By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
Coming to terms with his sexuality was not easy for Jordan Costen. At times, it seemed like the deck was stacked against him.
From the age of five to 14, Costen was bullied physically and psychologically by his peers for being different and “too feminine.” Twenty years later, as founder of local nonprofit Safe Space NOVA, Costen is out and working to ensure that LGBTQ+ youth can access safe spaces that he never could.
“What did you actually want in that moment when you were feeling down and out and depressed?” Costen asked himself. “I wanted to see other kids, or be around other kids, who were experiencing the same things and I wanted to be able to relate and meet adults that have been through this.”
Through social events, adult mentors and partnerships with other local organizations, Safe Space NOVA aims to create accepting and supportive environments for LGBTQ+ youth in order to combat bullying and social stigmas and prevent suicidal ideation.
Growing up in Atlanta in a religious family and as part of the black community – which stigmatizes gay men even more, Costen said – Costen experienced some of these things firsthand.
Religion runs deep in Costen’s family, and not only in terms of belief. Religion pays the bills.
One of Costen’s grandfathers founded a Methodist church in Atlanta, while his other grandfather was a deacon at another Atlanta church for more than 40 years.
“Growing up and having that religious background, it was extremely difficult coming out and coming to terms with my sexuality and being part of the LGBT community,” Costen said.
Meanwhile, at school, Costen’s classmates bullied him relentlessly. They saw him as different – not masculine enough – and labelled him “gay” even before Costen had done so himself, Costen said.
“Where I’m from, it was you’re either extremely hypermasculine or you’re feminine, and if you’re considered feminine by any stretch of the imagination, then automatically you’re deemed gay,” Costen said. “So, it wasn’t really an option for me to think about myself or explore my sexuality because from a very young age I was just told because I have more feminine attributes and mannerisms, then that would mean I’m automatically gay versus thinking about it myself.”
The bullying continued for 10 years and took a toll on Costen. He was depressed and dealing with “a lot of mental issues,” Costen said.
Eventually, Costen’s mother realized he had to be removed from that harmful environment. She moved him from the predominantly black community in west Atlanta to a high school in downtown Atlanta with a more diverse population, both in terms of race and sexuality.
“That kind of started me on my journey, to see other people who were like me and expressing themselves and trying to express their sexuality,” Costen said.
Costen didn’t attach himself to a particular community, but, unlike at his previous schools, he could talk to people who were experiencing the same things and asking the same questions he was asking.
It was only when Costen left home to study T.V. production at Howard University in Washington D.C. that he found his community, his “tribe,” Costen said.
“It was an eye-opening, really good experience for me to have, to go away from home and experience this group of people who have had the same types of experiences that I have across the world and United States and be able to say, ‘Hey, we’re just here as either heterosexual people who dealt with bullying or ho- mosexual people and now we’ve made it to the other side and we’re here enjoy- ing life and learning from one another,’” Costen said.
During his time at Howard, Costen found a passion for mentoring and tutoring kids in D.C. Even after moving to Alexandria and finishing his master’s in public communications at American University, Costen never lost that passion for giving back to the community.
Costen started to do research about local organizations focused on serving LGBTQ+ youth. He intended to volunteer for an organization, but, finding few options, settled on creating his own, Costen said.
Over the next few years, Costen sketched out a vision for the nonprofit of his dreams until, on his 30th birthday, Costen’s then-boyfriend, now-fiancé grew impatient and told Costen that he either needed to commit to the idea or not, Costen said.
“In that moment I made the rash decision to go and incorporate,” Costen said. “Safe Space NOVA was literally born in that moment and I just went from there.”
Costen founded Safe Space NOVA in 2016, and since then the nonprofit has been 100 percent volunteer based. That includes Costen, who works 25 to 30 hours per week on Safe Space NOVA in addition to his full-time job as an IT account manager. Safe Space NOVA has seven board members and five volunteers.
Since 2016, in lieu of a permanent safe space, the organization has continued to rent out spaces to host social gatherings for local LGBTQ+ youth throughout Northern Virginia.
“Instead of having a permanent space at the moment we just have temporary spaces,” Costen said. “We’ll rent out a room at laser tag or space for a movie social and have different social activities. We invite the youth in. We go and play games, you can have food.”
Through events and gatherings, the organization provides local LGBTQ+ youth with a network of supportive peers and adults. That network is particularly important for a youth population that, according to a 2017 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, is at increased risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviors, substance abuse and bullying compared to heterosexual youth.
“That’s the biggest message we want you to walk away with: You’re not alone,” Costen said. “If you need to call somebody, if you’re having a dark moment, then you should hopefully either have a friend or a peer that you can talk to as well as an adult.”
Safe Space NOVA is part of a growing network of support for the LGBTQ+ community in Alexandria. The nonprofit is a member of the Alexandria LGBTQ Task Force, a city-led effort that meets quarterly to network, share ideas and plan community events.
“We are committed to creating safe and inclusive services for LGBTQ people in the City of Alexandria,” Erika Callaway Kleiner, chair of the task force, said in a statement. “Our main focus is on training service providers to build welcoming spaces through strengthening knowledge about people who identify as LGBTQ and sharing best practices for inclusive services.”
Moving forward, Safe Space NOVA aims to incorporate mentoring, tutoring and counseling services into its modular safe spaces, with the ultimate goal of establishing a permanent, community center-like space.
“One of our ultimate long-term goals would be to have a dedicated safe space for LGBT youth in the area,” Jerome Hunt, vice chairman of Safe Space NOVA’s board of directors, said. “But until we get there what we’re basically trying to do is figure out ways to leverage partnerships we have with organizations and with people to raise funds.”
Safe Space NOVA previously partnered with the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League for a coming out dance on National Coming Out Day and with NOVA Pride for an annual queer prom.
Safe Space NOVA is completely funded through donations and fundraising, 100 percent of which goes directly back into the organization, Costen said.
Safe Space NOVA’s biggest fundraising event to date is set for Saturday, Sept. 14 from noon to 4 p.m. at The Garden on Eisenhower Avenue. The goal is to raise $5,000 to continue the team’s mission. Safe Space NOVA will also award two scholarships to local LGBTQ+ youth during the event. Tickets are $50 each and include brunch and a drink ticket.
Things have changed for members of the LGBTQ+ community in the years since Costen was a young man. People are coming out earlier in life and five states are pushing for LGBTQ+ history to be a mandatory part of school curriculum, Costen said. But there’s still work to be done.
“I do see somewhat of a shift from when I was young, in terms of society as a whole being more accepting, but we still have a long way to go,” Costen said. “I hope that I don’t have to do this for the rest of my life because there will be no need.”