(Kat Marchand, Aaron Shapiro, Gabe Aderhold, Charles Poulson)
With homophobic demagogues like Maggie Gallagher and Michele Bachmann grabbing the media spotlight, it can feel like we’re in a losing battle for LGBT rights in this country. But there’s a new generation of out youth proudly taking on the mantle of leadership.
As the kids of America head back to the classroom, Queerty decided to profile eight young LGBT trailblazers who are changing the conversation both locally and nationwide. They run the gamut of the LGBT rainbow, hail from across the country and range in age from teens too young to drive to young adults graduating college. But they all share at least one trait: They’ve taken it upon themselves to make sure it gets better for themselves, their peers and our community. Meet the class of 2011.
UP FIRST: Aaron Shapiro, 22
This Valentine’s Day, Maryland State Senators received heaps and heaps of long-stem roses, each one representing a hetero voter who supported marriage equality. Organized by the advocacy group Friendfactor, the action inspired University of Maryland senior Aaron Shapiro to rally hundreds via an “Aaron is Getting Married!” Facebook page.
Shapiro—who founded Hamsa, an LGBT student group at UMCP’s Hillel—had spent a semester studying at University of Cape Town in South Africa and was inspired by local LGBT activists Keletso Makofane and Zackie Achmat. While the “War of the Roses” failed to get a same-sex marriage bill passed in Maryland, the state legislature will almost undoubtedly revisit marriage equality in 2012, with Governor O’Malley’s full support. “I honestly can’t understand the arguments against gay marriage… when a vibrant country like South Africa has been marrying gay people since 2006,” says Shapiro. “I just wish marriage equality would get passed throughout the U.S. so politicians could spend that time discussing more important topics.”
Out of the mouth of babes…
NEXT: Corey Bernstein, 16
Corey Bernstein, 16
Even before he knew he was gay, Corey Bernstein endured a horrible rash of bullying at school–including harassment from faculty. “We were playing some kind of game and I screwed up a play and the students started laughing at me, and the teacher was laughing as well,” he recalls. Suicide started to feel like a viable option. But in eighth grade, Bernstein enrolled in the Hudson School, a progressive private academy in Hoboken, where he was able to come to grips with being gay and, a year and a coming-out later, devote himself to empowering other LGBT youth. President of his school’s GSA, a member of GLSEN’s Central New Jersey Student Leadership Team and actively involved with Garden State Equality, Bernstein also spoke at April’s Equality Forum in Philadelphia.
His biggest accomplishment to date, though, was having a hand in New Jersey’s statewide “Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights,” regarded as the strongest law of its kind in the nation—Bernstein was among the young speakers who testified before state lawmakers last year.
“Seeing that law passed almost unanimously and signed into law by Governor Christie—It’s so amazing to see big victories like that,” he shares. “But it’s also about making smaller impacts. In my school there are only 25 students per grade and everyone knows I’m gay and about the activism I do. That’s led to some students, especially in younger grades, feeling comfortable to come to me and reach out for help when they’ve been bullied.”
Speaking of helping, as if his activism isn’t enough Bernstein is also a volunteer EMT in West Orange, NJ. Talk about a lifesaver!
NEXT: Kat Marchand, 20
At this year’s Camp Pride, Vanderbilt University’s annual leadership forum for LGBTQ students, Kat Marchand experienced one of the most empowering and beautiful moments in her life: “At the No-Talent Talent Show, I sang a song my girlfriend of four years taught me right before she committed suicide,” recalls Marchand, a bisexual poli-sci/French/German major at University of Michigan Dearborn. “It was her way of saying goodbye to me, and I shared it with the group on the last night. After I was done, there was this giant group hug and everything just… felt okay. I was okay—and I knew that no matter what, these other 50 people my age had my back.”
Now Marchand is watching her peers’ backs: She’s working with UM’s Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA) to establish gender-neutral housing and improve LGBT inclusiveness, and she’s making it a mission to establish support networks for queer minors. “I have personal friends who have gone to [ex-gay] camps to get ‘fixed’ and are depressed and suicidal because they don’t have a support system,” she adds. “It’s sad and needs to change.” With young trailblazers like Marchand at the forefront, that’s change we can believe in.
