Queer Youth Joy Is a Radical Act

In a world of mixed messages ranging from peer acceptance to political hate, LGBTQIA+ youth are finding ways to celebrate who they are.

Close up view of a young woman holding and raising a rainbow flag over the blue sky
Photo: Getty Images

Pride 2022 starts as ongoing anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation continues across states, yet queer resilience, as always, rages on no matter the time of year. In Florida, Zander Moricz, the first openly gay class president at his Sarasota high school, is the youngest public plaintiff in a federal lawsuit against the state of Florida to strike down the Don't Say Gay Bill. "All of me is threatened by this legislation," Moricz testified at the state senate.

Youth in Las Vegas have organized a Youth Pride Prom at the LGBTQ Center of Southern Nevada, for an evening in May to "have a night to remember in an environment where you are loved and celebrated for being exactly who you are!"

In Washington state, University of Washington student Jonathan Kwong leads storytelling for joy and queer racial healing circles and speaks out about the importance of learning to be oneself. Kwong says, "Joy comes from continuing to learn how to be myself, accepting myself, and surrounding myself with people I love and trust, so that I can have that confidence to change to becoming the person I want to be."

Kwong sees storytelling as a way to not only unpack identity, but to share experiences and understand the beautiful lesson that there are no unique experiences within oppressive systems. Kwong and others see talking as the best way to start changing attitudinal barriers, so the work continues.

In Alabama, Jayden McMillian is experiencing the radical act of love and acceptance through an inclusive school. When he walked into 8th grade this school year as part of the first incoming student class of the Magic City Acceptance Academy, he immediately noticed all of the bright colors and the gender-neutral bathrooms. He felt welcome and couldn't get over how nice everyone was. "It's a completely different environment than regular schools, going into a school where a bunch of people have had the same experiences as you and can relate to you," says McMillian.

Middle school had proven to be a sad and depressing environment for McMillian, and he's not alone in that common lived experience for queer students. Subject and witness to much daily "meanness," his family, Whitney Julian and Ashley Bayley, noted this has been the first year where Jayden actually wants to go to school and is excited come Monday morning.

Magic City Acceptance Academy (MCAA) is the first of its kind in the South, an LGBTQIA+ affirming charter school housed just outside of Birmingham, Alabama. "We are more than the LGBTQ community," Principal Michael Wilson explained to Parents about their mission. "We're for any kids [who] have been marginalized in any way and are uncomfortable in their current educational setting. Kids who have been bullied, kids who have had problems at home, in the neighborhood, kids that just fell out of place. That's the basis of who we are."

That they possess an LGBTQIA+ affirming culture would already be something major in a red state, but MCAA goes far beyond that with school foundations rooted in the principles of social and restorative justice. Here, trauma-informed social and emotional learning are inherent within all content areas.

Jayden McMillian lives in a household that has first-hand experience of generations past and the lived trauma of being gay in Alabama. Whitney reflected back on her own experience in high school. She was obsessed with Madonna, and really into just "being her own person." The social consequences she faced for her queerness included being beaten, raped, and drugged.

Social consequences haven't changed much over the years. Before the Academy existed as a school, it opened eight years ago as an after-school outreach program for kids. "The kids were coming into the program with such anxiety," Principal Wilson says. "All they could do was kind of sit down and destress from the things they had been through during the school day." Kids shared stories of being bullied, being scared to go to the bathroom, of being pushed into lockers. The idea of the Academy was born from conversations like these and listening to the students.

School culture and climate haven't improved much for queer kids over the years. In 2019, the majority of gay youth experienced continued victimization, assaults, and homophobic remarks in Alabama secondary schools. As the Magic City Acceptance Academy fought to get charter approval by Birmingham City School District, they faced denial, followed by denial of their appeal. Undeterred, they applied directly to the State to run outside of the Birmingham city limits, and on November 4, 2020, they won approval by a one-vote margin. Design and building began, and the Academy opened its doors in August 2021.

McMillian and his family see the full circle of healing as now possible. Whitney, who experienced the brunt of physical abuse as a gay youth, sees opportunities for Jayden as starkly different from what hers were years ago. "Isn't that great that they get to just be normal kids, just be 8th graders?" she says. The MCAA exists as a safe haven, a community of support, and a space that allows them to just be or to figure out what just being human even is.

While the school offers respite from political and social turmoil, 2022 has brought a surge of conservative legislation across the country targeting transgender and gay youth. In April, Alabama passed the deceptively named Vulnerable Child Compassion and Protection Act, making it a felony offense for medical doctors to provide gender-affirming care to anyone under 19, punishable by up to 10 years in prison. In May, a federal judge blocked one component of the law—for now—which was the medication ban, but left in place the banning of all surgeries (which are not and have not been done on minors in Alabama) and a provision requiring school officials to tell parents if a minor discloses that they are transgender.

Governor Kay Ivey didn't stop there. She also signed into law a ban on transgender students using sex-segregated school facilities and bathrooms that align with their gender identity. She also passed a version of Florida's Don't Say Gay law, banning all classroom discussions of sexual orientation or gender identity. Alabama previously passed a law in 2021 that prohibits trans athletes from playing on sports teams aligned with their gender identity.

The rampant political hatred has spilled directly onto the Magic City Academy, with political candidates such as Tim Ivey creating ad campaigns calling the school a "trans exploitative" school. Politicians gained traction with that as they headed towards May primaries, as more joined in on the public attacks. In the midst of this, the Academy has been receiving ever more community support and love.

"All of a sudden this support for us has just come out of nowhere," Principal Wilson shares. "The community of churches on this side of Birmingham did banners for us that are so supportive, and [they] signed them. They filled our teacher lounge with snacks and goodies. We're getting supportive messages from all over the United States and at last count, nine countries. We have printed all those messages, they are displayed on the walls throughout the school."

The community support has deeply impacted not only the students but the families of the Academy. "There's a sense of solidarity and support that I never thought I would experience in Alabama," Ashley says. "Just knowing that I have that, makes me feel like I could return again to activism, that I can be brave," adds Whitney.

Parents have shared with Wilson that the Academy feels like family, and that feeling certainly expands in all directions. "Our job as educators is to advocate for our kids," says Wilson. "And that's what we do. We go out of our way to make sure that they're getting the support that they need in order to be successful. Not just academically, but as a human being that's going to walk out of here for whatever path they take. They need to know that they can be confident in who they are and advocate for themselves."

For Jayden McMillian, he has been learning about himself in ways he didn't know he could even explore. Like discovering he likes to wear pink or expressing himself by dyeing his hair. He wants to get into more advanced classes and is thinking about clubs for next year. He'll be taking creative writing and wants to be part of the school paper. He's figuring it all out, just like every other 8th grader out there. His favorite things to do are spend time with his friends and family (and electrical devices). But at the Magic City Acceptance Academy, he finally has the resources, support, and community to thrive in resilient joy.

The resilience is real. And queer joy as a radical act lives on.

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