From an early age, Monet Umana, 23, was taught to be proud of her roots and identity.
Raised in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, she was surrounded by family, friends, and role models who looked like her and understood the nuances of navigating the world as a Black woman.
But when she began to question her sexuality, Monet’s unapologetic pride was challenged. “All these parts of me were constantly being affirmed until I started to explore anything outside my Blackness and my womanhood,” Umana told LGBTQ Nation.
A voracious reader and self-described “child of the internet,” Umana took matters into her own hands, turning to books like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, and social media platforms like Tumblr to find like-minded people. By her freshman year of high school, she was out to her classmates and championing intersectionality within her Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) at The Madeira School, in Virginia.
Umana, who now resides in Philadelphia, has become an accomplished scholar with a track record of grassroots organizing, including as a member of the National Black Justice Coalition’s (NBJC) Youth and Young Adult Action Council. Her newfound pride as a Black queer woman is her biggest source of strength and inspiration, and she’s not the only young leader who feels this way.
Today’s youth and young adults like Umana are openly embracing queerness in record numbers, allowing them to flourish both as individuals and spokespeople for the continued fight for queer liberation. They stand on the shoulders of older LGBTQ activists who fought for their right to get married and join the military, and the ability to successfully run for public office.
“Even just 10 or 20 years ago, that wasn’t the case — many of these barriers had yet to be broken,” Mary Emily O’Hara, GLAAD’s rapid response manager, told LGBTQ Nation. “It is quite possible that more young people are coming out today because they are simply less afraid of what could happen if they do so.”
Yet today’s LGBTQ youth are also living in a world filled with a barrage of anti-LGBTQ animus. Across the United States, legislation has proliferated at the state level, with 2021 seeing staggering numbers of anti-LGBTQ bills introduced nationwide. Many of these bills directly target the fundamental rights of LGBTQ youth, such as access to books with inclusive themes, inclusive sex education, and school bathrooms that align with their gender identity.
But coming of age in an era of renewed political division, not to mention the global COVID-19 pandemic, hasn’t disheartened the next generation of leaders. Gen Zers are becoming politically engaged as early as their teens and going to the polls in increasing numbers.
This could be attributed to one key resource that may prove decisive in the culture wars raging around them: the internet. With the world literally at their fingertips, today’s queer youth are more connected to each other — and to news stories about the ways in which their rights are under attack — than ever.
“A trans girl of color can now watch videos of other trans girls of color on YouTube and learn about these experiences and expand her own possibilities of what it may mean to be a trans girl of color in this world,” Dr. Brandon Andrew Robinson, an associate professor of gender and sexuality studies at the University of California, Riverside, told LGBTQ Nation. “The internet opens up ways for youth to find resources, other people like them, and just learn about being LGBTQ.”
But as quickly as the internet spreads inclusion, acceptance and love, hate can take hold.
According to O’Hara, growing visibility on the web has led to “growing vulnerability” via harassment and censorship campaigns. The internet’s inherent accessibility means that mean-spirited rhetoric and misinformation are also spreading like wildfire, with slurs and harassment against trans people at the forefront. For internet users of all ages, the lack of media literacy has created a void where misinformation thrives.
“The internet opens up ways for youth to find resources, other people like them, and just learn about being LGBTQ.” — Dr. Brandon Andrew Robinson, The University of California, Riverside
This trend has real-world effects: Gen Zers report the highest levels of discrimination, mental health disparities, and economic insecurities compared with other age groups, according to a 2021 report by the Center for American Progress.
“It is no coincidence that there is a large backlash against this trans visibility as more young people are more openly embracing queerness and gender expansiveness,” Robinson said.
But this hostility motivates many young people to speak out even more. The youth of today “seems to still be embracing queerness and resisting,” Robinson said. If anything, this moment in American history, with more access to information than ever, has strengthened Gen Zers’ commitment to bettering our world — and necessitated innovation and creativity for their activism.
LGBTQ Nation spoke to a diverse group of young LGBTQ activists about their work, inspirations, and advice for other young queer people who want to make a difference.
