June 7, 2018 at 11:46 am PST | by Christopher Kane
Generation Next

What is Pride? The most serviceable answer, of course, is that Pride is a commemorative event in which the LGBTQ community celebrates our triumph over adversity and the leaders who fought to make the world a more inclusive place. Historically, it was a political statement — a show of visibility and a forum for protest against homophobia.

And since the beginning of President Trump’s tenure, Pride feels political once more. This year’s celebration will pull from the civic engagement of the March for Our Lives and #Resist movements, spotlighting LGBTQ leaders while re-engaging in the community’s fight for social, legal, and political equality.

Much of that work did not begin, and it will likely not end, with the Trump administration. New research has found LGBTQ girls of color are disproportionately over-disciplined in schools, where they also face bullying and are ostracized. These challenges often push them out of the classroom and into the criminal justice system. And now that Betsy DeVos helms the U.S. Department of Education, prospects for many of our community’s most vulnerable youth are even grimmer.

At the same time, this year the country has witnessed the power of young people in bringing change. The young LGBT folks from the Los Angeles area profiled in these pages are speakers, students, advocates and artists. They have each made meaningful contributions in areas including climate change policy, battles against homophobia and transphobia, housing equality, and immigration.

As the LGBTQ community has witnessed and experienced a reversal in progress over the last two years, young leaders have offered hope for a better way forward. Another signal of the direction in which the arc of justice is headed: The decision by Boy Scouts of America to welcome girls into their ranks, and, effective next year, change the organization’s name to Scouts of BSA. Since the 1970s, women’s and LGBTQ advocates have lobbied the Scouts to adopt more inclusive policies. And in those battles, waged in and outside the courtroom, they have been ultimately victorious.

May these stories, challenges and history inspire you. Happy Pride.

(Photo courtesy of Twitter)

Casey Hoke, 21, college student, LGBTQ advocate, artist

Casey Hoke is a fine artist, graphic designer, writer, activist, and advocate who was awarded a prestigious POINT Foundation scholarship to fund his education at California State Polytechnic Institute in Pomona, where he is now a junior pursuing a B.A. in Graphic/Communications Design with a minor in Art History. His past and present leadership appointments include a Student Media Ambassadorship for GLSEN, where he also holds membership with the National Executive Board.

Drawing from his experiences as a young trans man, Casey has spoken and written about subjects including education policies that concern transgender students, the representation of transgender people in the media, and the relationship between artistic self-expression and self-acceptance. His work has appeared in MTV News, Teenlife Media, and The Huffington Post, where he has blogged since 2014. Casey has delivered speeches at forums including a TEDx conference and Intel Labs’ LGBT Youth Leadership Forum.

Casey attended high school in Louisville, Kentucky. He came out as trans during his sophomore year. While fellow students, for the most part, were accepting of Casey, he explained the school’s Principal Gerald “Jerry” Mayes was a bully. In March, The Louisville Courier-Journal published a timeline of an ongoing investigation by Jefferson County Public Schools into Mayes’ conduct that was initiated in response to his treatment of trans youth, including Casey, as well as racially insensitive comments he made to two African-American students.

During his junior year, Casey was the subject of an article in the school’s newspaper that chronicled his journey and highlighted his advocacy work. In response, Casey explained, Mayes told members of the student newspaper staff that it was “wrong to profile a misfit going through a phase. He said it would be comparable to writing about someone who wanted to shoot up a school.” The following year, in 2015, as the state’s senate introduced a bill that would require transgender students to use restrooms that match the sex listed on their birth certificates, Casey said Mayes asked a security guard to monitor him in the men’s restroom. The principal then called Casey into his office and began asking invasive questions about his body and genitalia.

“It’s hard to talk about,” Casey said, “but I came out with my story because it needed to be heard, and because his treatment of LGBTQ students in my high school was, and still is, really bad.” Those experiences strengthened Casey’s resolve to advocate for the rights of trans students.

In college, Casey and his trans peers face a variety of administrative challenges. Changing one’s name on student ID cards is a difficult process. Freshmen, who are required to live on campus, must pay more for housing that offers single-stall restrooms (which are safest for transgender students)—a difference in cost that amounts to about $10,000. Administrators outed Casey to other staff and even students, despite his request that they keep information about his gender identity private. Casey has since led petitions that demand equal and affordable housing for trans students, as well as training programs on trans identity for university staff.