NEXT: Graeme Taylor, 15
Graeme Taylor, 15
Ann Arbor, Michigan
The college town of Ann Arbor, Michigan, has a progressive reputation—one Graeme Taylor is a testament to. After he spoke out (and officially came out) during a Howell School Board meeting last October, speaking on behalf a teacher suspended over defending gay students, the tenth grader was invited to be a guest on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, where, Ellen said, “the world was a better place for having [Taylor] in it.”
Taylor—who lists DeGeneres, Barney Frank, Cleve Jones, queer Detroit activist Jim Toy and GLSN’s Kevin Jennings as role models—is involved in Riot Youth, a safe-space group for Ann Arbor’s young LGBTs that works on leadership-skill development, community organizing and building support and social networks. (He says the school board meeting was “a kind of Riot Youth field trip.”) Later this month, Taylor will deliver a speech at the National Education Association’s board of directors meeting in Washington, DC.
Not to dismiss his star turn on Ellen, Taylor considers his proudest moment a speaking engagement in April at the Bay Area Youth Summit, where he asked attendees to jump and shout, “I was born this way!” “One reason the summit was cool was that it was staged mostly by students,” he says. “Being able to directly speak to an audience of [LGBT] teenagers, joke around with them, and feel their emotions was beyond belief.” What’s next for this wonderful wunderkind? “I want to do well in school and that keeps me busy, but I’ll always continue with my activism,” he reveals. “Keep your eyes on the TV, the Internet and Queerty—I might show up!” We have a feeling you just might, Graeme.
NEXT: Gabe Aderhold, 17
Michelle and Marcus Bachmann were caught so off-guard when Gabe Aderhold heckled the couple at the Iowa State Fair in August that they scurried off like cockroaches. Too young to vote, Aderhold was fueled by grief over the suicide of a gay 15-year-old friend from Bachmann’s district. “I knew that the straw poll was coming up and Bachmann can be hard to meet with, so it seemed like the right opportunity to pull the issue of inequality into the spotlight,” he recalls. “Being told that I caused Bachmann to flee that afternoon made my day, week and month!”
Citing gay Minnesota State Senator Scott Dibble as an inspiration, this newly minted queer activist was just voted a student member of his hometown HRC chapter and is eager to lend his voice and self-proclaimed sass to queer causes. “I will constantly be looking for opportunities to help out.” And, we hope, continue to be the gay community’s go-to exterminator.
NEXT: Jennifer Rokakis, 20
Jennifer Rokakis, 20
A Women’s and Gender Studies major at Eastern Michigan University, Jennifer Rokakis —who identifies as pansexual– first became involved with LGBT community activism as president of her high school’s GSA. But when she noticed a spate of news reports about bullied LGBT teens committing suicide last year, she realized this was her life calling. “I was walking to one of my classes wondering why [I was going there] when there were so many more pressing problems to address in the world,” Rokakis shares. “The class seemed irrelevant. It was then that I realized I wanted to make my life’s work trying to gain acceptance and equal rights for the LGBT community.”
A recipient of a PFLAG scholarship, Rokakis is also president of QUEST, EMU’s Queer Unity for Eastern Students (“We do a mix of social, activist and educational events—drag shows, safe-sex seminars, speakers bureaus,” she says of the group); the Philanthropy Chair of the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance; a member of the Eastern Pride Identity Coalition (EPIC), which sends LGBT students and faculty into classrooms to speak about their coming-out experiences; a volunteer with Affirmations, Ferndale, MI’s LGBT center; and advocacy coordinator at her campus’ LGBT Resource Center, where she’s working to implement initiatives for gender-neutral bathrooms and a peer mentor program.
Whether she passed that “irrelevant” class or not, Rokakis gets an “A” here at Queerty.
NEXT: Charles Poulson, 20
In August, when the Des Moines Register ran an article about Poulson’s transition from a girl named Chloe to a man named Charles, he was prepared for the worst. “I was completely ready to hear about how I’m an ‘abomination, a sin,’” he admits. “But I was so blown away from the positive feedback, even from complete strangers, that there were times when I couldn’t put my feelings into words. I was honored to see my story reposted on blogs and websites across the world.”