Eli Levi uses the power of social media and his love of makeup and fashion to address social issues; Esmée Silverman’s work with GLSEN’s Freedom Fellowship Program explores challenges facing queer youth on a local level; Sameer Jha concentrates on teacher-focused educational initiatives; Molly Pinta engages her community through an annual Pride event she co-founded; and Umana advocates for those with intersecting identities. Collectively, their efforts exemplify the diverse and creative ways today’s young leaders take charge of their futures.
Meet Eli Levi, beauty influencer
Eli Levi (who prefers he/they pronouns), a 22-year-old nonbinary activist and influencer, was raised in affluent Boca Raton, Florida, in an accepting household where his “traditionally feminine” interests — think dance and musical theater — were not just accepted but encouraged.
“I consider myself someone who never really had to come out because, in my high school and middle school years, I was allowed to unravel and explore my identity,” Levi told LGBTQ Nation. “My family is really the sole reason I’m able to do what I do.”
As they got older, Levi faced pushback from peers in their conservative community, who struggled to wrap their heads around a young boy who favored dance lessons over football practice.
“I put off taking ballet classes until I was 12,” he said. “I’d already had issues with bullying, and I was afraid simply because being a boy in ballet was so stigmatized. And I think that was when I first started to feel that my sense of identity was different than most people.”
Although Levi eventually gave up dance, they did find another outlet for their creativity: makeup. In high school, they became enamored of beauty influencers like Patrick Starrr, NikkieTutorials, and Bretman Rock. Levi honed their craft in private for years until, at 16, they finally worked up the courage to proudly wear a full face of makeup to school.
“I learned that as long as I was comfortable in myself and my identity, no one could take that away from me.” — Eli Levi
“In a way, I did feel like the odd one out,” Levi said.
But Levi’s self-assuredness deterred the bullies who’d made fun of him growing up. “I learned that as long as I was comfortable in myself and my identity, no one could take that away from me.”
Levi was elected student body president by his senior year, an honor that made him the de facto face of the school district. Emboldened, he launched his beauty YouTube and Instagram accounts under the handle @EliLeviOfficial, enabling him to connect with other young people around the world. As of 2021, an estimated 76 percent of U.S. adults ages 18–24 use Instagram. More than half of this demographic (55 percent) also frequents TikTok.
This year, Levi realized that their followers knew very little about the onslaught of anti-LGBTQ bills introduced in state legislatures. Slowly, they began incorporating data from LGBTQ advocacy groups like GLAAD, which works towards acceptance in news, entertainment and digital media, and The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for queer young people, into their content to meet potential allies where they were.
Research indicates that social media strategies like Levi’s are working. A 2020 Pew Research poll indicated nearly a quarter of adult social media users in the U.S. have changed their views about a political or social issue because of something they saw on social media.
“Because makeup was trending on TikTok, I thought that I could incorporate both,” Levi explained. “That way, I could get the viewership and acceptance that I was receiving from the beauty community, but also help educate them.”
Although most of Levi’s 30,000 TikTok followers embraced their justice-oriented content, some balked. He regularly receives messages from people who want him to “just stick to makeup,” advice he has emphatically rejected.
“It felt almost like an obligation to share that information with people on social media,” he said.
In addition to working as an influencer, Levi is majoring in communications and media studies with a minor in business at New York City’s Pace University. As anti-LGBTQ bills continue to crop up — including the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” legislation in Florida, Levi’s home state — they feel called to “keep posting and being visible.”
“There will be a time where someone will need my support and won’t even know it,” they added. “When I get messages that explain how my content has impacted them in a certain positive way, that makes me want to continue the work. If I can help at least one person with my videos, then I did my job.”
Meet Esmée Silverman, finding and growing community
Not all digital natives live and breathe social media like Levi. Esmée Silverman, 20 and transgender, turned to digital activism out of necessity. The Massachusetts-born, Oregon-based activist was first able to own her identity as a pansexual, polyamorous trans woman because of her GSA at Oliver Ames High School in Easton, Massachusetts, where she began attending meetings during her freshman year.
“That really opened my eyes to the power of community and the power of identity,” Silverman told LGBTQ Nation. “Just walking into that room and seeing all of these incredible queer people — it made my heart melt, and it set me on a path that I follow to this day.”
