"We have to embrace our differences to create freedom and acceptance for all." - Jazz Jennings
I talked to Desmond Napoles (Desmond is Amazing), a 12-year-old LGBTQIA+ rights activist from New York City, NY. We discussed drag kids, performance, and shading less.
Isabel: Talk to me a little bit about what drew you to fighting for change. What got you involved with LGBTQIA+ activism and your drag work specifically?
Desmond: When I was 2 years old my mom would be watching RuPaul's Drag Race season 1 in the living room and I was playing with my toys. I would stop playing with my toys and watch. I thought the drag queens were so beautiful and amazing, like princesses. I said, "I want to do that!". So I would take things around the house like towels, sheets, bubble wrap, paper, cardboard, anything I could get my hands on and make costumes and pretend wigs. The LGBTQIA+ community accepted me wanting to be a drag kid. A lot of the older drag queens saw themselves in what I was doing and they would give me tips and encourage me to do my drag. I saw a lot of kids like me at the Pride March watching the parade and that inspired me because I realized that there are kids who can't be free to be themselves and aren't accepted and don't have a supportive community. So I wanted to fight to make sure everyone can express themselves the way that they want to especially LGBTQIA+ youth. There's nothing wrong with being a boy and wanting to dress up.
Isabel: Totally. How do you use art or performance to help further your message of love and acceptance globally?
Desmond: I think that by just by being visible I am helping. Kids see me and they say, "if he can do it then I can do it too!" I inspire a lot of kids to start doing drag or even to come out of the closet. Showing the world that drag is a form of art is very important to me. Some people say it is wrong and that kids shouldn't do drag, but why not? It's artistic and the kind of drag that kids do isn't the same as the drag that adult drag queens are doing. That's why I invented the term drag kid. I felt that there needed to be a name to what I was doing because it was unique.
Isabel: You have a pretty big platform with your social media following. Why do you think it’s important for kids of all ages to use their platforms to fight for equality?
Desmond: I think that drag kids and other LGBTQIA+ youth shouldn't have to hide who they are. They need to show the world that they exist. They need to show the world that this is who they are and they are here to stay. Yaaaassssss!
Isabel: Love that. What is something you wish adults or lawmakers understood about youth LGBTQIA+ activism?
Desmond: A lot of conservative people say that what I am doing is child abuse or that I am forced to do drag by my parents or that I am brainwashed. This is not true. I love what I do, otherwise I wouldn't be doing it. I love creating characters and performing. I've always loved performing since I was little. I used to do ballet from when I was 5 years old until I was 10 years old and I loved it, but then I decided I liked doing drag better and focused on that. In school I love drama class because I get to play characters. That's what I like. To me drag is like acting.
Isabel: Are there any activism projects you are working on now or plans for the future you would like to talk about?
Desmond: I just finished writing a book called "Be Amazing" that will be released spring 2020 by Macmillan Children's Publishing Group. It's about the struggle of LGBTQIA+ people in the past and how we are now changing that and making things better for the future. I have a few other projects that I am working on, but they are top secret!
Isabel: What advice would you give to other young people who want to speak out and change the world?
Desmond: Be yourself always no matter what anyone says and pay the haters no mind because they will never be as fierce as you and I. Also, I think people should love more and shade less.
I had a conversation with Anthony Belotti, a 19-year-old LGBTQIA+ rights activist from Richmond, VA. We talked about anti-bullying policy, modeling, and trans identity.
Isabel: What has been your most memorable experience in LGBTQIA+ activism?
Anthony: The first time I spoke at a school board meeting, begging for trans inclusive policies. I was so nervous, I had spent a month prior to the meeting getting my friends to agree to come, writing my speech, and encouraging everyone to reach out to the members. I also remember the last time I spoke, and they voted to add gender identity and sexual orientation to the anti-bullying policy, which was the last of my demands to be met. It was a major win for me and every trans and queer student in my county.
Isabel: That is awesome. How do you use social media as a platform for your LGBTQIA+ activism?
Anthony: I use social media by engaging my audience with social justice related captions paired with images that I model. I am a model, and the reason I became one is to continue trans visibility especially for queer trans men that are not hyper-masculine or have not medically transitioned. I use my social media to educate people on current issues as well as inspire other trans folks to love themselves regardless of how far they have transitioned.
