By ANDREW BARNETT
Back-to-school time can be both an exciting and a stressful time for many youth, especially those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning their orientation or identity (LGBTQ). Besides the return of homework and pop quizzes, many LGBTQ youth also find themselves in new or familiar environments that may feel unsafe or unwelcoming – whether due to bullying in the classroom, an unsupportive administration, or a sense of loneliness or isolation.
At SMYAL, we’re striving to change all that. For years, we’ve been a place where youth feel safe to be themselves, free from hallway harassment and surrounded by others like them. We also help local youth to develop the confidence and leadership skills that they need to become self-advocates.
This weekend, we’re going even further. Starting Friday, Aug. 16, we will host 28 local LGBTQ youth at our first annual GSA Activist Camp. For three days, these young leaders will engage in workshops – many facilitated by youth trainers – to help them learn how to build a successful Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) in their school. They’ll learn what rights they have as students, how to effectively organize their peers and how to mobilize support for the issues that matter most to them. This fall, they will be returning to school with more than just backpacks and pencils – they’ll have an entire new set of skills that will allow them to create real change and make their school a more welcoming place for all students.
They’ll also have the support of the DC Regional GSA Network, a system managed by SMYAL to connect students and advisers in schools across the District and the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. This weekend’s activist camp is the DC Regional GSA Network’s inaugural event, with summits, conferences, support and other activities planned throughout the school year. While we could only bring 28 applicants with us to camp, the Network itself is open to all of the community’s student leaders.
LGBTQ youth are growing up in a much different landscape today than in previous generations. Today’s youth are coming out at a younger age, on average, than ever before. Thanks to the Internet and social media, they are more connected with each other and have instant access to endless information. Most of them have a strong sense of how they define and express their identities and they are an active part of their schools, neighborhoods and the larger LGBT community.
In order to celebrate youth achievements, encourage dialogue about youth issues and share a glimpse into the lives of present-day LGBTQ youth, I am excited to announce our new partnership with the Washington Blade to create a regular “Youth Voices” column right here, which will feature a new youth-written article each month from September onward.
Thank you to the Blade for their partnership and support on this project. I am thrilled to give our community’s youth a new outlet to explore the issues on their minds – including bullying, “coming out,” relationships, family, safety, GSA advocacy projects, reflections on LGBT news and events, and much more. From here on out, you won’t be hearing from the executive director of SMYAL; instead, it will be a youth-driven forum for sharing, connecting and exploring.
Interested in making your voice heard? Any and all local youth who would like to be featured are invited to submit their ideas or articles to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This fall, as our community’s youth begin their studies once again, I look forward to the opportunity for them to teach us, as well.
Andrew Barnett is executive director of SMYAL.
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