In the fall of 2017, Silverman attended a regional gathering with members of other GSAs throughout eastern Massachusetts, an experience that helped her realize that she was trans and come out to her family even though she was experiencing a mental health crisis. Her experience mirrors research from The Trevor Project in 2021, which found that LGBTQ youth who had access to affirming spaces like GSAs reported far lower rates of attempting suicide.
“I had a support system,” she said. “I had a group of friends. The support that my then-partner and friends gave me at the time was paramount to my journey as an activist.”
In 2020, Silverman was tasked with leading the very GSA club that had “changed the course of [her] entire life.” Her tenure went smoothly until the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Suddenly, in-person gatherings were no longer feasible, forcing her to completely reimagine the club’s structure, which she said was devastating.
“Everything I’d worked for — my school’s GSA, all of the other positions I was in — were gone,” Silverman said. “I had to shift my entire GSA from being in-person to being virtual. We had absolutely no system set in place, no Google Classroom, no social media.”
Silverman, a New Englander who’d grown up there competing in sports with a fierce determination to “fight till the very end,” was no stranger to facing adversity head-on. She rose to the challenge of digitizing her GSA, launching the club’s social media accounts, and implementing virtual meetings to ensure that a community continued to flourish, albeit online.
“Just walking into that room and seeing all of these incredible queer people — it made my heart melt, and it set me on a path that I follow to this day.” — Esmée Silverman
Her efforts led to recognition as one of GLSEN’s National Student Council members, an honor she described as a dream come true. The organization’s 43 local chapters across 30 states empower students in their local communities to create safe and inclusive schools.
“The Council gave me so much that I want to give back to every single queer youth,” said Silverman. “I did a lot of really cool things, and not only was I doing awesome stuff, I was paired up with 12 other amazing activists. That’s something that some queer youth in this country can only ask for, to be paired up with one person, let alone 12.”
After graduating from high school in 2021, Silverman organized Let Trans Athletes Play, a community engagement event that utilized sports, games, and civil discourse to protest anti-transgender bills sweeping the nation. Held in Cambridge, Massachusetts’ Danehy Park, the event served as the launching pad for Queer Youth Assemble (QYA), an organization Silverman co-founded that same summer with fellow activist Cas Ford Martin.
“We do monthly zines and compile resources,” Silverman said. “We just did a nationwide walkout with youth participating in more than 20 states. It was a beautiful moment for queer youth solidarity.”
Now residing in Portland, Oregon, and attending Reed College, Silverman is an inaugural member of GLSEN’s five-person Freedom Fellowship Program, enabling her to study issues affecting school-age LGBTQ youth in her region, receive monthly community mobilization training, and connect with other young queer leaders.
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Although she lives on the West Coast, Silverman regularly turns to her New England roots for inspiration. Growing up, she bounced from sports team to sports team, many of which were coached by her dad. Her most recent tenure was on the boys’ varsity tennis team in high school. She joined as a closeted trans girl; when she came out to her team, she was met with open arms.
“For so long, I thought that teammates only care about you when you’re playing a game,” she said. “It made me feel like I was respected as not only an athlete but as a person, and it really gave me strength. All of my sports experiences taught me that as long as my heart is beating, I’ll be fighting for the queer youth community.”
Meet Sameer Jha, educating the educators
Sameer Jha feels a similar pull to protect and uplift other young LGBTQ people. The nonbinary 20-year-old South Asian American is a college student at Stanford University, a published author, and the founder of The Empathy Alliance, a nationally recognized anti-bullying initiative aimed at making schools safer for LGBTQ youth.
This wasn’t always the case. Jha said they were first exposed to queerness at their California middle school, where they were bullied relentlessly for coming off as “gay.”
“From a very early age, the only time I’d ever heard the word ‘gay’ was through bullying,” they told LGBTQ Nation. “My school didn’t have any inclusive sex ed. We didn’t learn about queer history in class. It made me want to reject any thoughts of possibly being queer and suppress anything that could lead to bullying.”
According to a 2021 report from The Trevor Project, 52 percent of all queer middle schoolers and high schoolers said they were bullied online or in person over the past year. Those numbers were even higher among trans and nonbinary students like Jha or Silverman.