Winner of the Eychaner Foundation’s Matthew Shepard Scholarship, the Iowa State graphic-design major puts his talents to use for the Midwest Bisexual Lesbian Gay Transgender Ally College Conference, speaks in classrooms and on panels across the state, and founded Brothers, an online resource for trans men and allies. It looks like it’s not just the Tea Party that can look to Iowa for leadership.
NEXT: Caleb Laieski, 16
Caleb Laieski, 16
After enduring merciless bullying at his public school with no help from teachers or faculty, a then 15-year-old Caleb Laieski took action against the Dysart Unified School District by threatening a lawsuit unless it added protections against bullying. The ACLU joined Laieski’s fight and the openly gay teen— who dropped out and earned a GED—made numerous media appearances before the school district ultimately changed its policy for the better.
But Laieski was just getting started: This spring he personally lobbied DC officials over 22 days to promote the Student Non-Discrimination Act, a safe-schools bill. His pleas even reached Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who mentioned him in her speech at the first federal LGBT Youth Summit. Laieski also founded Gays and Lesbians Unite Against Discrimination (GLAUD) and will appear in the upcoming documentary Bullied to Silence.
In late June, Laieski got to meet with President Obama and proposed that the Commander in Chief appoint an LGBT youth liaison, a cause you can voice support for on Change.org. “Having the opportunity to meet President Obama and briefly bring up anything I wanted was quite empowering,” Laieski recalls. “I knew that I had one chance at giving my insight as an openly gay youth to our leader and that’s exactly what I did.”
He’s already been in the White House, so how about “Laieski for President in 2030”?
I think you ought to mention the 16-year-old lesbian musician Sarah Skaalum Jørgensen. She’s not from the US, she’s from Denmark, but she has done so much for queer teen visibility over here.
I think you should mention some of the great young leaders of the southeast.
These young people are really inspiring. Thank you for posting this. (I wish I had the courage of Graeme Taylor when I was 14. Watch the video clip)
Well I feel unaccomplished.
christopher di spirito
Lawrence Ferber – Thanks for posting this. Very informative. These young people are definitely a new generation of movers and shakers.
Thanks for posting this, it’s so nice to see positive news/human interest stories about LGBT folks, especially the LGBT youth.
What about Will Phillips from Arkansas? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mTer4bBVeOI
What about Zack Wahls, who defended his lesbian parents (and his own upbringing in a gay household) to Iowan legislators during a public forum on House Joint Resolution 6?
Watching that kid defend his upbringing (and stand as an uber-positive proof of the compassion, skill, and love that gay parents can raise their children with) really made me feel the first vestiges of REAL gay pride.
If lesbian couples are more likely to raise a kid like Zack Wahls than your average hetero couple, there should be a lot more of them around to raise kids.
What, no black FtM pre-op transgender activists out there? For shame, you white spremacist editors!
(yes, this is sarcasm)
This was very uplifting to read through. I like to hear about things like this and as several of the other comments have already stated, there are a good bit more of kids who also show similar qualities and should be hailed as LGBT Leaders of tomorrow. I don’t know if this is possible but maybe you can start to include this as a weekly post with a new Young LGBT Leader Of Tomorrow.
just a thought.
I would’ve loved to see my friends Cassidy Gardner and Elizabeth Harvey Richards on this list, for starting Queerocracy, one of the largest GLBTQ groups in the history of The New School in New York. It is constantly growing and the symposium last spring was a huge success.
Finally some good news!
#4 was a very sad and touching story.
The photo on the first page of the article is incorrectly labeled. The second photo- the person in green- is Caleb, not Aaron.
Firstly, I’d like to thank Lawrence for including me in this wonderful piece.
In response to the other commenters, I am extremely humbled by being featured in this article. I agree that there are many other deserving youth whose stories need to be shared as well.
@Brad: I agree, I want to see more cute little queer kids doing good for their people on a regular basis. It makes me feel confident for the future.
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