Sometimes, you just need someone to talk to.
For Luka Cai, that someone was hard to find growing up in Singapore — especially when it came to their queer identity.
“I never had any positive queer or trans role models growing up,” they say, “so I had a lot of internalized transphobia.”
Cai — trans-masculine, genderqueer and pansexual — struggled to find people to identify with. One attempt at confiding in a school counselor went badly. But after that blowback, they underwent 100 hours of training to serve on a sexual assault hotline, and it was eye-opening.
“From that experience, I felt like the world would be so much better if everyone could learn peer counseling skills,” they say. An important seed was planted, and it germinated after Cai moved to St. Louis.
Two years ago, they received a $5,000 grant from Washington University’s Gephardt Institute, and a path forward was clear: They decided to share their skills while giving back to the St. Louis queer and trans community, and the St. Louis Queer+ Support Helpline (SQSH, pronounced “squish”) was born.
SQSH is known for its peer support helpline (give ‘em a ring at 314-380-7774, Friday-Monday, 1 p.m.-7 p.m.), but the organization does lots more, based on the radical notion that non-judgmental, compassionate, peer-to-peer communication can change the world.
The SQSHBook Resource Guide is an online, user-friendly clearinghouse for vetted info (i.e. not just the first thing that pops up on Google) for all things queer-friendly, from intimate partner violence support to where to find binders or packers to information on scholarships to where to get your hair done. SQSH also provides a wide variety of queer-affirming training for all sorts of organizations, and they keep long-range anonymous statistics on the queer community from the calls they take.
If you call the helpline, you’ll be connected to a remarkably compassionate human who has undergone rigorous training in peer counseling and is happy to hear from you.
Jet McDonald heard about SQSH but initially didn’t see themselves getting involved. Pandemic isolation changed that and, hungry for community and a way to stay active, they underwent the comprehensive application process. After a 48-hour training process, they started taking helpline calls about a year ago and now serve as Interim External Organizational Facilitator with the organization.
“Every call is definitely different,” says McDonald.
Roughly half are calls seeking resources, and half are mental health calls. Peer support is by no means meant to take the place of professional mental health professionals — it’s a different kind of assistance.
“Part of the beauty of peer support is that we’re not here to tell you what to do,” McDonald says. “It’s a really underappreciated form of mental health support. There’s just something about having someone there who is not in a position of power, that’s just a peer, just a listening ear, here to help create this space for exploration and reflection and supporting and brainstorming.”
Cleo Starpattern is Interim Internal Organizational Facilitator with SQSH. They take helpline calls and design trainings, as well as generally getting involved with most facets of what SQSH does. They joined as a new St. Louisan looking for community and found it along with support and growth — the skills they learned to help others have absolutely helped them.
“Peer counseling skills have changed my life and my relationships,” says Starpattern. “My relationships with others have become so much richer and fuller. These skills impact the way I speak to myself, the way I support myself.”
Starpattern says they’ve taken calls from people who just wanted to have a conversation, to people dealing with abuse, to one person who just cried on the line. Peer counseling, they say, treads a path that’s separate from professional help, and separate from relying on a loved one — and that’s an advantage.
“One of the great things about being an anonymous resource is, truly, we are just a person who cares,” Starpattern says. No need to worry about how a disclosure might impact a continuing relationship going forward.
SQSH is always looking to grow, Cai explains — from more volunteers to more programs. A planned outreach program for queer immigrants is underway, and the website now has a function where folks can request a call, rather than calling themselves.
“Part of the motivation for expanding our programs is realizing that a helpline can be a Band-Aid for the root causes of systemic oppression,” says Cai. “The root causes of homelessness or housing insecurity are going to come up again.”
SQSH started slow — like, one helpline call a month slow — but growth has been steady and exponential. Cai says they struggled a bit to find traction and buy-in from the community in the early days, but as SQSH becomes more of a household name in St. Louis, things continue to move forward.
“What’s been the biggest game changer for us going forward is the amount of grant funding and community funding we’ve gotten this year,” Cai says. “I think our budget has grown by at least three times — that’s a huge deal.”
SQSH was recently awarded a $30,000 grant from The Chiron Fund for work addressing mental health disparities in marginalized communities, says Cai. SQSH volunteers will receive free therapy, and in turn, will provide feedback to the providers. It prevents burnout for the volunteers and invaluable cultural competency training for the clinicians.
The helpline is open to folks worldwide. Allies can call for help on supporting the queer folks in their lives, and straight people can call with pretty much any “ask a queer” type of question. (If you’re tired of answering those for the straights in your life, give them the number!)
Cai, McDonald and Starpattern all say SQSH is unique — by and for the queer community and operating from a stance of empathy and skill-building and skill-sharing.
“We give people active listening skills that allow them to build relationships with people in their lives,” says Cai. “We think this kind of interpersonal skill building is really rare, and we’ve never seen it anywhere else.”