In 2011, 14-year-old Juan Acosta experienced a rare moment of relief from his adolescent gay angst while listening to the radio and being stuck in a car as his father drove him to high school.
Whether life’s disabilities left you outcast, bullied, or teased…’Cause, baby, you were born this way.
He bobbed his head to the song’s beat, trying not to alert his father how much the song resonated with him.
No matter gay, straight, or bi, lesbian, transgender life…I was born to survive.
Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” found Acosta’s ear at a moment when perpetual bullying drove him to the brink of suicide. He’d binge on the song in the privacy of his headphones, empowered by the idea that thousands of kids just like him were inspired by it, too.
At first, Acosta faced bullying because he was a recent immigrant from Mexico whose culture and accent were excuses for ridicule. By the fourth grade, the tone of the insults changed. His peers pointed fingers and described him with a slur he didn’t yet understand, except that he knew from the mockery it was supposed to be something terribly wrong. His existence was considered wrong.
“I always talk about how intrusive it feels to be signaled out as gay at such a young age,” Acosta said in an interview with LGBTQ Nation. “I felt a stomachache going to school. I didn’t want to be in class. I didn’t want to be with my peers at lunch. I would distance myself from people just because I didn’t want to be a target.”
Acosta credits not just Gaga but his Woodland (California) High School guidance counselor, Mary Scarlett, with saving his life. When he was 15, Scarlett introduced him to mental health concepts, unknowingly lighting the spark to his journey toward helping others. That experience helped him muster the courage to come out to his parents, who, to his surprise and joy, accepted him unconditionally.
Chatting via Zoom with the now 25-year-old Acosta, it’s hard to imagine the proud Mexican-American mental health advocate as a teen bullied into depression and despair, turning to Gaga for solace. He is dressed in a dapper gray suit with his hair fashionably trimmed, and is made for the spotlight.
And the bright lights have found him. Perhaps one of the country’s most prominent advocates for the mental health needs of Generation Z, he’s seemingly everywhere these days. His writing has been featured by Mashable, Oprah Magazine, the nonprofit DoSomething, and MTV. In May, Acosta addressed the White House’s first Mental Health Youth Action Forum, where he strutted on a red carpet into the East Room between the first lady, Jill Biden, and the pop star Selena Gomez. He was there to speak on overcoming adversity and the power he found in taking ownership of his queerness and mental health.
Acosta’s advocacy landed an essay he’d written in Lady Gaga’s Channel Kindness: Stories of Kindness and Community, a New York Times best-selling collection of stories of “kindness, bravery, and resilience” that was released in 2020.
Acosta is an heir to the actions of the psychologist, author, and gay activist Charles Silverstein, whose presentation in 1973 helped persuade the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its manual of mental disorders. Acosta is now carrying that torch.
Acosta has his work cut out for him. According to the Trevor Project, 45 percent of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, yet 60 percent of LGBTQ youth who needed mental health care were unable to access it. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people aged 10 to 24. However, queer youth are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide than their peers.
Social media exacerbates this mental health crisis. Online culture makes it possible for hate and bullying to permeate all facets of a person’s life. Nine out of 10 LGBTQ+ students reported being harassed and bullied in the last year, according to the advocacy group Stomp Out Bullying, while over one-third have been physically assaulted. Youth who experience bullying and cyberbullying often develop low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, family problems, academic difficulties, delinquency, school violence, and suicidal thoughts or attempts.
But there are solutions to this crisis, and Acosta has lived them.
When Acosta was in high school, escalating bullying started affecting his grades, so he was called into Scarlett’s office. Over a series of meetings, the counselor showed him that his life had much more meaning than the hate he received. She mentored Acosta and talked to him about depression, mental health, and how his uniqueness could be an advantage. Scarlett also helped Acosta get a scholarship, enabling him to attend San Francisco State University and earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
By giving Acosta the tools to understand and take charge of his well-being, Scarlett redirected a path once headed for an early end to a career committed to helping others.
Acosta found this calling in public service to his Woodland community, volunteering hundreds of hours. He found meaning in working with the local fire department to help clean out a local school overgrown with weeds and supporting the community food bank. Shortly after his 21st birthday, Acosta drafted a proclamation for LGBT Pride month in Woodland, testifying about his story and the need to show love for his community. The proclamation passed unanimously. His parents and proud former counselor were in the audience at the signing.
I was eager to chat with Juan, whose circumstances reminded me of my upbringing and high school years. I played the jock, as was expected. I claimed girls as my crushes; I immediately discarded any interest or trait labeled “gay” by my brothers. And yet I never stopped hurting. I drank my personality into oblivion at parties; I lashed out at others. I believed I did not deserve happiness. Once I decided to live my truth at 20, it was not long before I discovered I not only liked but was proud to be this person I had been keeping beneath the surface.
I wanted to know how Acosta figured this out at such a young age and how we can all teach the next generations similar lessons.
I caught up with him at 8 a.m. in San Francisco, where he resides, as he was about to start work as the Warm Line Community Engagement Lead for the Mental Health Association of San Francisco, where he counsels struggling kids.