“My advocacy did not stop at high school, where I had this mean principal”, he said. “Even though I’ve seen trans folks accepted a bit more, publicly, there are still battles I have to face here in California.”

Casey’s interest in media representation of LGBTQ people and subjects overlaps with his interest in art. A project and educational resource that Casey created and curates, Queer Art History (housed online at queerarthistory.com) showcases a breadth of artwork, from a homoerotic 16th century Roman fresco to a poster produced by ACT UP Los Angeles in 1990. On the project’s website, Casey has written about the cultural and historical significance of each.

This project, he said, allows him to “talk about media representation while educating people of all ages on queer visual history, art, and culture.” Through another program, Art, Identity & YOU, which Casey created and administers in coordination with the Los Angeles LGBT Center, he provides a platform for youth education on identity, art, history, and self-expression.

Must modern queer art be political? Not necessarily, Casey said—it certainly can be, but queer art can also signify something as timeless as self-expression or look as visually diverse as abstract expressionism. Plus, the treatment of queer people as inherently political, Casey said, can be dehumanizing.

At a time in which major American cities have often become canvases for anti-Trump graffiti, contemporary queer art certainly feels political. And much of it borrows from the signage of protest art produced in the 1980s and 90s (A good example: Donald Moffett’s He Kills Me, a 1987 lithograph that features a grid of President Ronald Reagan’s grinning headshot with “THIS GUY KILLS ME.” in bright orange type across his chest.)

Through the POINT Foundation, Casey was connected with a mentor who works for the Walt Disney Company, where he aims to secure a design position post-college. He is optimistic about both his future and the direction in which society is headed, despite the anti-LGBTQ policies of the Trump Administration. “I asked Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, how things are looking for young trans and non-binary folks”, Casey said. Reflecting on the progress that’s been made so far, Keisling responded: “You know what? We’ve gotten here.”

(Photo courtesy of Nunez)

Priscila ‘Pea’ Alegria Nunez, 23, documentarian and cinematographer

“The stories that I’m passionate about sharing and telling are about the Latinx community and LGBTQ community. It’s very important for me to highlight our voices, as immigrants who are fighting back.”

Pea is a documentary filmmaker, an artist whose work reflects their lived experiences as a pansexual non-binary immigrant who, at 15, left Peru with their mother for the professional and educational opportunities available in the United States.

A recent graduate of the acclaimed film program at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), this year Pea was awarded a Rising Star Grant from GLAAD to fund their virtual reality (VR) project about the networks that immigrants have built to support and defend their communities. The film is led by a lesbian protagonist who left Honduras for the United States.

“Throughout the US, immigrant families they have this traumatizing event in which they are visited by [Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE)]”, Pea explained. “Our protagonist is going to college, and she’s using her knowledge and her network to bring an emergency community back to her house. We will see how that event develops because of how many people will show up to help fight back.”

As an immigrant who belongs to the LGBTQ community, Pea is inspired most by the stories of people who occupy both of those identities. “I found that the projects that bring me the most fulfillment are those that find that intersection.”

Pea and their mother had green cards when they left Peru. They landed in Sacramento, where Pea says their high school was nationally recognized for the racial and ethnic diversity of its student body. “It was incredible to be surrounded by so many brown people—by so many inspiring, motivational people.”

At UCLA, Pea’s classes in gender studies opened their eyes to the identities that do not fall into the gender binary, which gave them the space to inhabit gender-neutrality, along with the freedom to dress and use pronouns in non-traditional ways. “It was another coming out for me. I’d already come out as bisexual, but then again as pansexual.” (The latter is defined by the absence of limits with regard to sexual choice in gender or activity.) Coming out to their mother—who understands Pea is attracted to both men and women—as non-binary, Pea said, is something of a work-in-progress, an ongoing journey.

Respective to both their personal life and professional work, Pea focused first on their immigrant identity and the stories of other immigrants more broadly before working to explore how sexual orientation and gender identity come into play.

Night of Cultura, a Latinx club of artists at UCLA, was a forum in which Pea found some of their closest friends and most valuable professional networks. The group creates plays, sketches, spoken word poetry, dances, and films—works that often include LGBTQ subject matter. “It was a space where I really felt like I blossomed.” After screening a 5-minute documentary at a Night of Cultura event, Pea met a UCLA alum in the audience who would later become the screenwriter for their VR project.