For Jha, everything changed when they switched schools for their freshman year of high school. Their new district was more welcoming and featured a diverse roster of students and faculty, including a well-attended GSA. It was a drastic departure from the exclusionary culture at their previous school.
“I was able to fully accept myself because I was able to see that gay wasn’t just a word that meant ‘disgusting’ or ‘terrible,’” they said.
Touched by the power of an accepting school environment, Jha embarked on a journey to make schools safer and more inclusive for youth of all backgrounds. They launched The Empathy Alliance after coming out “very publicly” at 14. It began with a simple but profound action: Jha returned to the middle school where they’d been bullied and opened up to their former counselor and principal about their harmful experience.
“It’s hard to change individual parents’ minds, especially where there are deeply held religious or cultural beliefs, but school is supposed to be, required to be, a safe place for everyone to learn,” Jha said. “So that was where I felt that the biggest difference could be made.”
“It is my dream that every educator and counselor in America has access to simple tools to make their classrooms more inclusive, tools made for and by queer youth.” — Sameer Jha
Their approach reflects findings from GLSEN’s 2019 National School Climate Survey, which found that more than half of LGBTQ youth in the U.S. felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation. About a third of them missed “at least one entire day of school” because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable.
Jha began training educators at other school districts about how to foster safer environments. Their tips range from small actions, like putting safe-space stickers on classroom doors, to more significant moves, such as sponsoring a GSA. Jha even wrote a book: Read This, Save Lives: A Teacher’s Guide to Creating Safer Classrooms for LGBTQ+ Students, which they self-published in 2018.
“It is my dream that every educator and counselor in America has access to simple tools to make their classrooms more inclusive, tools made for and by queer youth,” they said in a speech at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Time to Thrive conference in 2019.
Jha is an HRC Youth Ambassador alum and has collaborated with GLSEN to reach queer and ally teachers, administrators, and students internationally. They are particularly proud of the interactions they’ve had with other South Asian queer youth in their community, many of whom have reached out to them for advice or a safe space to vent.
“My goal is to make sure that no student ever feels the way I did,” Jha said.
Meet Molly Pinta, pride of Buffalo Grove
The response to bullying isn’t the only catalyst for young leaders. Take Molly Pinta, a 15-year-old from Buffalo Grove, Illinois, who draws her motivation from the love and support of her family and community.
Pinta first realized she was bisexual when she developed a crush on another girl at 12 years old. Soon after, she came out to her family, an experience the cheerful teen described to LGBTQ Nation as “the smallest deal ever.”
“When I was in sixth grade, my mom and I decided to bring a GSA to my middle school,” Pinta said. “She’s a teacher there.”
Pinta’s Gay Straight Alliance community inspired her to come out: “One meeting I went to when my mom wasn’t there — she was one of the sponsors, so it was rare that she wouldn’t be there — I came out to the club, and they encouraged me to come out to her,” she said.
Her parents, both educators, accepted her with open arms. They ended up taking her to a pride parade in nearby Aurora, Illinois, in 2018.
“It was just such an amazing experience,” Pinta said. “We felt so loved, and we decided that everybody in the town that we live in needed to feel the love and acceptance that we felt at that parade.”
So began The Pinta Pride Project, a nonprofit launched on behalf of Pinta by her mom, Carolyn Pinta. Between the summer of 2018 and June 2019, Pinta and her mother worked tirelessly to plan and promote Buffalo Grove’s inaugural pride parade. The endeavor took time and dedication, but it wasn’t difficult to generate excitement in their local community, Molly Pinta said. Carolyn Pinta, who worked with sponsors, agreed.
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“We were so lucky that everyone we approached had a connection to this,” Carolyn Pinta told LGBTQ Nation. “Because, of course they do. There are a gazillion gay people, even if they don’t want to say so.”
That first pride parade was a massive success. The mother and daughter secured funding from more than 50 sponsors and generated enough awareness to attract the participation of nearly 100 advocacy groups, organizations, and elected officials. The event led to the teen being chosen as Chicago Gay Pride’s 2019 Youth Grand Marshal.
Since then, The Pinta Pride Project has held similar events, including a socially distanced drive-by pride during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in June 2020. It also boasts an active Facebook community moderated by Carolyn Pinta, who said parents frequently turn to the group for resources or advice.
