Kevin Wong ’09 is in the PR business of saving lives, especially for LGBTQ youth.
Kevin Wong ’09 is in the PR business of saving lives, especially for LGBTQ youth.
One summer day in 2018, Kevin Wong sat at his desk, tears pricking his eyes. He was reading a story from a Colorado newspaper about a young boy’s death by suicide. The boy, who had recently come out to his mother, had been bullied at school; he was 9 years old.
Wong ’09 was the new vice president of communications at The Trevor Project, a national crisis intervention and suicide prevention organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning young people. Seeing Wong’s distress, his boss offered him a challenge.
“He said, ‘So what are you going to do about it?’” Wong says. “That was the moment it clicked: ‘Oh, I can do something.’ I can’t bring this person back, but I can make sure everybody who reads about this knows about The Trevor Project.”
Wong picked up his phone and got to work. By the end of the day, he’d secured media coverage of the story on nightly news broadcasts and in newspapers across the country. Each piece spotlighted The Trevor Project’s around-the-clock hotline.
“Suicide is preventable,” Wong says. “This is why we do the work.”
In just four years, Wong has expanded The Trevor Project’s communications from a one-person operation into a team of nine whose messaging drives awareness about the organization’s research, advocacy, and comprehensive crisis services. His strategy is intentionally wide ranging; on any given day, Wong might be pitching profiles of Trevor Project CEO and Executive Director Amit Paley to prominent publications, enlisting celebrities to highlight the organization’s outreach, or fielding questions himself about its mission to end suicide among LGBTQ youth.
By increasing The Trevor Project’s name recognition across an array of audiences — whether through opinion editorials that make the case for affirming school environments or a Teen Vogue feature about its Suicide Prevention Advocate of the Year, rapper Lil Nas X — Wong hopes to embed the organization in the minds of those who need it the most.
“Raising brand awareness and recall is really important,” he says. “We want to build trust and rapport with young people so if they are in a moment of crisis, they say, ‘I’m going to call The Trevor Project. I trust them.’”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, death by suicide is the second leading cause of death among 10- to 24-year-olds. The risks increase significantly for LGBTQ youth, who are four times as likely as their peers to attempt suicide. The Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found that 42% of LGBTQ youth aged 13–24 seriously considered suicide the previous year, including more than half of those who identify as transgender and nonbinary.
Wong emphasizes that LGBTQ identity itself doesn’t lead to higher rates of suicide or negative mental health outcomes; instead, the problem is society’s often hostile reaction to it. LGBTQ youth may experience rejection from family members, bullying from classmates, violence, and discrimination.
In 2021, The Trevor Project’s crisis counselors served 220,000 people who reached out in text messages, online chats, and calls to the hotline. But the organization’s research estimates that more than 1.8 million LGBTQ youths in the United States seriously consider suicide each year.
“It is a heartbreaking statistic,” Wong says.
The Trevor Project is currently tracking nearly 200 anti-LGBTQ legislative efforts across the country, including measures to ban transgender athletes from school sports and a recently passed bill in Florida barring primary schools from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity.
The fight to implement these policies further harms LGBTQ young people, Wong says, by sending “the message that they shouldn’t exist.”
Wong is fueled by a sense of urgency, and his own understanding of how easy it is to feel alone. Like many LGBTQ individuals, he had his own suicidal thoughts when he was a teen.
“I remember holding a pair of scissors up to my wrist once,” he says. “I didn’t attempt suicide, but the thought was there, the questioning was there. ‘Do I deserve to be here?’”
Growing up in Howell, New Jersey, Wong realized he was gay during middle school. His family was close, and Wong never doubted that he was loved. But he’d heard enough homophobic comments to make him question whether there was something wrong with him.
His father, a foreman at a newspaper distribution facility, once told a story about a colleague who had shaved his chest; co-workers laughingly used a slur to describe him, which Wong’s father repeated.
“When you’re a kid, you internalize that kind of stuff,” Wong says. “You realize there is something different about you and you analyze, ‘Is this good or bad? Something is not good about what I’m feeling and something is not right with who I am.’”
Wong found support and affirmation in AOL chatrooms and by studying the few gay peers who were out at his high school. “They seemed to live full lives,” he says. “They were not only surviving but thriving at school. Why couldn’t that be me?”
He came out to his sister when he was 16. At the time, she was studying abroad in Australia, but Wong couldn’t wait for her return; he suddenly needed to tell someone. One afternoon when the house was quiet, he went to the downstairs den, closed the door, and dialed her number.
“It felt like a weight had been lifted,” he says. “How do you bottle that moment and describe it? It’s almost impossible. So much had been building up, then you finally say the words and let it out.”
Though his sister was supportive, Wong wasn’t ready to tell his parents. But, at the end of his first week at The College of New Jersey — where he was happily out from the start — his father called him. While cleaning Wong’s bedroom, he had found a backpack containing Gay Times, a general interest magazine for the LGBTQ community.
“He asked me if I was normal or abnormal,” Wong said. “Words really matter to me and when he said that, it was a deep cut.”
Wong pushed back, telling his father, “I know what you’re trying to say, but those are not the words to use. ‘Am I gay? Yes, I am gay.’”
