The New Next Generation

INTERVIEW: Teen Activist Justin Barr Exposes Local Antigay Politicians While Inspiring Gay Youth

Earlier this year, 17-year-old Justin Barr met with City Council members in his hometown of Greenville, MI (population 8,460) to encourage them to adopt a non-discrimination ordinance. He also met with the Eureka Township Board, where Greenville is located, to lobby for a non-discrimination ordinance adopted there as well.

In addition to being an advocate, Barr is also in the National Honors Society and he is a representative on his local school board. Queerty had an opportunity to chat with Barr about all of the above in addition to his experience coming out at 14, and his plans for the future.

Why is LGBT advocacy important to you?

One of my goals is to make life easier for the people who come after me. Being gay, working for LGBT rights is one of the main ways that I can do that. I want future generations to have an easier life, and not have to go through the same things that I have.

How long have you been doing this?

Honestly, since the day I came out I have been advocating in one way or another.

When did you come out?

I came out the summer before freshman year of high school, when I was 14.

And what sort of advocacy work do you do?

I’m President of my school’s Gay Straight Alliance. I’m also on the board of GLSEN West Michigan, as their Secretary and Jump Start Student Coordinator.

Being the Secretary, I do the monthly newsletters, their social media, I deal with sending out any e-mails about events that we’re having, and putting stuff up on the website.

Jump Start is a team of energetic students who want to make school safer for everybody, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. As the Jump Start Student Coordinator, I work to recruit students who want to be on the team, I work in helping schools start gay-straight alliances, and stuff like that.

What are some of the things you do as President of your school’s Gay Straight Alliance?

In the past, we’ve done the Day of Silence and No Name-Calling Week. We like movie nights. We also hold a lot of discussions on things like gender identity, suicide, HIV/AIDS, and bullying.

Are you involved in any other organizations?

Yeah. Me and a group of residents in Greenville founded a non-profit called Montcalm Inclusion Coalition. We’re still getting organized, but we’re trying to get an LGBT youth group started in our county.

Is there a large community in your county?

There is. I’ve been trying to contact LGBT youth in the county and I’ve been surprised at how many people I found just by looking on Facebook. My county is very rural and not as connected as maybe a larger city, so a lot of people don’t know that there are others out there or how to get ahold of them.

Busy, busy

(Laughs.) Yeah, I’m pretty busy. But I think it’s definitely worth it. I enjoy what I do. And, like I said, I want people who come after me to have a better life and a better experience.

When you came out three years ago, what was the response you got?

The response I got from my family was nothing but supportive. My immediate family — my parents and grandparents — were very loving and caring.

And what about the Greenville community and the people at school?

I actually lived in Belding, Michigan when I first came out, which is seven miles away from Greenville. It’s smaller, about half the size of Greenville. The response at school in Belding was not the greatest.

How so?

I had a really hard time with using restrooms. I would not use restrooms at school unless I had to because people would say things or harass me and I was fearful of that. In gym class, as well. We would play “tag” and people would tell me not to tag them because they acted like I was hitting on them or whatever, which wasn’t the case. After freshman year, I moved to Greenville, and I’ve had nothing but support in Greenville.

What words of advice might you have for teenagers who may be in a similar boat?

I would say that the best thing for them to do is to seek out other people who have gone through these experiences. Or find an adult that they trust, or a friend that they trust, to confide in first. After you tell that initial person, I think your mind is cleared. A weight is lifted.

Last month, the Eureka Township voted down a non-discrimination ordinance which you had been pushing them to adopt.

Eureka Township has a history of not following procedure. For instance, when you go to a council meeting or township meeting, during the citizens’ comments, usually the board members do not talk back to you, and that’s to avoid argument. But in Eureka Township they will talk back to you and argue with you openly for upwards of an hour on one subject.

Right away they argued with me. In my conversations with them, they were basically saying I didn’t know what I was talking about. One of the arguments was that, in Michigan, it’s still illegal to be gay because of our anti-sodomy law. I tried explaining that this was turned down over 10 years ago in Lawrence V. Texas, and the trustee said: “Oh, well I suppose you know more than a lawyer?” And at that point I knew I wasn’t making any headway. They weren’t even listening.

Also, they have held an illegal closed meeting. The night after I introduced the idea [of a non-discrimination ordinance], one of the trustees called a closed meeting for “personal reasons,” which is not a legal reason to call a closed meeting. And then they gutted the non-discrimination ordinance, which is also not legal to do in a closed meeting.

Do you think their condescending responses had anything to do with your age? Because you are 17?

Actually, I think that people take me more seriously because of everything I do and my age. I think their response was fueled by homophobia, intolerance, and ignorance about the issues.

You have said after the Eureka Township voted down the non-discrimination ordinance that you wanted to focus your energy on getting it passed in your town of Greenville.

It’s not going as fast as I would like, but I like the progress that’s being made. I’ve spoken with the city manager and they are going to be having a closed meeting with their attorney about the ordinance and any legal issues there might be. And then after that I am going to talk to him about the timetable for moving forward.

It’s your senior year and you’re looking towards the future. What do you have planned next?

Right now I’m pretty positive that I want to go to Grand Valley State University. I still have to apply. At Grand Valley State University they have a major for municipal and non-profit administration. Also, starting this year, they have an LGBT Studies minor. So I plan on minoring in LGBT Studies. They also have an LGBT resource center that I want to help out at.

And after that?

After college I would really love to continue advocating for things, whether that’s by running a non-profit, being involved in politics, or even being a teacher. And then my biggest goal is that I would really love to be a dad, to raise kids on my own or with my partner, and be the best dad that I can be.

Photo credit: Justin Barr.