child on the process of hormones or puberty blockers and writes a letter confirming it as a medical professional. These two letters are used to request the gender marker be changed on her birth certificate, and the new birth certificate with these two letters are taken to the passport office. All-in-all it can take about a year to coordinate. If your child were trans, how would you navigate this without help?
The curriculum on The Proud Path’s website is built for parents to learn at their own pace at home about a host of things related to raising a queer child. As mentioned earlier, I built this informed by family and systems theories with real input from parents and queer adults. They are six courses and cover a host of things: Understanding what coming out feels like, common things parents say post-coming out that can be harmful or supportive, addressing gender expectations that queer children often contradict, and acknowledging that the child you thought you had is not the child you currently have. This program is several hours of content with worksheets and parents can take it at their own pace. I do like to have contact with parents, so I currently provide a free 20-minute call for families who buy the bundle to touch base and offer guidance.
As far as length of time, this would probably take about six weeks to really watch all the videos and do the worksheets. For parents who do coaching, I think it depends. Working with a family whose child is trans or gender-non conforming is endless because of the very real medical and psychological processing involved. For a family whose child came out as gay/lesbian/bisexual/pansexual, I would recommend at least six months of coaching. Even parents who are supportive have a learning curve and have to catch up a bit. Many times in these families, the child is the expert on all things queer, and I advocate that the parent needs to be as well. They need to go to Pride Marches and read about queer history, be aware of the data around LGBTQ+ self-harm and suicide. I often make a comparison between having a gay child and having a deaf child (not that I am saying they are in any way the same). Some parents of deaf kids have them fitted with a cochlear implant and get them speech therapy classes to help them become as hearing and verbal as possible (making them conform to society). Other parents take the time to learn sign language and network with other parents so their child has peers to spend time with who are also deaf (normalizing deafness). They are both supportive, but the latter meets the child where they are and doesn’t deny them their identity.
LL: If you could offer advice to a parent whose child has recently come out, what would you say?
NG: Think about how people discover who they are as a minority: If you’re a Jewish child, your parents are Jewish. If you’re Black, your parents can talk to you about the experience of being Black in America. If you speak Spanish, you learned it at home from family. If you’re gay… If you’re trans… you are an island unto yourself in the family unit, likely not having a single person in your immediate family to say, “I know exactly what it feels like to be called a [queer pejorative]” or “When I transitioned to female these are some things that helped me…” We are a found community, discovering who we are alone, and in order to find our people we often have to wait until were old enough to drink in order to go to a bar in the LGBTQ+ part of town. As a parent, your obligation is more taxing because you have to educate yourself on the queer experience. Don’t let your child be the expert—that is quite a cross to bear while already processing coming out. Be the parent, be the adult, and love your child endlessly. It won’t be easy, or comfortable, but it could legitimately save your child’s life. #