Centering the Joy of Queer & Trans Youth
We all need community. The Beatles may have said it best when they sang, “I get by with a little help from my friends.” What’s true for adults is certainly true for youth on the cusp of adulthood, when the need to discover identity and find belonging with peers is essential.
Anyone who has ever felt the pain of being left out knows how difficult it is to face exclusion and isolation, and if you’re also navigating one or more historically marginalized identities, odds are you may struggle to find “your people” and have the chance to experience safe spaces to build relationships.
In 2023, the U.S. Surgeon General declared loneliness a public health crisis, citing that “lacking connection can increase the risk for premature death to levels comparable to smoking daily.”
Youth OUTright exists to do the life-saving work of making the world a safer place for Queer and Trans youth. “The guiding principle behind our work is nothing for a community without that community,” Youth OUTright’s Executive Director, Adrian Parra (they/he/she), told us. “We can't force our adult ideas onto these young people, when ultimately they have creative solutions that are way better than my ideas…and we have the resources to support their vision.”
During the 2023 legislative session, the American Civil Liberties Union tracked 508 anti-LGBTQ+ bills across the country. In East Fork’s home state of North Carolina alone, 11 bills targeting public accommodations, healthcare, and student and educator rights were proposed, with some being passed into law. Living in Western North Carolina can present unique “political microclimates,” Parra said, “which have very different social environments that can contribute to isolation.”
“It’s sometimes hard for folks to find each other and to have conversations and navigate the fear of the laws that are happening around them,” Youth Fellow Reagan Petto (they/them) added. “And it's really beautiful to watch throughout one of our programs two youth walking away having found a friend.”
The potential for harm is evident. But so is the potential for young people “to realize their power and autonomy through self-determination…and resist oppression by building community, healing, and growing together.” It’s baked right into Youth OUTright’s mission, and they approach their work protecting youth with a potent mixture of gravity and joy.
“I think that our programs are really centering joy no matter what, even when we’re talking about pretty intense stuff [like Stonewall.] We're gonna be laughing, we’re gonna be connecting and celebrating our queerness,” Youth Program Director Beck Martens (they/them) said with a grin.
Hosting weekly virtual meet-ups via Discord, a secure video and messaging platform, is foundational to their work. Even if you live across the state on North Carolina’s coastline, virtual meet-ups make connection possible. “In one of our recent programs, I got to facilitate a cool timeline activity about youth organizing, direct action, and mutual aid from around 1860 or something until now,” Oliver Finch (he/him), a new Youth Fellow, told us. “It was really awesome.”
In-person Galaxy meet-ups and socials are a chance for middle, high schoolers, and young adults to create art, write, play tabletop or card games, or cook together. In December, the HoliGay Party drew 20 youth together to eat a warm meal, make pride bracelets, play games, and celebrate the waning days of 2023.
In 2019, Youth OUTright and Campaign for Southern Equality held the first GSA (Gender and Sexualities Alliance) Summit in Western North Carolina at A.C. Reynolds’s high school. Over 100 Queer and Trans youth ages 11-24 attended the day-long conference featuring educational workshops, presentations, and community discussions. Held at Warren Wilson College in 2023, The GSA Summit was youth-led, inviting high school students to submit presentation proposals, and alongside a college-age mentor, present their work at the conference and receive a stipend for their efforts. Adults also serve in supporting roles, making the intergenerational aspect of the conference an invaluable opportunity for learning and connection.
Throwing an annual prom is another one of Youth OUTright’s highly anticipated events, organized in large part by the youth who want to participate. With prom acting as a kind of quintessential rite of passage for the American teenager, it’s a chance for Queer and Trans youth to safely experience an event created just for them, outside of a stereotypical heteronormative framework.
“It’s been incredible to see so many Queer and Trans youth just experiencing incredible joy and getting to experience a prom just like their straight and cisgender peers. By default a lot of youth don’t go to prom with their partners at their schools because it's just not safe to be out.” Martens explained. “I'm so stoked to just give them that regular coming-of-age experience.”
“I’m impressed every year by some of the outfits these kids are wearing…” Parra said emphatically. “The fashion is so good.”
Youth OUTright also offers gender and sexuality trainings for schools, businesses, and churches looking to expand their knowledge and capacity for empathetic allyship. It’s a way for communities to financially support Youth OUTright’s impressive array of youth programming while learning practical, actionable tools to interrupt transphobic and homophobic behavior, and protect trans and gender expansive young people.
In 2024, Youth OUTright hopes to invest in a physical space for more in-person programming and procure more material resources for the young people. If you’d like to support this growing organization, even making a small one-time donation can go a long way to help them achieve their goals. Recurring monthly donations are also highly encouraged. The ability to project income and have access to flexible funds is highly valuable and allows them to be more responsive to the needs of the youth and the community.
Instilling hope and integrating joy into everyday life aren’t just catch phrases for the community Youth OUTright cultivates—the balm of connection empowers Queer and Trans youth to live in the light of their own inherent worth, dignity, and beauty.