Vladimir Vladimirov/Getty Images

LGBTQ Suicide Hotline Workers Are Burned Out After Being Attacked by the Far Right

Staff at the Trevor Project, which operates a crisis support hotline for queer youth, say the organization isn’t adequately supporting them—and they’re unionizing in response.

One of the most visible LGBTQ+ advocacy groups in the country is at a crossroads. 

The Trevor Project serves as a lifeline to young LGBTQ+ people in America: It operates a 24/7 crisis support hotline for queer youth, advocating for policies such as bans on conversion therapy, and conducting groundbreaking research on the mental health of some of the most vulnerable young people in America. 


But employees say the organization isn’t adequately supporting its staff, particularly those working in the Trevor Project’s core mission of crisis counseling. 

Staffers announced last week that they would attempt to form a union, in part to tackle some of these issues. In interviews with VICE News, several workers argued at the Trevor Project could do more to support frontline staff who receive homophobic and transphobic harassment as they try to handle emotionally draining cases; said the nonprofit can and should do more to offer opportunities to people from some marginalized groups; and criticized a perceived disconnect from leadership to the everyday work of the organization.

“There has definitely been a focus on large-scale, rapid growth, that has often felt unsustainable,” Sarah Hallock, a lead digital supervisor at the Trevor Project who’s worked at the organization for three years, told VICE News. “Leadership has struggled to hear the voices of the people that are working on the frontlines and make meaningful changes.”

Employees at the Trevor Project are trying to unionize following a tumultuous past year that included an enormous escalation in the targeting of LGBTQ+ youth and their families.

In the midst of conservative activists and Republican lawmakers alike targeting trans youth healthcare and discussions of sexuality and gender in schools, last year, the viral far-right Twitter account LibsofTikTok accused the Trevor Project of being a “grooming organization” in a now-deleted tweet. 


It got worse: Right-wing influencers then seized on a tool the organization provides to young people that allows them to erase their chat history with its counselors. (The National Domestic Violence Hotline’s love is respect website has a similar tool.) “If you sit around designing and promoting ways to get in touch with kids so you can discuss sexuality and keep it from their parents, you are a groomer,” BlazeTV host Lauren Chen said in a tweet last year

Then, one of the most severe attacks came from an effort coordinated by 4chan users last year to clog the organization’s crisis support hotline with fake cases, which the organization said resulted in increased wait times for actual LGBTQ+ youth experiencing mental health crises. After this and other, less high-profile incidents, staffers were exhausted, and didn’t feel like the organization was adequately supporting those providing crisis counseling. 


The organization has rapidly scaled up its crisis services in recent years; in 2022 it averaged ten times as many inbound crisis contacts as it did in 2017.

Hallock manages paid crisis counselors as well as volunteers, and estimated that between the two, the Trevor Project has more than a thousand people working on the crisis care phone lines (with the majority being volunteers). The organization has rapidly scaled up its crisis services in recent years; in 2022 it averaged ten times as many inbound crisis contacts as it did in 2017, Teen Vogue reported last year.

Hallock said that people who provide direct crisis care are now regularly forced to deal with prank callers and worse. Some of those bad faith actors are people who start a call off with slurs, but can include people threatening violence against the organization, or someone attempting to get screen grabs of a conversation to share with conservative media or social media accounts, “to try to make it look like we’re doing something wrong in supporting trans youth that reach out to us.”

People who provide direct crisis care are now regularly forced to deal with prank callers and worse.


“There’s those higher publicized attacks [like 4chan], but it’s a consistent thing that happens on our service,” Hallock told VICE News. “Sometimes you want to describe it as pranking… and sometimes it’s not a harmless prank, and someone really purposely tried to hurt [a Trevor Project volunteer or crisis worker].”

Hallock said there’s a high rate of turnover in her department, and that most of the people she worked with when she started at the organization three years ago no longer work there. 

While the details of specific changes employees are seeking would be debated in collective bargaining after the union formed, Hallock said one thing a union could fight for is “ample opportunity for time away from the service” to combat burnout. 