Isabel: What is something you feel like adults or lawmakers don’t understand about being a trans young person in America?
Anthony: Lawmakers do not understand the complexities of a trans identity. I am trans, queer, and have a chronic illness. So when I go to the doctor, my transness does not go away. When I am in trans spaces, my queerness does not go away, and vice versa. I am all my identities at once. Lawmakers also do not understand how much the public education system and healthcare system impacts trans people. We miss more school due to bullying and we often are unable to transition due to funds, which is also related to our high unemployment/homelessness rate. All of these things are connected. There is no one solution for trans equality, we must tackle classism, ableism, and discrimination at every level in order to see trans liberation.
Isabel: What do you feel that your community could do on a local or national level to fight for equality and change?
Anthony: Be active. I think that by understanding the power of mentorships and the passing of generational knowledge would significantly improve the LGBTQ+ community's ability to create change.
Isabel: Are there any activism projects or plans for the future you would like to talk about?
Anthony: I am thinking about running for office in my county after I graduate from college. Before then, I would like to work on getting other LGBTQ+ and ally candidates in office, most likely through an internship with LGBTQ+ Democrats of Virginia.
Isabel: Very cool. What advice would you give to other young people who want to change the world?
Anthony:If you want to change the world, start with the area and people around you. Challenge bias and organize around an issue. By collecting grassroots support, you can build movements and create real, local change.
I spoke with Jade Tyra, a 16-year-old LGBTQIA+ rights activist from Norman, OK. We talked about education, the importance of listening as an ally, and youth activism.
Isabel: Why are LGBTQIA+ issues and rights important to you? How did you get involved with that?
Jade: I am queer and many of the people in my life who I love are also LGBTQ. I strongly believe that love and acceptance is the key to a better world. Most people who act cruel are just incredibly misinformed. Through activism, education, and patience we can help to make the world a better place. I got involved with LGBT activism through my attempts to spread that message.
Isabel: Cool! How do you think people in our society could be better allies to the LGBTQIA+ community?
Jade: Listen. An ally simply can not understand the intricacies of our struggle as LGBT people today and throughout history. Stand by us, do not speak over us. We are happy to share the stories of our community if you are willing to respectfully listen. Far too often, I see allies trying to speak on behalf of LGBT people. We need allies in order to progress, but this does not negate the fact that we are capable of speaking for ourselves.
Isabel: Do you feel that LGBTQIA+ rights are intersectional with other youth-based movements?
Jade: I do! There are of course exceptions but in general, I do believe that youth are the most accepting demographic. Youth activism in my experience has been a very diverse movement. All of the organizations that I am involved in include people from all walks of life. I have never once felt left out because of my identity or seen anyone else treated in an inconsiderate manner.
Isabel: That’s great. You work with a lot of organizations regarding youth engagement and activism. What is something you have learned about the way young people interact with politics and each other?
Jade: We may not be taken very seriously and we may not be able to vote but our voices are loud. Kids show up to the protests, we spread the truth over social media, we stand up to the people in charge, and we fight for change. Together we can make an enormous impact and join forces. We are the future voters and the future leaders of the world, so people in power need to listen to us.
Isabel: Are there any activism projects or any plans for the future you would like to talk about?
Jade: An amazing coalition of women called the Next Generation Women's Caucus has just launched! We are a nonpartisan group of women from all over the US (and a few international members) fighting for gender equality and women's rights. I am one of the media directors so I help to run our Instagram page @ngpwc which has just launched. We intend on giving young women the support and tools to make a change in their communities and on a national scale.
Isabel: What advice would you give to other young people who want to speak out and change the world?
Jade: Do it! Find a community of people who are passionate about the same things as you and stand up for what you believe in. Write about it, go to strikes or protests in favor of it, send letters to representatives about it, and use your voice. No matter who you are or what you stand for, you have the power to inspire others and change the world one bit at a time.
I talked to Max Salcido, an 18 year-old LGBTQIA+ rights activist from Oklahoma City, OK. We spoke about transness, YouGoGirl, and intersectional liberation.
Isabel: You have been very open about your transition publicly. Why is it important for you to share your story as a trans young person on social media?