Both his parents emphasized that they loved him, but it would take each a while to fully accept Wong’s news. In the meantime, he embraced life at TCNJ, exploring his new sense of self in classes like Nelson Rodriguez’s Men and Masculinities: Literary Perspectives and meetings at PRISM, TCNJ’s oldest LGBTQ alliance.
Originally known as the Gay Union of Trenton State, PRISM was founded in 1976 to provide a social space for gay students and to debunk negative stereotypes. The organization still mixes cultural outreach with education, hosting campus events such as Gay Bingo and Queer Ball alongside the “Coming Out Monologues,” a storytelling celebration in which students share their personal experiences.
Izzy Riddick ’23, PRISM’s vice president, hopes the social occasions encourage a wider range of students to feel comfortable attending its more thought-provoking programs that combine gender, race, and sexuality topics. In the last few years, PRISM has led roundtable talks about Black queer history, and hosted guest lectures from Brea Baker, a nationally known racial and gender justice activist, and Kat Blaque, an illustrator, transgender woman, and YouTuber with nearly 450,000 followers.
“I want people to be able to have the language to think about the world around them, not just from a queer lens but from an intersectional lens,” Riddick says.
PRISM President Jay Huang ’23 quickly sought out the group after transferring to TCNJ in 2020, hoping it might offer a path toward a tight-knit community. It did, anchoring Huang’s life on campus but also inspiring Huang — who identifies as nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns — to pursue a leadership role in the organization so other students might see themselves represented.
“I didn’t grow up seeing myself in a lot of places,” they say. “I saw Asian people. And I saw queer people. But I didn’t see a lot of queer Asian people.”
Wong, too, feels a responsibility to younger LGBTQ Asian people. His coming out experience was complicated, but ultimately okay; he and his family remain close. But that’s not always the case.
In 2020, after The Trevor Project research found that Asian/Pacific Islander LGBTQ youth were significantly less likely than others to share their identity with parents, Wong wrote a personal essay about his own challenges, from his fear of rejection to how he normalized his sexuality in hopes that the family would eventually accept it. Opening up about his experience was not only a smart media strategy that helped promote the research, but a means of modeling a possible path for LGBTQ Asian youth.
“I received notes after that saying, ‘I’ve had that experience,’ and ‘This is validating to know that I’m not alone,’” he says.
These days Wong is especially busy. The pandemic increased mental health challenges for many, including LGBTQ young people. In the organization’s 2021 survey, more than 80% of LGBTQ youth reported that COVID-19 made their living situation more stressful, with only 1 in 3 describing their home as LGBTQ-affirming.
Additionally, 48% said they wanted counseling from a mental health professional but weren’t able to receive it. Expanding The Trevor Project’s audience feels more critical than ever, and with Wong’s leadership, the communications team is doing just that.
In the last year, The Trevor Project was featured on the cover of Adweek and its CEO was named to Fortune’s 40 Under 40 list — both significant boosts for the brand’s exposure. Wong expanded outreach across social media, hosting Instagram conversations with celebrity chefs Melissa King and Ronnie Woo and appearing in Abercrombie & Fitch video campaigns about mental health.
But the year’s most impactful communications moment may have arrived when Carl Nassib, then a defensive end for the Las Vegas Raiders, became the first active NFL player to come out.
Wong and a colleague had quietly helped Nassib gauge how the news might be received ahead of time. When Nassib came out in June, he simultaneously announced a $100,000 donation to The Trevor Project and praised its work on behalf of LGBTQ youth. Coverage of the organization’s mission immediately blanketed the biggest broadcasts across the country, while traffic to its website spiked more than 350%.
For Wong, the triumph of such messaging victories is always tempered by what drives the work. He has never forgotten what he realized in his earliest days on the job as he read about the young boy’s death by suicide.
“I remember having that moment and feeling specifically like I could make a difference in the lives of LGBTQ young people if we make sure they know about us,” he says, adding, “You have to be connected to why you’re doing this.”
If you or someone you know is feeling hopeless or suicidal, The Trevor Project’s trained crisis counselors are available 24/7 at 1-866-488-7386, via chat at www.TheTrevorProject.org/Get-Help, or by texting START to 678-678.
Answering the call
Student-run hotline helps community members in crisis
Harish Rajagopal ’22 had seen people close to him struggling with mental health and wanted to help. As a freshman, he learned he could volunteer as a crisis hotline specialist with Contact of Mercer County in Pennington, New Jersey, after completing an intensive 10-week, 30-hour required training.
“Each week I would catch an Uber to go to the training class off campus,” says Rajagopal. But he thought the lessons — learning how to be an active listener and offering support and resources — were so valuable that he wanted to bring the experience back to TCNJ.
With the help of Mark Forest, the college’s director of mental health services, the pair established Contact of TCNJ as an official club, featuring a call center and the necessary trainings right on campus. Now, more than 200 students are trained and volunteer to man the campus call center, which receives calls from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and Contact of Mercer.
“We get everything from people who are nonemergent and just want to talk to people on the verge with suicidal thoughts,” says Rajagopal.
“It can be terrifying to answer a call,” says Aahna Rathod ’23, one of the student volunteers. “But most of the time, I can tell the callers feel better after having talked about whatever they needed to. That’s why I keep going.” — Kara Pothier
If you need someone to listen, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Pictures: Peter Murphy
Posted on May 26, 2022