Queer and Trans Youth Ignite Change. Will You?

Youth power is building. We must recognize it for what it is.

Organizationally, we spend a lot of time focusing on change. In other words, what needs to shift to ensure LGBTQ+ youth have boundless possibilities for joy and all people know liberation?

We must identify what's getting in the way to get to something better.

So, as the new year takes hold, and especially with a crucial election upon us, we must do the work to recognize where adultist norms interfere with the world youth need. We can't and won't have successful queer and trans youth leadership without it.

What do I mean by adultist norms?

Adultism is the systematic mistreatment and disrespect - AKA discrimination - of young people. Adultist norms are (typically unexamined) behaviors and attitudes based on the assumption that adults are better than/inferior to young people. It leads to youth needing to be taken seriously and excluded from decisions directly impacting their lives.

In the context of LGBTQ+ youth, adultism is particularly detrimental as the intersection of multiple marginalized identities compounds it. In effect, LGBTQ+ youth - as with youth who are Black and brown, poor, fat, disabled, and/or neuro-divergent - navigate a myriad of barriers, leading to further exclusion, invalidation, and disempowerment in their day-to-day lives.

Adultist norms are in the air we breathe.

So, like the masks we wear to keep ourselves and each other safe, we adults must adorn ourselves with the equipment needed to move forward with care.

Understanding how adultism functions is part of the work; only we can do it. Most especially in these scary times, when the surge of anti-trans and queer hate groups continues to mobilize, we must dig in to better and more consistently show up alongside LGBTQ+ youth. In our Guiding Principles, "Youth Out Front" anchors everything we do.

"With and by' is the way we are 'for' youth. Youth power is central to the success of our mission, and youth leadership must inform every level of the organization. We respond to youth priorities and create meaningful opportunities for youth to connect, lead, organize, and shine. We build conduits to and recognize the many forms that leadership takes, and we invest deeply in the communities we work alongside."

Latina transgender activist Sylvia Rivera was only 17 years old when she played a critical role in the Stonewall riots and subsequent LGBTQ+ rights movement. When you are forced to navigate a world every day never designed for you to succeed, you become acutely aware of what needs to change.

Rivera is known for saying: "Hell hath no fury like a drag queen scorned," which astutely sums up the deep wisdom of her lived experiences as a person who could never accept the status quo. While both adored and scorned at that time (60's and 70's), today, we are unequivocally aware that at 17 years old, Sylvia was 100% right on. Deep resilience comes from unabashed self-expression and how it can position us to forge ahead.

LGBTQ+ youth are the ones we have - and must continue - to listen to.

At last year's Leadership Day at the State House, hundreds of Vermont's LGBTQ+ and allied youth joined the national March for Queer and Trans Youth Autonomy in calling for change. Their comprehensive list of demands can be found here. Below are a couple of powerful statements shared that day:

"Listen and include everybody. This means hearing everybody's story — youth or adult. Even when others' priorities might not fully align with yours, show up and be in solidarity with the whole community."

"Separating yourself and making yourself 'more digestible' to non-queer people does more harm than good for the community."

Youth power is building. We must recognize it for what it is.

In the Fall of 2023, a record number of LGBTQ+ and allied youth turned out for the GSA Conference to develop their leadership and community engagement skills, learn how to make their GSAs vibrant and effective and build a community of people working towards justice.

Vermont's LGBTQ+ youth frequently set a benchmark for the rest of the nation to follow. If you haven't yet tuned into the Into The Mix podcast, it's worth your time. It highlights Oli Oski, a former Outright youth leader, now pursuing college and continuing their activism.

These are just a handful of ways LGBTQ+ and allied youth are revolutionizing thought and culture. They are not the next generation of trailblazers; they are TODAY's trailblazers, seamlessly connecting with our diverse history and community of fierce artists, creators, makers, advocates, activists, and leaders.

As we move into February, let's commit to looking at how we show up with and for the young people in our lives. Here's a smattering of ways to dismantle the adult norms that inevitably creep into our everyday lives:

  • Challenge Age-Based Stereotypes: Actively challenge stereotypes undermining young people's capabilities or experiences. Don't dismiss their ideas, emotions, or worries as naïve or a passing phase; value their unique insights.

  • Share Power: Redistribute power in relationships with young people. Instead of maintaining control or assuming you know best, share decision-making power and responsibilities; allow young people to have a say and exert influence in matters that concern them.

  • Facilitate Access to Information: Ensure young people have access to information that impacts them; be transparent and provide resources.

  • Create Safe Spaces for Expression: Establish environments where youth feel safe expressing themselves authentically and without retribution; just because it may not be how you feel doesn't make it any less valid.

  • Advocate for LGBTQ+ Youth Rights: Actively advocate for the rights LGBTQ+ youth are calling on you to support, especially regarding the systems meant to serve them; let's take their lead.

  • Acknowledge and Learn from Mistakes: When adultist attitudes surface, take a beat. Acknowledge them, apologize, and commit to do better next time; demonstrate to youth that their feelings and experiences are valid and respected.

  • Provide Mentorship and Guidance: Offer mentorship and guidance to young people without dictating their goals. Allowing youth to lead doesn't mean we disappear; we respect their autonomy.

Remember, when forced to navigate a world not designed for you to succeed, you become acutely aware of what needs to change. LGBTQ+ youth know where it's at. And we need their wisdom now more than ever.

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