As a filmmaker, Pea is moved by the audience’s reaction to their work. “You can hear gasps; you can hear sniffles; you can hear laughter. I think that’s so beautiful because you wonder what’s going on in their hearts. There is a chance of really reaching people. There is hope that your project, that your work, will touch people.”

On the challenges brought forth by attacks on LGBTQ and immigrant communities from the Trump administration, Pea is optimistic about the role of the artist. “It’s important that we creators continue making work, regardless of the political climate. It’s important to keep creating, because who is going to do it, if not us?” Immigrants and LGBTQ folks should tell their own stories, Pea said, because that way the diversity within those communities will be reflected in the broader cultural narrative.

In hindsight, Pea feels they should have explored and expressed their sexual orientation and gender identity earlier in life. “I felt like I needed to be compliant to what my mom wanted—to her expectations. I could have been so much happier, if I had not waited and instead just been myself.” Pea’s message to LGBTQ teenagers: “Come out to your friends first, because there is something to be said for finding your family outside the family you grew up with. Find yourself a queer family. When you do, you’ll be amazed how powerful you’ll be.”

(Photo courtesy of Reyes)

Aris Reyes, 16, high school student, LGBTQ advocate

Aris is a 16-year-old high school student who aspires to a career in politics, business, law, or, perhaps all three.

 Though only a junior, Aris has emerged as a leader at USC East College Prep, a new high school of which his will be the first graduating class. He founded both the student government and the GSA club, where he now serves as president.

 As a young trans Latino man and LGBTQ advocate, Aris has built bridges between his school’s students and staff, as well as between his peers and organizations dedicated to LGBTQ youth education and empowerment.

 He helped to spearhead the LGBTQ School Climate Resolution, a comprehensive survey that collects information about a school’s educational atmosphere respective to LGBTQ issues. Aris was not entirely surprised to learn 80 percent of his classmates had either often or occasionally heard homophobic remarks from other students. On the other hand, only 10 percent of student respondents heard their teachers say something objectionable about LGBTQ people, which is consistent with Aris’s perception that educators at his school are more liberal and tolerant.

 With data from the survey, Aris approached his teachers about ways they could help improve the school’s record on LGBTQ issues. He cited California’s FAIR Education Act, which, among other requirements, obligates teachers to include LGBTQ historical figures in their lesson plans. The law applies only to the state’s public schools, so teachers who work at Aris’s charter school are free to create their own lesson plans—and there, he said, there is room for substantial improvement.

 Aris worked with the Latino Equality Alliance’s (LEA) youth council to coordinate a speaking engagement at his school that featured a representative from the ONE Archives of the University of Southern California (USC). “They talked about LGBT leaders and advocates”, he said, “including some people I’ve never heard of in my life.”

 The organization administered 10 workshops throughout the year, including the Unconditional Love Rally, where Aris spoke about transphobia and his personal journey toward self-acceptance. The program required registrants to get prior approval from their parents, but Aris worked with school administrators who agreed to count the rally toward community service hours—which helped to bolster attendance.

Aris opened up to his mother about his gender identity in eighth grade and the following year came out to friends, teachers, and classmates. Like many transgender youth, Aris struggled with body image issues and depression. Not yet out to his father and living in a body that did not reflect his gender identity, while a freshman Aris was placed in a three-day psychiatric hold. There, he was isolated away from other patients—and told by nurses he could not be placed in units segregated by gender because he is neither male nor female. This, in spite of the fact that Aris explained he is a transgender man.

 Back at school, Aris is sometimes asked probing questions by other students concerning his anatomy. “My school is in Lincoln Heights in Los Angeles”, he explained, “and Hispanic culture is not always that accepting of LGBTQ people.” Teachers, by contrast, have been more welcoming—he only needs to remind them, occasionally, to not mis-gender him.

 Administratively, Aris has met challenges such as the attendance roster and the separation of girls and boys in advisory periods. “It can be isolating”, he said.

 Involvement in advocacy programs and social clubs has allowed Aris to build a sense of community and work on behalf of issues that are important to him. “Even within the LGBT community”, he said, “I feel like trans people are left out a lot.” The separation of gender and sexuality in the discussion of LGBTQ issues, as well as the ways in which we introduce these topics to young people, is important to Aris. The conflation of sexual orientation and gender identity, he said, can cause misunderstanding.