LGBTQ NATION: What does the queer community taking ownership of its mental health mean to you?
JUAN ACOSTA: I became a mental health advocate not because it was a career or occupation I envisioned but because it was a part of my survival. I needed to address systemic structures that weren’t supporting our community and help change that. Health disparities are real, and underserved communities have been left to defend themselves. The LGBTQ+ community has led many fights against disparities and health inequity.
Most recently, the community rallied together as monkeypox cases disproportionately impacted community members nationwide. We called on local officials to act and make vaccinations available and spread awareness. Our community’s leadership and the fight for survival have inspired me countless times to continue my fight. Taking health into our own hands and advocating for our needs and those we love saves lives.
LGBTQ NATION: Before you could help others, you had to help yourself. How did you find the strength to overcome bullying and find your voice?
JA: It was in Woodland, where I grew up, with a nonprofit called the Yolo Family Resource Center. I was also part of the Woodland Youth Council and the Yolo County Youth Leaders. That community service helped me deal with the bullying because it was like a strength building of me as a person and my skills, and I realized I could help change things through these efforts.
LGBTQ NATION: I know my fears about coming out were heightened as part of a relatively traditional Colombian Catholic family. Do you think your Catholic Mexican background affected your initial acceptance of homosexuality?
JA: I used to pray at times not to be gay because I thought it was a massive shame in my culture and family. I lived in a very traditional Catholic Mexican household, and I often saw my parents struggle in this country as immigrants to pay bills, so I didn’t want to put more stress on them either.
My older cousins, who were in their mid-20s, would spew derogatory language such as “maricon” or say, when showing emotion, “Don’t be such a girl!” They would also say negative things when they saw gay people in the media and ridicule them. It was hurtful.
For years, I had built up walls in communication with my parents in case they rejected me, so going into the conversation about coming out, I went into it with a mindset that I was willing to lose it all, even my family, for me to live my truth.
When I came out, I went into my parents’ room and had a conversation with them. My dad initially seemed caught off guard as if he was trying to understand, while my mother immediately embraced me. That only lasted a couple of minutes because then they both embraced me, hugged me, and told me they loved me. My relationship with them has strengthened since. I no longer have to hide parts of myself from them and can be open about who I am. They admire what I do and who I am and know there’s a lot of hatred. They support me using my voice and my story to try to support others.
LGBTQ NATION: I never heard about mental health growing up. My dad was adamant that pain and suffering are all in your head. From an early age, I thought my only option was to put on a brave face and fit his ideals of masculinity. How did you learn about mental health and that it’s OK to not always be OK?
JA: It was very much once I started struggling myself that I was told what mental health was. And it wasn’t in my household. Mexican media, which I grew up on, mentions that crying and vulnerability are not acts of bravery. They were seen as a weakness. And so when I began to struggle, I didn’t want to talk about it. And it wasn’t until my school counselors started guiding me, giving me definitions of what depression and anxiety were, that I could seek support and understand what I was going through. That’s where I struggled the most, validating those feelings for myself.
I learned about it by looking at peers online, seeing other people that may be the same age as me, maybe belong to the same groups as me, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and people that were very open about their struggles. So it’s a powerful tool to see people in powerful positions talking about it. The It Gets Better project resonated with me because people shared their stories and struggles, making me feel less alone.
Lady Gaga was a part of that, too. When she released Born This Way – that song was inspiring and an affirmation for me to be myself.
LGBTQ NATION: I was about 17 and living in Miami when that song came out, and I was applying for college. I remember its power, too. There are so many empowering hits by all our beloved pop stars, but why do you think that song, in particular, became the gay anthem for our generation?
JA: There was something special about Gaga because she was always so involved and protective of our community. She has been doing a lot of activism work since the beginning of her career, so it was authentic. I was 14 when that song came out, and to have that message from one of the most relevant pop stars growing up was inspiring. People use their fame for numerous things, but it’s crucial when you have someone who uses it for the better.
LGBTQ NATION: Few people can say they end up co-authoring a book with their idols. How did that end up happening?
JA: I wanted to do something for the community before I moved out because I didn’t want other queer kids growing up here to go through the things I went through. And for me, it was very important to hold at least the City Council leaders accountable to send a message of acceptance to the members of our community living in town.
I emailed the City Council members. I said, “Yo, we need to get this passed.” And they asked me, “Well, do you have a proclamation language?” And I said, “Yes.” So I looked it up on Google and wrote it the night before. I went to talk about my story and struggles, and there were obviously people opposing it as well.
Two years later, I wrote a story narrating that journey for the Born This Way Foundation’s Channel Kindness platform. Then, [Lady Gaga’s representatives] called me, “We’re doing this book, and we want your story to be in it.”
LGBTQ NATION: When I came out to my mom, she was like, “I’ve kinda known,” even though all my brothers were surprised. Did your parents tell you if they had any idea that you were gay before you came out?
JA: I said, “OK, Mom, you knew!” She was like, “No! How would I have known?” I was like, “Come on, like you for sure knew!” But she didn’t. My sister did. She was the one who told me that.
