Brielle Roundtree, the founder of Bridging The Gap, prides herself in finding impactful and thought-provoking literature that sparks introspection and riveting conversations among queer and trans youth of color on a biweekly basis.
“I remember [that] I had a hard time going through school, and I was really out of touch and distant,” Roundtree said. “I couldn’t really communicate well, but I was one of the best writers in my class. Just didn’t know how to verbally express myself.”
The concept of Bridging The Gap has always held a special place in Roundtree’s heart. When she attended high school, she took a business class which allowed her to explore her ideas but it took another decade for this to come to fruition.
“High school is a tough period of transition, and I wanted to make a safe place because transitioning into adulthood was hard,” Roundtree said.
Her book club was founded Nov. 11, 2018 to focus on queer youth. Initially, most of the members skewed younger but now there are members in their ‘30s and ‘40s.
“I think it evolved because of people like [Brielle], some people weren’t privileged to have the traditional high school experience. People later in life still seek that education and fulfillment [especially when] struggling with sexual identity and gender during high school,” added Jayce Roach, the executive director of Bridging The Gap. “When your needs internally aren’t met, there is no way that you can concentrate on your papers, a quiz, or a test. You’re not in alignment, and that’s exactly why older people can connect through the literature and through the experience.”
The book club meets virtually every other week on Sunday nights from 7 to 9 p.m. due to the pandemic. One of the recent readings was a personal development book. Even though it is currently meeting in a virtual space, Roundtree wants to keep a sense of a safe space so she has kept the group private and by invite only.
Writing was Roundtree’s creative outlet growing up. “Literature has changed my life by allowing me to get lost in the story. It gave me the voice to narrate my own life and experiences,” Roundtree said. “It literally saved my life and gave me a place to vent openly and unapologetically.”
Roundtree wants to be intentional with the reading material. Her choices in literature are opportunities to introduce Black and Brown queer youth to literature written by other people of color.
“Words Never Spoken” by Craig Stewart was one of the first books she chose. “Stewart was so thrilled about the work we were doing that he decided to visit South Florida and donate copies of his second and fourth books.”
Stewart’s memoir was released in 2012. It detailed his journey of his careers as a songwriter, playwright and entrepreneur. In the book he describes his inner conflicts surrounding his sexuality, as well as his depression and addiction to pornography.
“When I was 15, I realized my true self, and then my mother put me into therapy because I was acting feminine,” Roundtree said. “I had a great relationship with my therapist and that’s where I discovered my love for writing because I couldn’t really speak to my parents about anything. Writing was the way to get it out.”
But when her parents found her journal it didn’t go over well.
“One day I came home from school to find out that my mother had gone through some of my journals. That day, he [my father] was very physically abusive and my mother stopped him at some point. She told me to go outside to get air. I went outside, crying. I remember we lived in a townhouse so we have a large porch and [eventually] I fell asleep,” Roundtree said. “And I woke up the next morning still on the porch; no one came to wake me up. I realized at that moment, that this was it, and I left that moment and never came back.”
According to GLSEN’s National School Climate Survey, less than 22% of students that identify as LGBT graduate high school.
The study found that LGBT students who experience high levels of bullying and anti-LGBT victimization were more likely to report that they had no interest in pursuing post-secondary education. There was also a correlation between high victimization and lower GPAs, lower self-esteem and high levels of anxiety and depression.
Approximately 66% of LGBT students have experienced verbal harassment and discrimination at school. Over 30% of those students who feel unsafe, uncomfortable and targeted miss at least one school a day in the previous month. In the long term, this is detrimental to their education and well-being.
Gay-Straight Alliances, inclusive anti-bullying policies, supportive teachers and LGBT inclusive educational programs can be transformative in the outcomes for queer youth. Meanwhile, not surprisingly, hostile school environments negatively affect LGBT students’ educational outcomes.
Roundtree left high school because of the constant abuse she faced at home and school wasn’t a solace or an escape for her either. Her high school’s police officer monitored her constantly and at the end of every school day made sure she went home.
When Roundtree left high school, she focused all of her energy and attention on being employed. Surviving was her main concern so education became a distant goal.
“My decision to go back to school and get a GED was very personal. My parents always told me I couldn’t and I wouldn’t do it. So, I did,” Roundtree said. “To not only prove to them, but to myself, and knowing I am capable.”
According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, the transgender population unemployment rates are staggeringly high, it’s twice the rate of unemployment as the general populace.
One-fourth of queer-identifying youth have suffered verbal, sexual or physical assault on school property. About 14% of transgender or GNC (gender nonconforming) youth have been homeless. Over half of the transgender youth who left high school were homeless or formerly homeless.
“Without education we don’t have access to [gainful] employment and without employment we aren’t able to sustain safe and healthy lives,” Roundtree said.
Roundtree wants to be a conduit for growth and self-discovery.
“I wanted to mentor youth who identified like me. Therapy helped me build a toolbox to better deal with issues, and I wanted to share my tools with everyone I came in contact with,” Roundtree said. “Watching it slowly develop into something [tangible] that we drop off in a resource center is amazing.”
Using literature and community as tools in order to talk about difficult subjects while also having a safe place to express feelings can be essential during the COVID-19 era. People might need to come up with new and innovative ways to cope with the isolation.
“I love to connect with people and to love on people,” Roundtree said.
This is a part of an SFGN series on local BIPOC leaders making a difference in the community. Check out the other stories at sfgn.com/bipoc.