Our People: Q&A with Mel Hartsell

Community organizer shares their decade of activism

The LGBT community of the Carolinas has many passionate advocates, but one stands out for both education and eloquence. Mel Hartsell, at age 28, has a Master’s degree in social work and has been involved in activism for over a decade. Hartsell, who identifies as genderqueer or gender-fluid, has held a variety of professional positions, from foster care case manager to their current post as an organizer for Democracy North Carolina. Hartsell’s passion for social justice is matched only by their kind and giving nature — an observation proven by their willingness to interview during a vacation.

How did you first become involved with the LGBTQ community and advocacy?

I’ve been an advocate for social justice since high school. The thing that really kicked off my work in the LGBTQ community was when my home church, McGill Baptist in Concord, was removed from several associations, including the Southern Baptist Convention, for baptizing two gay men. Operation Save America protested at our church one Sunday when I was almost 15. It was loud and scary and ended up with a protester being arrested and the police using a Taser on him. At the time, I thought it was only the very extreme who hated LGBT people, until I went to Gardner-Webb University . . . as some of my classmates started coming out, the school removed them from leadership in extracurricular activities (which were all under the campus ministries umbrella). Our campus minister, who was a primary leader on campus, sent a cruel email to students during the summer of 2008 warning them that we were coming out, saying things like, “The devil is at work on campus” . . . We tried to start a Gay-Straight Alliance in my third (and final) year there and were denied by the student government. I moved to Charlotte and transferred to UNCC in 2009. I dipped my toes in as a Partner in Peace at Pride and doing volunteer lobbying with Equality NC, and I’ve been very involved ever since!

How did your time with Time Out Youth Center influence your career path?

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I did my undergraduate internship for social work at Time Out Youth from the fall of 2011 to the spring of 2012 . . . I met so many amazing, talented youth, including the late Blake Brockington and Kaitlin Laffitte who pushed me to do more and be better. They didn’t need me to hold their hands as much as they needed me to change the conditions in which they had to live . . . they taught me I have a powerful voice and can use it to shine a light on people and stories that are often unseen and unheard. Time Out Youth is a unique organization doing powerful work, and I was incredibly lucky to have had that experience.

What type of work did you do with the Regional AIDS Interfaith Network?

I was a medical case manager at RAIN. I worked with adults living with HIV, connecting them to medical care and helping them with medication adherence while working to help meet other needs, such as housing and employment.

How would you describe your current job with Democracy NC?

My current job with Democracy North Carolina is a dream come true! I am the organizer across an eight-county region for the premier voting rights organization in North Carolina . . . Together, we fight for fair early voting plans and work to bring people into the political process who have often been disenfranchised, particularly people of color and young people. We are currently fighting to end the 2013 “Monster Voting Law” once and for all, implement independent redistricting, and get money out of politics. It is a wonderful job that is fast paced and both policy and community-oriented. I work with the most talented team anywhere (I may be biased!). My coworkers are caring and kind and have their minds constantly set on justice. Right now, it is the absolute perfect job for me.

What other LGBTQ community organizations are you or have you been involved with?

Over the years, I’ve founded and helped coordinate a few different support groups in town for adults and trans people. I am currently in leadership of Trans Pride and volunteer across the community as much as I can, whether it’s working a table or protesting at the North Carolina General Assembly with Southerners on New Ground, leading a workshop for an Equality NC conference, talking strategy with MeckPAC, phone banking, lobbying, or doing administrative work, I try to lend a hand wherever I can.

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Can you briefly explain your Master’s thesis research and findings?

My 2013 capstone was titled, “Addressing HIV Risk Behaviors Among Transgender Adolescents: A harm reduction approach.”

In the South, HIV is on the rise. Despite just 37 percent of the nation’s population living in the South, southern states account for about 44 percent of all HIV cases, and the number of cases is on the climb. Charlotte has one of the highest rates of HIV nationwide . . . I learned how much HIV affects youth, particularly trans girls of color. . . [My thesis] named the importance of meeting youth where they are. Trans youth of color have increased rates of risk behaviors because they have higher rates of poverty and joblessness, as a result of job discrimination and family rejection. They are also more likely to have lower levels of education because school is often unbearable for transgender youth. Youth, particularly trans girls, are more likely to engage in survival sex work — trading sex for shelter, food, or money to meet basic needs. Research also names the importance of hormone therapy to mental health for those that experience gender dysphoria and desire hormones to help with a transition. As a result, youth in poverty are more likely to share needles for hormones or for drugs, which they may use to cope with depression and stress.

One of the interventions that have proven effective is comprehensive sex education . . . Street programs for harm reduction are effective as well . . . Housing First is another social policy and program that has been extremely successful, even in Charlotte. When housing needs are met, other needs are met more easily, so Housing First works to get folks into permanent housing immediately. Finally, when youth are diagnosed with HIV, they must enter care immediately to gain control over their viral load, prevent related illness, and prevent further spread of the disease.

Ultimately, though, the best thing we can do for trans youth is systemic. We must fight to end cissexism and racism. We must provide shelter and end homelessness. We must fight for accessible healthcare that covers transgender-related care and all HIV medications and preventive techniques. These are going to be the best methods to ending the rapid spread of HIV.

How would you describe your “happy place?”

With work and community involvement, I’m always on the go and busy, but I’m actually pretty introverted. I love being outside, preferably in the country with very few people around, when I can have a getaway. I love big open fields, the ocean, and the mountains. Put me in a kayak with a great view and no one in sight, except for a friend or two, and I’m happy as a clam. If I’m in the city, anytime I can have a calm night and deep conversation or belly-laughs with my queer family, I’m happy.

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