Max: I think social media is a platform people use to publicize the moments they deem noteworthy. To me, benchmarks of my medical and social transition are the most important. I love showing the world that transness isn’t suffering, and that seeking community doesn’t make you weak. There are so many misconceptions about transness and they scare me. Myths about predators and pedophiles relentlessly follow my community in our pursuit for visibility and safety. I want to show people that social and medical transition aren’t something to be whispered about, or ashamed of. I’m a man. Yes, I am a trans man, but before anything else, I’m just a boy seeking his own happiness. Maybe along the way other trans youth with find my social media and be able to relate to the content. There is nothing more important than making community.
Isabel: Absolutely. You are the current Chief Political Strategist for You Go Girl Oklahoma. What is that position all about and what does the organization mean to you?
Max: YouGoGirl is a local nonprofit aiming to empower youth through education and political involvement. I started with the project two years ago, simply submitting poetry. I have been so privileged to move up in the organization and join the executive team as we begin in our national roll out of YouGoGirl. We emphasize the importance of nonpartisan spaces where youth can go to learn, and be equipped with the tools they will need to defend their ideologies in our tumultuous political economy. We believe everyone should be able to engage in politics. I want representatives who look like me and YouGoGirl works to make that happen.
Isabel: What inspired you to create your podcast, Phobic, and how do you feel that our society could better uplift the LGBTQIA+ youth community?
Max: Phobic was inspired by our desire to interrogate internalized fears and stereotypes. To have a phobia is to have an irrational fear and we want to bring rational discussion to systems that have long since deemed us unworthy of listening to. We’re queer, but more importantly we have things to say about the world around us. The world is killing us and trans men have a statistical likelihood of attempting suicide. This is because there aren't enough resources for us. Youth are isolated, outcasted, and often left homeless. Want to support queer youth? Research and donate to local groups or programs that create safe spaces or provide resources to us.
Isabel: Totally. You also protest for issues like climate change and gender inequality. How do you feel like LGBTQIA+ rights are intersectional with other human rights causes?
Max: I am a firm believer that without liberation for all, there can be liberation for none. We cannot move forward until those that have been left behind are caught up. I also believe that intersectional advocacy is key. Most of us are queer, but that’s not our entire identity. There are queer women of color, there are undocumented lesbians, there are impoverished non-binary folk. We have multiple facets of our identities, and those intersections can be amplified by our queerness: manifesting as police violence, medical maltreatment, housing insecurity and workplace harassment. Personally, I don’t believe queer liberation can be achieved when queer indigenous islanders are threatened by climate change, while trans women of color are murdered, and while poor trans men lack access to the resources they need to medically transition.
Isabel: Are there any current activism projects you are working on or plans for the future that you would like to talk about?
Max: I was actually appointed as Oklahoma’s State Liason for Youth Climate Strike! I’m really excited to mobilize my community around climate action , and I’m so excited to have been given a platform with the national campaign that offers me network connections and tools to better my community work. We are also planning a larger roll out for YouGoGirl OK- intending to bring our platform for engagement to college campuses across the country!
Isabel: What is your advice to other young people who want to speak out and change the world?
Max: Get involved. Call your state capitol and ask about opportunities to volunteer. Invest in local non-profits because dedicating time to causes your passionate about will lend you the connections you need to dive deeper. Get connected. Find community leaders on social media and send a message. Getting connected and getting plugged in by creating contacts is the best way to get further involved in the events happening around you.
I had a great conversation with Cody Clark, a 15 year-old LGBTQIA+ rights activist from Youngstown, OH. We talked about being an LGBTQIA+ student, the mental turmoil of HIV/aids, and some awesome Instagram accounts.
Isabel: What initially got you involved with LGBTQIA+ rights and why is the movement important to you?
Cody: I’m transgender and bisexual, but I have a certain amount of privilege being white and having a supportive family. I wanted to fight for those who aren’t lucky enough to have people who will listen to them. In addition, I go to a catholic high school with very little common knowledge about LGBTQIA+ identities and issues, so I have been working with my best friend to try and get a Gay Straight Alliance at school. The movement is important to me because all of my friends and community, whether or not I know them, deserve equal chances to succeed.
Isabel: As an activist for LGBTQIA+ rights as well as gun reform, mental health, climate justice, and gender equality, why do you believe that it is important for kids to speak out against injustices around them?
Cody: Too many adults automatically think of kids as less-than. Many of these same adults are also the adults in power, the people making our decisions and voting for our rights. If we don’t tell them our needs, they won’t know. Some adults like to tell us that we don’t have power, but that’s a lie. We can do anything we want, and the only way we will not succeed is if we believe we can’t. I believe in you and you can change the world.