“People get pretty worn out on doing this, and doing it without the support of the organization that we hope to achieve through the union,” Hallock said. “It’s a hard job to do, and especially when we have these kinds of attacks on our service that are outside what we really came here to do, which is support youth in crisis.” 

The Trevor Project was established at a time when there was almost no legal protections for LGBTQ+ people, let alone support for their emotional and mental health. The organization was founded by current interim CEO Peggy Rajski and two other filmmakers in 1998 after they made the Oscar-winning short film Trevor, in which the title character attempts suicide after facing discrimination at school. The filmmakers, according to the organization’s promotional materials, started The Trevor Project’s 24-hour crisis hotline on the night the film premiered on HBO. 


The organization receives more than 200,000 calls a year, Rajski said in an interview with Kansas City’s NPR station. It also operates a social media network for LGBTQ+ young people called TrevorSpace, and conducts an annual survey on youth mental health, the largest of its kind. In 2021, the survey found last year, nearly one in five young transgender people attempted suicide. 

“It’s a hard job to do, and especially when we have these kinds of attacks on our service that are outside what we really came here to do, which is support youth in crisis.”

Victoria “VT” Tonikian, a goal setting manager who also co-chairs a transgender affinity group for employees at the Trevor Project, cited the 4chan attack as an example of the need for better support for workers who handle those calls. “Seeing that and understanding what our counselors and frontline agents have to deal with, it’s definitely imperative,” they said. 

Emma Turzillo, a training operations associate at the Trevor Project, also said that she wants to see “trauma-informed” policies for workers who deal with harassment such as the 4chan attack. “We need to account for that so that those people that are giving their time and energy to contributing to this mission can best support the overwhelming majority of good actor callers,” Turzillo said.


Black employees had also already felt unheard at the organization, according to Turzillo. A lack of demographic data on internal employee satisfaction surveys “kind of snowballed into a larger discussion about many different issues,” including accommodations for workers with disabilities and working conditions for crisis support staff, she added. 

“​​Folks in certain marginalized groups [were] not being promoted or feeling as though they were being excluded from opportunities within the organization based off their minority status, whether it because of their race or their gender identity,” Tonikian told VICE News. 

Friends of Trevor United intends to unionize with the Communications Workers of America (CWA). A vision statement posted to the union’s website, drafted by the organizing committee’s BIPOC Caucus, calls for “zero tolerance” racism and discrimination policies and the end of “culture fits” at the organization, which the caucus said “implicitly favor whiteness, and disproportionately impact people of color.” 

The Trevor Project turns 25 later this month, and Turzillo pointed to the upcoming anniversary as the potential to mark a turning point in the operations of the nonprofit. 

“I know personally so many people who came to this work because Trevor’s saved their life at some point. So we are folks that are inheriting that, and understand both the perspective of providers of this service and folks that have personally benefited from it,” Turzillo told VICE News. 


“What we want to see is the continuation of that work and the improvement of it,” she added. “So that in another 25 years, there will be a generation of folks that have not only seen what the Trevor Project has done, but a unionized Trevor Project has done.”

Unionization has surged at community and social service organizations in recent years, even as the overall national unionization rate has continued to decrease, according to Labor Department statistics. In a March 2 letter to Rajski, the union’s organizing committee cited unionized nonprofits such as the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) and the ACLU of Maryland as representative of the “norm among progressive non-profit organizations,” and said a “supermajority” of the 300-plus staffers in the proposed bargaining unit had signed cards supporting a union.

“We ask for voluntary recognition with deep respect for and commitment to The Trevor Project and its goals,” the organizing committee said in the letter to Rajski. “We believe that unionizing and moving forward in a constructive relationship through collective bargaining is consistent with the company’s values.”

They’ve already gotten some notable support: The Trevor Project Union was endorsed this week by New York Rep. Ritchie Torres, one of five openly LGBTQ+ members in the current Congress. “It is crucial to protect the rights of workers, especially those with marginalized identities, now and always,” Torres said in a Tuesday tweet. 

The Trevor Project has not indicated its position on voluntary recognition. Reached for comment, a spokesperson said the organization “respects employees’ rights to form a union, and we are open to bargaining. We are reviewing the materials shared and will respond when appropriate.”

Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.