 Aris also hopes the Hispanic/Latino communities will begin to adopt more progressive attitudes toward LGBTQ people. He feels less tolerant attitudes exist primarily among older generations. “Friends have told me”, he explained “‘My mom doesn’t like you because you’re trans.’ It’s just sad—just because of that, like, [they don’t care] about everything else I do, what a good kid I am, my grades or my education.”

 Homophobia and transphobia will always exist, Aris said, and “people are scared of things they don’t now”. Looking to the future, he is more interested in effecting change through policy. “For me, really what matters is the legislation—that’s what changes everything. If you’re a lawyer or a president or lobbyist, you’re in a position to change things.”

 Aris expects to continue working on behalf of LGBTQ causes. “After I graduate”, he said, “I hope to go to college. I want to get really involved in my college.”

(Photo courtesy of Medina)

Alex Medina, 18, student journalist, LGBTQ advocate

Alex Medina is a student journalist who has authored more than 20 articles for his local newspaper, the Boyle Heights Beat, which covers news and feature stories in and around the downtown Los Angeles neighborhood.

He will soon graduate from high school and is eager to begin his freshman year at Hamilton College, a selective liberal arts university in update Clinton, New York. Then, Alex hopes to work toward a career in journalism. And he also has designs to start an organization dedicated to youth and the media.

Much of Alex’s work for Boyle Heights Beat is focused on LGBTQ issues, which he considers especially important because, particularly in decades past, LGBTQ people are often portrayed negatively. He said that spotlighting the work of advocates and activists helps to usher in progressive change while also offering role models for young people. Additionally, Alex has written about subjects important to immigrant communities—such as the census and the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)—as well as local politics and business.

For two years, Alex has served as president of his school’s GSA club, where he led efforts to curb the use of derogatory language and anti-LGBTQ slurs. In conversations with the student body, Alex and members of the club worked to encourage their peers to be more conscious of the language they use. “I used to get bullied when I was younger. So, it’s important to me that we have these conversations”, he explained, especially for the benefit of young LGBTQ folks.

Beyond the GSA, Alex works on behalf of a variety of causes that reflect the diversity of the subjects he has written about. Through his involvement with the Latino Equality Alliance (LEA), for example, Alex has advocated for policies that would help to curb the school-to-prison pipeline.

Alex credits many of his accomplishments to the unwavering support he’s received at home. His parents, who immigrated to Los Angeles from Mexico, have been involved with organizations like PFLAG—where they engage with other parents, many of them Latino, to facilitate conversations about accepting their children’s sexual orientation and gender identity.

It can be challenging work, he said. LGBTQ identities are often not discussed within Latino communities. “Youth often don’t come out to their parents because they’re afraid how their parents will react,” he explained. “When Latino people [immigrate to the US], there are prejudices—often formed by the things they heard when they were growing up—and they often bring that with them. It’s also generational.”

While young people have overwhelmingly adopted more positive positions on LGBTQ issues, change can also be witnessed in traditionally-conservative milieu, such as the Catholic Church. Just a few weeks ago, Pope Francis told a gay man, “God made you like that.” Alex agreed about the direction in which organized religion seems to be heading, at least concerning Catholicism. “With the Pope being more accepting,” he said, “it’s getting better. At my own church and at the other church I’m involved with, they’re accepting of me and the pastors communicate very positively about it.”

The role played by organizations, like PFLAG, that offer programs and resources for LGBTQ youth and allies is really important, Alex said. “In schools there often isn’t much awareness, even if there is acceptance, so these organizations help to fill in and offer resources—including condoms, and healthcare referrals—that are not available in school. There are a lot of events and opportunities available through those organizations that students wouldn’t otherwise know about. It’s important for parental acceptance as well.”

Alex feels the tremendous progress the LGBTQ community has witnessed over the years would not be possible if advocates and activists were not optimistic about their odds. “We wouldn’t have the movement we have today without people who brought awareness about things like AIDS, DOMA, and [same-sex] marriage”, he said. Beyond the fight for political equality, Alex feels adopting a positive attitude is important for building friendship and community.