Isabel: How has mental health specifically been a part of your journey as an LGBTQIA+ activist?
Cody: From dealing with grief and family issues at an early age, I already had problems with mental health. Not having the language to recognize that a lot of what I was going through was internalized homophobia and transphobia took a toll on my health. The reason I work specifically for LGBTQIA+ activism is because after being marginalized for so long, LGBTQIA+ kids already have so much mental turmoil, in a world where we cannot live safely. Also, a disproportionate amount of LGBTQIA+ folks have been affected by HIV/aids, which takes a mental toll as well as the physical toll. When I get older, I intend to study the long-term effects of HIV/aids on the LGBTQIA+ community and come up with a vaccine for those who are most vulnerable.
Isabel: That’s amazing. What is something you would want other trans youth to know when it comes to being themselves and fighting for equality?
Cody: I want to assure them that you are fighting the good fight, but you shouldn’t have to. You should be welcomed into schools, feel safe enough to be yourself in school, and be welcomed into LGBTQIA+ spaces. You are making the world safer for those to come. If you want to make a difference in your family, community, or school, there is no action too small. Having a conversation with someone about gender, sharing resources with a closeted kid, starting a GSA, or starting a petition to get gender inclusive uniforms and bathrooms, you can do it. Even if it doesn’t make the intended difference, you will teach someone else that the world is changing for the better, or give hope to someone struggling, that they have an ally.
Isabel: Are there any current activism projects you are working on that you wanna shout out or plans for the future?
Cody: Heck yeah! I’m part of an organization to take the stigma away from mental health, on Instagram as @silencingthestigma. I have an account where I share the stories of those on the front lines of climate change, @frontlinesofclimatechange. I also have an account where I write letters to people who are oppressed or struggling called @lettersfortherevolution.
Isabel: Wow. What advice do you have for young people who want to speak out and change the world?
Cody:Strive always for intersectionality. Include people of color who are faced all too often with unwelcoming LGBTQIA+ spaces, native people, Jewish people, low income people, and disabled people. There is no one way to be LGBTQIA+. If your school is hosting a GSA meeting, make sure it is accessible. If you’re organizing a pride event, make sure it’s accessible. Start somewhere, help out, make a petition, start an Instagram account, support other students. I believe in you. Lead with love, kindness, understanding and lift up the activism of others. Some other wonderful activists are Mari Copeny, a clean water advocate, Havana Chapman-Edwards, a gun safety and equal education advocate, and Jamie Margolin, founder of This Is Zero Hour and a climate justice advocate. Remember to take care of yourself. The Trevor project number is 866-488-7386, and the crisis text line is 741-741. You are so valuable and so loved.
I talked with Drew Adams, an 18 year-old LGBTQIA+ activist from St. Johns County, FL. We spoke about suing your school, creating safe spaces, and trans equality.
Isabel: In July of last year, you won your lawsuit against your school board for barring you from using the men’s bathroom. What did that experience teach you about justice when it comes to trans kid’s rights?
Drew: Justice can take a long time. By the time we filed the lawsuit, I had already spent years meeting with administrators and showing them research and education about trans youth. In that way, the experience was really frustrating because I hoped that my district would recognize the importance of letting trans students use the bathrooms that matched their identity, but that didn’t happen. After everything I tried, it sometimes felt like I would never be treated as a regular guy at school. But the lawsuit also taught me that there are a lot of great people out there fighting for the rights of kids like me. My teams from Lambda Legal and Pillsbury were phenomenal. They worked so hard on my case and reminded me that, no matter how tough it looks or how long it takes, justice can happen if you don't give up. When we won, it felt more amazing than I can say. It can be a hard, exhausting process sometimes, but every decision like the one in my case is one more step toward equal rights for all trans people.
Isabel: One hundred percent. What do you think cisgender people and lawmakers need to know about trans youth in America?
Drew: Cisgender people and lawmakers need to get to know some of us in person. Listening to the voices of trans people and the unique concerns we have is important for anyone who truly wants to represent or understand us. We’re regular people, and we have a lot to say. I’ve met with some of my own representatives so that they can get to know me, look me in the eye, and hear about the things that affect my daily life. There’s no substitute for just talking to trans people.
