It’s been 17 years since Jaszi slammed that locker shut and graduated high school.

“This is my old locker right over here,” Jaszi Johnathan Alejandro said. “Somebody else is using it now.”

“To be back all this time later is nostalgic, because I grew up here, you know, in my adolescence, into my adulthood. This was like my home,” Jaszi added. 

What You Need To Know

  • The Hetrick-Martin Institute has an open-door policy, providing counseling, food, job training and more to young LGBTQ+ New Yorkers

  • The center was founded in 1979 out of necessity, when a teenager was bullied, sexually assaulted and kicked out of an emergency shelter for being gay

  • Emery Hetrick and Damian Martin, two community activists, rallied a group together to help the teen, and created a drop-in center — the world’s first youth services organization for LGBTQ+ young people

The feeling’s similar for Frank Julca.  

“It is a warmth that I felt when I first walked in as a 19-year-old, and it’s the same warmth that I feel when I walk in now at 31,” Julca said.

The Hetrick-Martin Institute, or HMI, has served as a safe haven in New York City for thousands of LGBTQ+ youth.

It’s a place to come for a meal, or clothing, or a conversation.

“Queer young people who are seeking safety, that need crisis intervention support, but also young people who are just looking to make friends and find community,” Bridget Hughes, HMI’s chief program director, said.

The center was founded in 1979 out of necessity.

“There was a 15-year-old boy, a young person, who was in an emergency shelter, who was bullied in the emergency shelter, sexually assaulted, kicked out of the shelter for being gay,” Hughes said.

Emery Hetrick and Damian Martin, two community activists, rallied a group together to help the teen.

When they were inundated by other young people also looking for help, they decided to create a drop-in center — the world’s first youth services organization for LGBTQ+ young people.

“We talk about mental health, we talk about sex [education] and HIV prevention and all the things that HMI does,” Hughes said. “But when you’re walking around, you see young people making art in our open art studio, you see young people dancing in our Kiki Lounge.”

This Pride Month, HMI is celebrating 45 years of simply being there.

“Queer young people have more self-knowledge than your average person, right?” Hughes said. “They have to figure out who they are, on their own, through cognitive dissonance, through self-discovery, through bravery, confronting all kinds of myths about what it means to be queer.”

“I knew that I was queer from a very young age,” Julca said. “And I told myself, ‘Okay, you’re queer,’ at age 14.”

Julca says understanding it himself was only the first part of his coming out journey.
Step two, he says, was finding a community.

“Because even at 14, I was asking myself, ‘Okay, I know I’m queer, but will I be able to find a job? Will I be able to make connections with people, real connections?’” Julca said.

Growing up in Peru, a predominantly Catholic country, those connections weren’t always easy to find.

When Julca moved to the city at 19, he found HMI.  

“And I remember the first thing that was asked of me was, ‘How are you?’ The second thing that was asked of me was, ‘Are you hungry?” Julca said.

“I remember applying for college right here, with Jennifer London, and I didn’t even think I could go to college. I was like college for me? Nah,” Jaszi said.

Born in the Bronx, Jaszi was going to school on the Upper West Side when he first learned about HMI.

He ended up transferring to Harvey Milk High School, which share a space with HMI, and is the only public high school in the city designed specifically for LGBTQ+ students.

“And I got to pour into myself while I was here in so many ways that I just I blossomed and I bloomed and I couldn’t do that back up in the Bronx where I came from,” Jaszi said.

Jaszi says it took his family some time to understand.

“I don’t think they liked it at first. I come from a traditionally Latin family, you know, old school,” Jaszi said. “But I was meant to teach them. I was meant to help them learn.”

Being back now is a reminder of how far he’s come. Also, of the people he met here, no longer here.

“In life, we really have to take care of ourselves and put ourselves first,” Jaszi said. “And I don’t think a lot of people got to do that because they didn’t get to grow to do that, they were either in danger or they were, you know, the hate crimes that was going on or just different situations, I just I miss a lot of people that once were.”

Deteriorating mental health is an issue plaguing adolescents across the country.

A nationwide survey by The Trevor Project found 39% of LGBTQ+ young people seriously considered attempting suicide last year — 12% did try.

“If you think about all of the attacks that are happening to queer people all around the world really, but nationally, a lot of that also affects someone who lives here in a supposedly safe haven,” Julca said. “You read the news or you look at tweets that are extremely negative and it really makes you wonder whether you belong to the world or not.”

To help, HMI has tripled the size of its counseling department since 2020.

Jaszi says it was those conversations at HMI, including when he found out he was HIV positive, that taught him he didn’t have to make sacrifices.

“I didn’t want to not be a parent, I didn’t want to not live, I didn’t want to not do things because HIV or being queer, it was like strikes against me,” Jaszi said. “I wanted to be able to be all I can be and more, you know. I mean, I had this big mind that I could be bigger than a superhero, but I’m working on it.”

Today he’s working to be that superhero for others as an outreach coordinator at The New Pride Agenda, an advocacy group focusing on LGBTQ health and human services.

Julca, meanwhile, is a community liaison to New York City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams covering LGBTQ affairs.

They both say they were drawn to the work they’re now doing because of the care they were met with within these walls.

“I wanted to be able to make people feel that same way,” Julca said.

“It’s a fun and joyful place, and young people are not only transforming themselves, but they’re changing what the world can be for queer folk,” Hughes said.