Another corollary goal of Alex’s: Increasing the visibility of young people who are working to effect change. “A lot of times”, he said, “youth don’t see themselves represented. It’s important to bring attention to the work young people are doing to build a better future for themselves and for future generations of youth”.

(Photo courtesy of Akbarian)

Rudy Akbarian, 28, trans-Armenian veteran, aspiring barber

Rudy Akbarian is a transgender man, the son of Armenian immigrants, and a veteran who served in the U.S. Army from 2011 to 2016. He has also worked on behalf of LGBTQ youth, specifically homeless youth, and next month will begin studying to become a barber.

Before today, Rudy has spoken out twice about policies concerning the inclusion of openly-trans men and women in the military. In 2016, he praised the historic decision by former Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to welcome transgender people into the armed forces. Then, last year, he denounced President Trump’s reversal of that policy but pledged to keep up the fight: “I’ve had too many people supporting me to just give up,” he said. “So, I don’t plan on doing that.”

Today, Rudy responded to reports from Tuesday that 100 members of Congress have submitted a letter to Defense Secretary James Mattis, urging him to reconsider the Administration’s decision to bar openly trans men and women from military service.

“That’s awesome,” he said. “But I don’t know what [Trump’s] reasoning was for not allowing trans people to serve in the military, other than ‘It would cost a lot of money.’” And this, Rudy pointed out, despite the President’s request for a military parade that The New York Times reported could total $30 million (at a time in which those funds could be better allocated to address homelessness among America’s veterans).

Importantly, Rudy added, the projected medical costs associated with treating the estimated 15,000 trans men and women in the armed services—which, according to a RAND study, would add up to $8 million—are likely even less. “Not every trans person wants to surgically or medically transition,” he explained. “That’s a stereotype we need to break.”

Rudy’s position on the capabilities of trans soldiers?

“After I conquered that battle to become my authentic self—and I did it alone—now, God only knows how many other battles and wars I can win with a team. Trans people are some of the strongest people and some of the most mentally capable people to protect and serve this country.”

Rudy said most of the transphobia he has encountered so far has been in civilian life. The men and women who served alongside him were focused on the demands of the mission before them, and close bonds were born from shared experiences and the close quarters in which they worked and lived.

Restroom and shower accommodations, particularly while Rudy was in the process of transitioning, proved challenging. Without an official gender marker that matched his gender identity he was not allowed to access the men’s facilities. Once, during a five-day range training excursion in the desert, Rudy had to use the women’s showers. And by this time, he had grown a full beard. “It was a super traumatizing experience for me, as well as for them. Because, they’re like, ‘Why is there a guy in the shower?’”

However difficult it was, as a trans man, to navigate the administrative hurdles of military life, Rudy had already weathered a lot of heartache. He came out first as a lesbian and was consequently kicked out of his home. “It was a really hard time in my life,” Rudy said. Like many young people in his position, he abused drugs and alcohol to cope. For more than six years now, Rudy has been sober—and his family eventually reconciled with him.

At first, he explained, the subject of his sexual orientation was off the table, but then Rudy journeyed closer to accepting his gender identity. “It was undeniable when the hormones kicked in,” he explained. “Then, I gave my family the choice to be there for my top surgery, and they showed up.” Rudy said they are now 120 percent supportive.

“One time, I discovered that my mom, who has this heavy Armenian accent and types the way she talks, was responding to these negative comments about me on social media. [Imitating her accent] ‘That’s my son and I love him and he’s very handsome!’ She was totally there in support, doing all of this emotional labor. It was so incredible to see that.”

These days, Rudy is incredulous about the policies introduced and supported by the President, especially those concerning transgender men and women in the armed forces. At the same time, he has witnessed tremendous progress in both his family and community—especially among young people—which, he said, signals movement in the direction of justice and equality.

Through social media, Rudy has comforted other LGBTQ folks, including Armenians who are struggling with coming out to their families. It’s just another form of advocacy, he said—a way to build and strengthen community.

Recently, Rudy was invited, by his former art teacher, to speak before a high school group called Students Advocating Gender Equality (SAGE). “When I was [a student] there,” he said, “there were three students in GSA, and I was one of them. At this event, I was talking to, like, 50 kids. They were all embracing and accepting each other—and it’s students in high school who are creating these clubs and programs.”

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