Protecting LGBTQ Youth is Personal for Saurav Jung Thapa

Educating policymakers and elected leaders, the Fletcher School graduate promotes young people’s well-being by advocating for equal rights

Saurav Jung Thapa, F10, works to protect LGBTQ youth, who are at disproportionately high risk of suicide. But rather than staff a crisis hotline or offer mental health counseling, he’s talking with policymakers in Washington, D.C., about equal rights.

“LGBTQ young people are at higher risk of suicide not because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, but because of the stigma, discrimination, and violence they often face in their homes, schools, and communities,” explains Thapa, senior federal affairs manager at The Trevor Project, the world’s largest suicide prevention and mental health organization for LGBTQ young people.

Government policies can reduce those negative forces affecting young people, he says—or add to them. 

A Community in Crisis

The stakes for The Trevor Project’s work are high. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for all young people in the United States, and LGBTQ youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide, Thapa says.

LGBTQ young people who also experience discrimination because they are people of color, immigrants, transgender, or nonbinary, can face additional mental health challenges, he says. 

But help is available. Trevor, which serves 13- to 24-year-olds, provides 24/7 free, confidential crisis services in the United States and Mexico. It also offers counseling to LGBTQ people who call the national suicide and crisis lifeline in the U.S. (available by dialing 988).

Beyond immediate crisis intervention, Trevor conducts research, advocacy, and public education efforts like Thapa’s work in order “to create a society that's more welcoming of LGBTQ young people,” he says. 

“It's not asking for special rights. It's just equal rights. Making sure that every American, every citizen, every person has the same rights.”

Saurav Jung Thapa, describing his work at The Trevor Project

Almost Like a Siege

Given today’s polarized national politics, achieving Trevor’s goal of a welcoming society can feel challenging.

“The latest figures show that there have been over 600 anti-LGBTQ state laws [proposed] in just this year,” Thapa says. “It's just exploded.”

Many of those state bills target trans and nonbinary youth. They include proposals to ban books, block access to gender-affirming medical care, and prevent trans youth from playing on sports teams that align with their gender identities.

At the national level, the U.S. House of Representatives in April passed a bill that would prevent trans women and girls from participating in sports teams consistent with their gender identity at federally funded schools and educational institutions. While the Senate and the Biden administration won’t advance the legislation, Thapa says, “Think about the message that gives to young kids. They’re reading the news, they’re saying, ‘Oh, in 47 states, there’s over 600 bills attacking us. Our elected lawmakers are out to get us.’ It’s almost like a siege.”

Thapa’s job is to help educate policymakers and elected leaders about LGBTQ youth, so they understand that “these are human beings,” he says. “It's not a partisan issue. It's an issue of humanity.”

Thapa sees some signs of hope on the legislative front. In April, the governor of Minnesota signed into law a ban on so-called “conversion therapy,” a discredited practice that attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

The practice, which Thapa says is associated with increased risk of suicide for LGBTQ young people, is opposed by the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and other medical and professional groups. Legislators in Pennsylvania and Michigan are considering bans on conversion therapy for minors, Thapa says, and 20 other states and the District of Columbia have already enacted them.

The Trevor Project also supported the federal Respect for Marriage Act, which requires all states to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states and federally recognizes those marriages. The act was signed into law by President Biden in December.

“It's not asking for special rights,” Thapa says of his work. “It's just equal rights. Making sure that every American, every citizen, every person has the same rights.”

A Career Swerve

When he was in graduate school at Fletcher, Thapa didn’t intend to work on LGBTQ issues.

Born into a military family in Kathmandu, Nepal, he came of age during that country’s civil war. As a college student in the United States, he was outspoken in his opposition to the monarchy’s suppression of dissent—even when the top military man carrying out the king’s orders was his father’s cousin.

“That got some attention, because here was a relative of the military chief speaking out against the coup,” he recalls. “My mom was worried that I shouldn't even come back to the country for a few years, so I wouldn't get in trouble. But I was like, you know what? It's my country as much as theirs. You can't just have one person who thinks he is king run it like it is 1800.”

Weeks of massive street protests in 2006 forced Nepal’s last king to abandon his rule and introduce democracy; the monarchy was eventually abolished by parliament in 2008. Meanwhile, Thapa was still thousands of miles away, preparing to devote his career to conflict resolution. After earning a bachelor’s degree in international relations at Hampshire College and a master’s degree in law and diplomacy at The Fletcher School, he landed a job at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., promoting Muslim-Christian interfaith dialogue.

His career path shifted two years later when he met the first openly gay federal legislator in Nepal, who was in Washington, D.C., for a conference. The legislator also led a Nepali LGBTQ rights and health nonprofit called Blue Diamond Society, and invited Thapa to work there.

For Thapa, who had known he was gay “since grade 3 at the latest” but had no openly LGBTQ role models in Nepal, the opportunity was too good to turn down.

“Just a few years back, when I'd left as a high school student, there was nothing. But Blue Diamond Society had 800 staff and 40 offices,” he says. “I decided, I'm going to go back to Nepal. I can go make a difference in the lives of LGBTQ young people.”

Return to the U.S.

That decision led to two and a half years in Asia, including a stint with the United Nations Development Programme in Bangkok, where Thapa worked on the Being LGBT in Asia initiative. The work was terrific, he says, but he returned to the United States to be with his partner (now husband) Sam, a law professor whose tenured position ties him to Washington, D.C.

Thanks to a 2013 Supreme Court decision that led to federal recognition of same-sex marriages, Thapa was able to get a green card and become a U.S. citizen after the couple married in early 2015—something that would have been impossible just a few years earlier.

“That shows the importance of laws and policies,” he says. “I’m grateful to the U.S. Supreme Court. It changed my life fundamentally, and I know it can do that for a lot of people.”

After returning to the United States, Thapa worked with the Human Rights Campaign and MPact Global Action for Gay Men’s Health and Rights before joining The Trevor Project last year. In his current role, he continues the work he started 11 years ago when he joined the Blue Diamond Society in Nepal, which appealed to him so much because of his own early years.

Although he knew some other students in his all-male Jesuit high school were gay, he says, “I never had any kind of support. You could never talk about it. You were so invisible.”

But after Thapa came out to his immediate family in his early 20s, they offered their support.

“One of the reasons I have been able to work on LGBTQ advocacy is because I have parents, a brother, and a sister-in-law who have unconditionally loved and accepted me,” he said. “Having my closest family members’ support, including from my mother—who is a women's rights activist and raised us to always speak up for the marginalized—has made it so much easier to do my work."

In 2015, Nepal enacted a new constitution protecting rights for sexual and gender minorities, the first constitution in Asia to do so. But it still hasn’t enacted marriage equality laws like those that protect Thapa’s relationship in the United States.

In the U.S., as in Nepal, more must be done to protect the rights of the next generation of LGBTQ people—and by extension, to bolster their mental health, Thapa says.

“To bring a larger change in society, to change laws and policies, you need research, you need data, you need advocacy, and you need public education,” he says, referring to the work The Trevor Project does beyond crisis intervention. Without those efforts, he adds, “you can’t make larger progress.”


If you or someone you know are thinking about suicide, contact The Trevor Project by calling 866-488-7386 or texting START to 678-678. Or call 988 to reach the national suicide and crisis lifeline. You may also visit for crisis chat services or for more information.

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