LGBTQ NATION: People marginalized in compounded ways face the challenge of protecting themselves from different prejudices at once, like being Latin, being gay, etc. Have you ever felt the need growing up to hide parts of yourself?
JA: I think it really depends on the place. I experienced it in San Francisco because it was a predominantly white gay scene. So when I went there for college, it felt uncomfortable being a Mexican in a primarily white space. So I felt like I had to hold my heritage back or hide it to some extent. My parents’ education stopped after elementary school in Mexico. They couldn’t support me in terms of figuring out the college system here in the States. Going to a university, being the first in my family, and not having that reference here at home or with my cousins made it hard. I was working full-time and taking 18 units in school. I couldn’t have the same lifestyle as my peers.
When I’m in Mexican spaces, I sometimes felt like I have to hide part of my sexuality or mannerisms because I don’t want people to think I’m too gay or too this or too that. But now it’s different because I’m going to do whatever the hell I want.
LGBTQ NATION: Even now, almost 30, I still fall victim to wanting, needing to be liked, and caring too much about what others think about me. My Achilles’ heel is my self-consciousness or, better said, my obsession with it. I’ve learned no amount of gym sessions or beauty products will fix self-esteem. What would be your advice for someone who wants to be able to do whatever the hell they want and feel confident in doing that?
JA: It’s really about unlearning stereotypes that we hold within ourselves. I always tell myself that there are people who will like you for who you are, and they are the ones that are worth it. When we try to hide pieces of ourselves, we’re not being fair or kind to ourselves. We never know who’s looking at us in a room. And we never know who may be struggling with things that we might have struggled with in the past. So modeling that behavior can also create a ripple effect for people watching. I remember when I started doing this work and just really being myself, I told my parents there are a lot of people who are gonna probably talk sh*t about me or not gonna like what I do. And I just became really comfortable with that.
LGBTQ NATION: And who are the individuals that have inspired you to embrace your intersectionality?
JA: That’s a good one. Honestly, even though Lady Gaga is so white…
LGBTQ NATION: Hahaha
JA: Just because she does whatever she wants. That has been really inspiring. My parents have inspired me. They taught me at a young age to be kind, support others, and fight for my dreams. As a child, I would see my parents work day and night to put food on the table and allow my siblings and me to have opportunities to make a difference in our lives and others. Their vulnerability and strength in talking openly about their struggles made me vulnerable with them to talk about my own. Drag queens are inspiring because they are a prime example of walking in with that pride. Right now, legislators are targeting drag queens, but no matter what, they are authentically who they are.
LGBTQ NATION: I remember the first time I saw a drag performance was backstage at the Baltimore Eagle. I spontaneously found myself in the changing room with all the drag queens watching them put on their respective fantasies, and then Daya Betty performed. She had these crazy costumes, and it was a whole spectacle with lights and a shirtless crowd. I had always said I didn’t care for drag shows. So it was a catalyst to see the transformative magic. Do you remember the first time you saw a drag queen?
JA: It was Manila Luzon! I was 18, and she was the first drag queen I ever saw. Then I saw RuPaul’s Drag Race, and I familiarized myself with drag queens and their history. I’ve learned about Marsha P. Johnson, the fights for the gay movement, and liberation. There are so many inspiring individuals.
I really love Valentina. You know, she’s Mexican, and she is a powerful drag queen. I love Bob the Drag Queen. She is hilarious and also brilliant. And, of course, RuPaul, the true trailblazer. Many people had it worse back then, but they stood in their light and who they were. And that’s what reaffirms and reassures me that it’s best to be yourself.
LGBTQ NATION: We not only have to protect our mental health from external stigma. The gay community is not free from judging each other, especially when it comes to physicality.
JA: The Castro scene sometimes could be predominantly white. It helped me to seek out more diverse places, gay bars that played Spanish music, and realize there’s a community in this community for everyone.
LGBTQ NATION: Do you remember where you were and how you felt when you heard about the recent Colorado Springs Club Q shooting?
JA: I was at home on Twitter, and I saw it come up. Like anything regarding attacks on our community, I always feel so frustrated that it keeps happening. There needs to be more action from leaders to protect us. People always ask, “How can we support the LGBTQ+ community better?” They just put up a poster with rainbows and butterflies that says, “This is a safe space.” But what exactly are we doing to ensure that that space is safe for community members? We will continue seeing hate crimes because we have this disinformation that’s full of hate and will only incite people who are already homophobic to act upon their hatred.
LGBTQ NATION: Inclusivity and visibility are only getting stronger. In the 2022 election, there were over 430 LGBTQ+ candidates elected, including the first two lesbian governors in history [Tina Kotek (D-OR) and Maura Healey (D-MA)]. It was a historic moment for all of us. So how else can we move forward and stay inspired?
JA: What we can do is not just continue pressuring and advocating for these changes. Let’s get involved and run for these offices. We have members of our community now in Congress and Senate, and that is what the future needs to be for us. We’ve got to make that change happen ourselves. No one is going to do it for us.