Everyone talks about queer youth.
We know, for example, that young queer people experience violence and bullying at higher rates. We know many of them are hearing homophobic and transphobic remarks from their teachers, and we know they face an increased risk for suicidal behavior.
“I’m happy to be asexual and aromantic,” says Benoit. “It’s not a problem. Here I am, just living life.”
With each new study, queer youth become another statistic. But no one really talks to them. I wanted to change that. I set out to understand what it truly means to be a queer young person living in the US in 2023. Is the data faithful to their experiences?
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I spoke with six queer teens and young adults across six different states. Some were very open with their identities while others felt the need to mask their true selves. Their experiences vary drastically, and even those who noted living in inclusive communities still reported difficulties with their identities.
Part 1 of this series featured queer youth who mainly reside in urban or Democrat-controlled areas. Despite enjoying more protections than many of their peers, they still voiced fears about being their true selves and said they were worried about the future of the LGBTQ+ community.
Part 2 examines the opposite end of that spectrum. The following stories feature queer youth who live in small cities or Republican-led areas as they attempt to find themselves while under increasingly high scrutiny. As their communities continue to limit their freedoms, these youth continue to push forward by unapologetically being their true selves.
Queer youth are living at a pivotal time, witnessing the changing tides of a nation on edge. As right-wing legislators continue to push partisan attacks against them, targeting access to gender-affirming healthcare and banning talk of sexuality or gender identity, queer youth feel betrayed and abandoned by the adults elected to protect them.
In this exploration, Levi, G, and Javy tell their stories.
Sexuality should be sheltered: Levi Gleason, 17 (Sheridan County, Kansas)
“I’ve gotten really good about hiding certain aspects of myself,” said Gleason. Since the moment I met him, he presented himself as a bright, confident teen full of energy. He knows what he wants out of life — including where he wants to go to college, and the type of job he wants — and works hard to get there. So when I sat down to hear his story, I was surprised as he revealed a deeper side.
“I was outed at my church, and was basically told I need to ‘fix myself’ to ever reach Heaven,” he said. He was in middle school.
This was a turning point in his life. He took a vow to make sure no peer ever has to feel his pain again. Shortly after, he and his family moved from Central Indiana to Sheridan County, Kansas where he set out to be a role model for his community of only a few thousand residents.
Despite being outed, he still described Indiana as “a place where you can express yourself a little more” when compared to his new home of Kansas.
At the very least, he said, the small-town residents of Sheridan County are a little more open before expressing homophobia and bigotry. As he recounted his story, Gleason never faltered. He still carried on with a very clear passion to be an ally to his community.
“What can I do for people who remind me of that confused 6th-grade boy sitting in class, asking ‘why do I feel this way?” he asked himself.
As a politically involved teen, Gleason is an active member of his school’s publication and has frequently tried to communicate with his elected officials. His requests are often completely ignored.
Here is what he wants to say to those representatives who continue to disregard him: “What you’re doing is putting queer kids down, and silencing them just to fit your narrative.”
He called on his lawmakers to legislate for “all of Kansas,” as they were elected to do.
Whispers in the hallway: G Weller, 18 (Washington/Oregon)
“[Growing up], there was not a lot of outright homophobia, but there was a fear to be yourself,” said Weller.
Only a few minutes into the interview, Weller got right into the details. They started by recounting the amount of bullying and shame they would see their peers subjected to. But most often, the harassment would be underlying, taking the form of glances and whispers; it was a Mean Girls nightmare.
The implicit prejudice they experienced daily was enough to make Weller feel the need to mask their identity. They found refuge in safe spaces and allies where they could be their true self.
Weller’s story is a powerful reminder of the importance of implementing safe spaces like Gay-Straight Alliances in schools, which studies have shown can improve student outcomes and the overall school climate.
It’s an understatement to say Weller has thick skin. Despite our brief conversation, we hit on some heavy topics, and they never once seemed fazed. Their cool demeanor was inspiring, and their passion became clear when we spent the rest of the interview discussing the onslaught of anti-trans bills across the country.
“Of course, I feel scared, I definitely feel scared. I feel scared for the trans community and the trans youth who are losing their rights right now,” Weller said.
Despite feeling the need to hide their identity when they were younger, Weller is adamant that trans people should fight back by being their true selves in the face of these bills.
“I just want trans people to feel safe and loved,” Weller said, taking a few moments to pause. The only thing that scares them more than these bills is a future where these types of attacks are normalized. A new wave of attacks is imminent, they said, adding that this is only “the start of something more dangerous.”
It’s not just about identity: Javy, 17 (Upstate New York)
“I don’t really make [my sexuality] a big part of what I do or who I am,” said Javy. He serves as the Director of the LGBTQ Cacaus of the High School Democrats of America, a national student-led grassroots organization promoting youth issues. He says his advocacy isn’t “limited to LGBTQ issues.”
My phone call with Javy caught me by surprise. He was my final interview and right away, I could tell his experience would be an outlier. For many of the queer youth I spoke with, their identities are the driving force behind much of their life. For Javy, he prefers to have his sexuality take a backseat.
He chose to only go by his first name due to privacy concerns.
Javy is a great reminder that one’s sexuality does not have to be one’s defining feature. Within the queer community, there is a tendency to cling to labels— gay, lesbian, straight— and never let go, especially for youth who are only beginning to explore their identities. But queer youth like Javy are redefining what it means to be a part of the LGBTQ+ community without the need for labels. In truth, Javy just wants to be a kid who also happens to be queer.
Despite his wishes for normalcy, he finds himself propelled to advocacy. “We’re working to increase LGBTQ involvement in politics and mobilizing voters,” he said. As a teen who hopes for a future in politics, he leads the LGBTQ Cacaus in the hopes of engaging more queer young people to run for office.
He has a powerful message for Republican lawmakers who keep pushing anti-queer legislation.
“This is willful ignorance. You’re trading away rights for votes,” said Javy.
Our conversation reminded me of when I was young, desperately searching Urban Dictionary for the perfect term to describe what I felt and alleviate my confusion. Young people like Javy reassure me of the bright future queer youth have in store, prioritizing their authenticity over labels.
I started this series thinking I knew everything there was to know about queer youth. I’ve read the studies, and I’ve participated in feedback sessions. Plus, I am a queer youth myself. But these conversations showed me just how diverse — and resilient — our community truly is.
Despite living in unwelcoming hometowns, Levi, G, and Javy never stopped fighting to be themselves. For some queer youth, their identity propels them to a political fight while for others, the fight is simply to accept themselves.
It’s an undeniable truth: Queer youth are just as diverse as the rest of the LGBTQ+ community. But we don’t have to resort to generalizations to understand them; we simply have to open our ears and listen.
We’re living in unprecedented times and the eyes of queer youth now rest on what our elected leaders do next. The only question that remains: When will they start listening?
Editor’s note: This article mentions suicide. If you need to talk to someone now, call the Trans Lifeline at 1-877-565-8860. It’s staffed by trans people, for trans people. The Trevor Project provides a safe, judgement-free place to talk for LGBTQ youth at 1-866-488-7386. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.