Isabel: What are your goals for the future when it comes to LGBTQIA+ rights in your community?
Drew: I plan to keep fighting for equality for all LGBTQIA+ people in my community and beyond. I try to stay involved with my local LGBTQIA+ youth outreach to raise funds and supplies for them. I’m also the president of my school’s Gay Straight Alliance, and I’ve worked hard to make that a safe space for students. It’s important to me to recognize my privilege as a trans guy with an accepting family, and to use that privilege to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves. Many trans kids aren’t as lucky as I am. I have a voice, and I have to use it until every queer person is treated fairly.
Isabel: Totally. You are also a very popular speaker and writer. What initially made you want to use your platform for change?
Drew: My situation with my school district was my first experience having to fight for my rights. While that was playing out, I got involved with some other organizations, like GLSEN and Point of Pride, and I found that I could make a real difference by speaking my truth. My experience has taught me so much about discrimination against people like me, but also that we’re not alone. If I don’t use my voice to fight for change, I’m complacent, and that’s not okay.
Isabel: Are there any current activism projects you are working on that you wanna shout out?
Drew: Yes! I’m the Volunteer Intern Coordinator for Point of Pride, an amazing organization that provides funding and other resources to trans people in need. I’m also on the youth advisory panel for Q Chat Space, a great online space that provides real-time, professionally-facilitated support groups for LGBTQIA+ youth who need info or just want to talk. Both of these provide so much to queer and trans young people directly, which is what I love most about them.
Isabel: That’s really cool. I’m asking everybody this: What advice do you have for young people who want to speak out and change the world?
Drew: Do it! If you have a voice, use it. If it’s safe for you to speak out and you want to give it a try, go for it. You can write letters to the editor of your local paper, start a blog, participate in forums online/in person, or just speak at your next GSA meeting about a cause you care about. Be sure to do your research before speaking, and of course never speak over a marginalized person or group (listen to them), but don’t hesitate to change the world just because you’re young. We young people can make a huge difference. There’s change happening every single day, so come be a part of it!
I had a conversation with Ace, a 17 year-old LGBTQIA+ activist from Cottonwood Heights, UT. We talked about supporting genderqueer youth, the Instagram poetry community, and gun reform.
Isabel: What do you think our society as a whole can do to better support LGBTQIA+ youth in this country?
Ace: I think our generation is really getting there, but it’s the older generation that needs to figure some stuff out. When I came out, the most important thing was that I wished someone would listen to me and just say “tell me how you feel.” If you are a genderqueer child, trying to express that to adults is just hard beyond words. It’s just about trying to understand what someone else is going through even if you can’t relate to them.
Isabel: I also saw through your Instagram that you write poetry which I think is really cool. How has art helped you in your activism?
Ace: Art is just on another level for me. It’s like if my whole body was a bottle, the negative things start filling me up and when they spill, it comes out through art. That’s how it is for me. Whenever I just feel like I can’t handle anything, I turn to poetry or drawing or music. It’s a healthy way to get stuff out of your head and into the world. I have been part of the poetry community on Instagram for a long time and they are just so accepting. As a queer person, it is such a safe space to be myself for sure.
Isabel: That’s awesome. As an activist for many different things, how do you feel like the issues that directly affect you are intersectional with things like gun reform?
Ace: I have been diagnosed with depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and OCD. I have had these disorders my entire life. A big thing for me is that if there were guns around my house and they weren’t locked up safely, I would not be here today. I think it goes overlooked a lot that gun violence is directly correlated to suicide as well as mass shootings.
Isabel: Absolutely. What’s been your favorite experience as a youth activist and what has it been like connecting with other young people in your community?
Ace: In general, being able to organize things with people who are so like-minded is just amazing. I’m on the March For Our Lives Utah team and I love working with them more than anything. They are such great people.
Isabel: Are there any current activism projects you are working on that you want to talk about?
Ace: Right now MFOL Utah is hosting a gala to get people pumped for the new legislative session and we are doing lobbying training for our team members. That’s what I am mainly working on right now.
Isabel: What advice do you have for other young people who want to speak out and change the world?
Ace: It’s easier than you think. When I first started getting into activism, it blew my mind to see just how much influence young voices have. There is always something you can be doing in your community whether it’s going to a rally or organizing events. You can always do something. The easiest excuse is saying you don’t know where to start, but there are always things around you.