John Grady Burns had only recently moved back to his hometown of Natchez, Miss., when he received tragic news. A 25-year-old gay man from the area had committed suicide.
“We all knew him,” Burns says of his young friend. “He was such a sweet guy. We talked about how sad it was that a young man who was so loved could feel so lost.”
The 25-year-old is but one of a multitude of LGBTQ+ young people who feel lost with nowhere to turn, as those between 18 and 25 years of age who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual are five times more likely than their heterosexual peers to have attempted suicide. The statistics are even more staggering for transgender people under age 25, with 89% of the trans community reporting that they had contemplated suicide.
The statistics were damning for Burns, who began having conversations within his community about how to prevent self-harm and suicide among LGBTQ+ youth. Those discussions eventually led to the formation of “Y’all Means All” Natchez, of which Burns serves as president. The group received its 501(c) status in late 2018 and began its work in earnest in 2019. The coalition’s reach soon broadened beyond its original scope of suicidal LGBTQ+ youth and expanded its outreach work to include the entire Natchez community.
“We wanted to help everyone, not just a segment of the community,” Burns reflects. “So (Y’all Means All) is for anyone who needs help. We don’t care about age, gender or religious background.”
Working for a Better Natchez
Although the formation of “Y’all Means All” Natchez marked the advent of the first-ever LGBTQ+ organization in the riverfront town, Burns says the group has enjoyed early success in its first three years of existence. Community members provided enough donations for YMAN’s annual “gayrage sale” to necessitate the rental of a storage unit to stow clothing contributions, household items, and various other odds and ends that bring Natchezians out in droves to the biannual sale.
Proceeds from semi-yearly events like the “gayrage sale” enable the group to support the Natchez residents most in need of assistance, like Kruz Brown. A local pastor alerted the group to Brown’s dire circumstance: The 21-year-old gay man was homeless and was considering suicide. The group acted quickly, getting Brown an appointment with Southwest Mental Health, providing temporary housing and locating clothing for the gay man on the verge of taking his own life.
Thanks to the group’s intervention, Brown was able to finish his GED and is now employed full-time and living in Florida.
“He is exactly who we wanted to help,” Burns says. “We feel so honored that we were able to help him. We want to be the vehicle for mental health for those who cannot afford it.”
Festival to Raise Needed Funds, Bring Fun
The group’s yearly festival is a major source of funding that allows “Y’all Means All” to continue its advocacy for mental health. One hundred percent of the proceeds from the three-day event on Oct. 21 to Oct. 23 will benefit NAMI, the National Alliance for Mental Illness.
“We make it a fun weekend,” Burns enthuses. “We want to bring a lighthearted feel to the weekend so that they can have a good time and laugh.”
The festival begins on Thursday evening with “Drag Bingo” in the courtyard of EPYK, which Burns says is always a highlight for LGBTQ+ community members and allies. “We want people to see the fun side of being gay,” Burns says. “(The drag queens) are here to make you laugh. We want to share who we are, and we want to help people better understand who we are and where we’re coming from.”
Burns lauded the drag queens for agreeing to donate their tips to NAMI, which he says is not an unusual move for the community. “Even during the AIDS epidemic, drag queens went to the front of the line and raised money,” he says. “People need to understand what a huge vehicle they’ve been over the years. They have raised needed funds and yet have made us laugh.”
The fun and activism will continue on Friday night with a cocktail party at Choctaw Hall hotel followed by a disco-themed afterparty at EPYK. On Saturday, celebrities such as “Will and Grace” star Leslie Jordan, celebrity chef Poppy Tooker and RuPaul contestant Mrs. Kasha Davis will make special guest appearances, and six of the town’s straight-identifying residents will don drag in support of YMAN’s mission and compete for the title of Mr./Miss Fableaux, a play on Natchez’s long-running “Tableaux” shows.
This three-day extravaganza is made possible thanks to support from the Natchez community, which Burns says has been irreplaceable in YMAN’s three years of activism. “We’ve created something that’s unique and unusual in a small town,” Burns remarks, crediting Natchez’s “socially liberal” mindset for its embrace of the group. “In our first year, we raised $60,000 in a town of 16,000 people. People may have different viewpoints, but you can agree to disagree. Natchez sees the value in what we’re doing, and that means a lot to us.”
Those wishing to donate to “Y’all Means All” can make a tax-deductible donation to the group’s community-minded, mental-health-oriented mission. Get more information on the weekend’s events at yallmeansallnatchez.org