More than 60 high school students attended the Day of Silence rally April 17, an event hosted by GLSEN Greater Kansas City. The Day of Silence, a national effort, asks students to take a vow of silence for some portion of the school day to raise awareness of the effects of anti-LGBT bullying and discrimination.
Many of these youth identified as either queer or trans*. They rallied together to Break the Silence at the J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain in the Plaza and created a wall of bodies and signs along 47th Street, chanting for equality and acceptance as car horns honked in support during rush hour. These students showed up with enthusiasm, energy and confidence in themselves and hope for their LGBTQ community in Kansas City. It was refreshing to see so many young people embrace their future with positivity.
Fourteen years ago, while I was staying in a homeless youth shelter, I went to my first LGBTQ youth group, Growing American Youth, in St. Louis. It was summer, and the group was packed because there was no safe space for LGBTQ youth to gather besides the weekly drop-in group or the local gay-friendly coffeehouse.
At the group, the lead adviser gently asked me whether I wished to share my story with the other youth. I was embarrassed, but recounted how both my family and my private school had recently kicked me out for being gay. After I finished, the adviser asked the other youth, “How many of you have been kicked out at some point or another for being gay?” There were more than 60 young people at this meeting, and half of them raised their hands. I was stunned.
As an LGBTQ youth advocate with the Kansas City Anti-Violence Project (KCAVP), I have the privilege to work directly with empowered, creative and resilient LGBTQ youth on a daily basis. These past three months, I have learned even more from a group of Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) high school students through our ongoing LGBTQ youth empowerment and educational workshop series.
At a recent meeting, one of the students, who identifies as gender nonconforming, curiously asked me whether I often hear disbelief from adults that trans* and gender nonconforming (TGNC) youth exist. They asked, “How do you respond to adults when they ask you: ‘Why are there so many youth coming out as transgender now?’ or ‘Doesn’t it just seem that so many kids now are claiming trans as the newest trend?’”
I shared with these students that no young person should ever feel the need to justify their existence or validate their identities. Still, there was a familiar pain in the room as the students explained how they felt a general lack of support from adults in their lives, even from LGBTQ adults who have the potential to be amazing mentors to these youth.
It made me recall my own experiences as I grew older, when I heard some LGBTQ adults say how easy they think it is for LGBTQ youth now. I believe there is a clear disconnect with a lot of adults about the current realities of many LGBTQ youth. Every youth has the right to be happy, treated with dignity and be safe in any community.
As I watched the students chant with hope at the Day of Silence rally, I was reminded how little has changed for LGBTQ youth in 2015. There is a tremendous amount of hate directed at them, specifically from unsupportive adults. Just in the last six months, KCAVP has been called to provide support to LGBTQ-identified young people who are coping with neglect, trauma and violence.
We advocated for a gay high school student who bravely came out in a very small town. The student was assaulted by peers, then school staff denied the violence and the local police department was unwilling to respond. Religious leaders show up at the student’s home to inform the family that they will burn in hell.
We trained an elementary school staff on how to treat their TGNC students and implement culturally competent lesson plans and school policies, in response to one of their second graders coming out as trans*. And we still receive calls on a weekly basis from shelters, schools and youth themselves who have been kicked out and disowned for being LGBTQ.
After the Day of Silence rally, local GSA students gathered at the LIKEME Lighthouse for the Night of Noise open mic event. We participated in a KCAVP workshop about “LGBTQ Myth Busting,” as youth joked away the antiquated, sometimes humorous stereotypes they first learned about what it meant to be LGBTQ from adults and peers in their life.
Many youth gathered the courage to speak their truths in front of their peers. We learned about their struggles to navigate high school while avoiding their families’ homophobia and religious violence at home. We learned about their bravery to come out twice, first as queer and then as transgender, to family members who still have no idea what being gay even means.
But mostly, we saw students support each other through laughter, tears and new friendships. It was a pretty incredible moment to watch, and I have full confidence that our LGBTQ youth will be — and already are — amazing leaders for our communities.
Randall Jenson is the youth and outreach coordinator for the Kansas City Anti-Violence Project. KCAVP’s vision is to end all types of violence in the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.