Familial support is especially crucial for queer youth: A 2019 report from The Trevor Project found that support from even one affirming adult can drastically decrease a young LGBTQ person’s risk of suicide.
“Our events give people a place to go to connect with people like them and to be affirmed in their identities — a place where you know your pronouns are gonna be respected, and people are going to respect you for who you are,” Molly Pinta said. “That’s a huge part of what we do: making sure that people have a place where they can be accepted, even if they, unfortunately, don’t have that in their own home.”
Monet Umana, leading the charge
Although Pinta found camaraderie among her classmates and community, Monet Umana, the young activist from Maryland, felt compelled to diversify her pool of peers and mentors. Her activism began in her teens as a student at Madeira, a predominantly white, single-gender college preparatory school in McLean, Virginia. As a freshman, she was open about her queerness at school, but she struggled to feel seen among her classmates.
“It was super difficult,” she said. “While I was going through one transition of coming to terms with who I was [as a lesbian], I was going through another transition and I was like, ‘I left all the Black people.’”
Undeterred, Umana saw the intersections of her Blackness and queerness as an opportunity to enact change. Gen Z is more racially and ethnically diverse than any previous generation. Given that this demographic is also more openly queer than ever, Umana knew she couldn’t be the only Black queer teen in her area seeking LGBTQ people “that look like [me].”
She joined Madeira’s GSA early on. Most of its members were white, and its programming rarely addressed the experiences of queer people of color. With the backing of a teacher, Umana brought diverse speakers to the club to tackle everything from Black LGBTQ liberation to gender-inclusive, queer-friendly sex education. She found resources and community through SMYAL, a local youth-focused LGBTQ leadership organization. She also founded an affinity group for queer students of color at Madeira, which was a pivotal moment for her.
Umana graduated from high school in 2016 and decided to take a gap year, something her parents — especially her father, a Nigerian immigrant who’d instilled in her the value of hard work — struggled to understand. But the break was imperative for Umana, who could hardly rest between her studies, college applications, and extracurricular commitments.
She spent her gap year working as an AmeriCorps member with City Year, a youth-focused nonprofit in the Washington, D.C., metro area. Umana said it’s her proudest achievement as a young activist. It also solidified her commitment to organizing on the ground within her local community, an ethos she carried with her as a student of urban studies at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
“I did fellowships; I volunteered and interned,” she said. “I worked with Make the Road Pennsylvania [a social justice organization dedicated to Latinx communities]. I wanted to intern with Congresswoman Susan Wild [D-PA] at one point, but I felt my time was better served with the people in Allentown versus a figurehead. And I think I was right.”
Umana said she hopes to continue working with and for the Black LGBTQ community, and cites NBJC’s executive director, former White House appointee Dr. David Johns, as a significant mentor figure and leader in her community. She has worked with him on several activist councils and social justice initiatives over the years.
“Monet has been a leader since I first met her during her senior year of high school,” Dr. Johns said in a statement to LGBTQ Nation. “Monet has applied the skills and courage to create programs and activities to ensure that students facing unique challenges can thrive to support the goals of the National Black Justice Coalition. She’s been instrumental in developing a Cartoon Network cartoon to celebrate gender non-binary and non-conforming members of our community and promote the use of pronouns. She’s also authored articles for BET to encourage non-queer Black people to increase their competence and compassion. Our world is a better place because of Monet.”
“Being in [those spaces] by way of David, I was constantly being affirmed and uplifted,” Umana said. “I didn’t have to hide that I was queer. I didn’t have to skirt around it. It was like, ‘Oh, you’re Black, you’re a woman, and you’re gay? You’re fantastic because of that.’ I could literally feel my lifespan increasing.”
That sentiment was echoed by Pinta, who also emphasized the importance of finding adults who are willing to support you “no matter what.”
“There can be a lot of backlash,” she said. “And if you’re young, it can be really hard to start something up yourself. But if you have a strong adult on your side, or even a group of other people your age, you’re gonna be able to do a lot of amazing things.”
“If you have a community behind you,” said Silverman, “you can do literally anything you put your mind to.”
Sam Manzella is a queer freelance writer, editor, and digital producer based in Brooklyn.