How Gen Z activists are carrying the torch for LGBTQ equality: ‘My existence is already radicalized’

Meet some LGBTQ youth activists who want to change the world. Clockwise from top left: Corwin Joseph, Izy Engel, Ashton Mota, Nakiya Lynch, Lilly Tague-Bleu, Rebekah Bruesehoff and Eric Samelo.

Statistics on Gen Z are not hard to find, particularly when it comes to issues of gender and sexual identity: A U.S. Gallup poll from earlier this year reported that an astounding 15.9 percent of the generation — defined as those born between 1997 and 2015, currently between the ages of 6 and 24 — self-identifies as LGBTQ.

Another survey, this one worldwide and released earlier in June, found that Gen Z is twice as likely to identify as LGBTQ as folks who are over 40 — and four times as likely to identify as transgender, nonbinary or genderfluid.

And they are asserting their identities in the face of extreme challenges: According to the Trevor Project’s National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health 2021, released in May, 42 percent of such youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year — including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth — and 94 percent reported that recent politics have negatively impacted their mental health, which is no wonder, considering the barrage of anti-trans bills aimed at youth being proposed or adopted in many states across the country.

If the combination of statistics shows anything, it's that queer Gen Z-ers are a resilient bunch. "A lot more people are coming out … but the rest of society hasn't really caught up yet," activist Izy Engel, 22, tells Yahoo Life. "It's still set up in such a binary fashion … so it can be hard to imagine a future for yourself. We need to get to a point where people have access to other futures."

In honor of Pride Month, and to get a more complete picture about how young people view sexual and gender identity and what inspires them to keep up the fight for equality, Yahoo Life spoke to seven LGBTQ youth activists, including Engel, who are working hard to make sure the future indeed has a place for everyone.

Human Rights Campaign Youth Ambassador

What spurred you into activism?

I graduated from a majority-white high school in a suburban, wealthy area the year Trump was elected [after being placed in a new foster home]. I grew up in a very Black area and had never dealt with any racism. I was so shook. … I was feeling hopeless, and I realized I wanted to speak up but I didn't know what to say. … Then I saw a Don Lemon Facebook video where he was ranting, and I was so inspired by that but I wasn't out yet. … [Later] I got really into the idea of grassroots advocacy … and now I work as an advocate for LGBTQ foster youth.

What's unique about how your generation sees LGBTQ issues?

We were exposed to the internet at such a young age, so we're not easily fazed by a lot of things and we're more nihilistic. We tend to be kind of just not sipping the Kool-Aid of what proper society should look like, and I feel like past generations didn’t have that privilege because they were not exposed to as many viewpoints or ideas. … So much of Gen Z is more liberal or radical — out of necessity… We're stepping into a world that’s kind of on fire.

GSA (gay-straight alliance) founder and recipient of GLSEN’s GSA of the Year Award, heading to Georgia Tech to study chemical and biomolecular engineering

What prompted you to start the GSA?

I was bullied a lot in elementary school — other kids were calling me gay, and that was a really rough time for me … it made me hate myself, wonder who I am. … When I got into high school, I was very confident and assured in who I was, but I thought: I don't want anyone else to have to go through that. That's what really got me started, trying to prevent the experiences and trauma that I had from getting to future generations.

[Winning the GSA award] meant everything from me, because I do live in Alabama and I know how quick people are to dismiss the Deep South and write off everyone as backwards hillbillies beyond help. I was glad I got to show people that even in Alabama there was a successful GSA run by very outspoken young people. … I wanted more people to see us, to know that we're here and that we're just as important to the cause as anyone else.

What sets Gen Z apart regarding issues of gender and sexual identity?

There's a very strong sense of collective nihilism in my generation because previous ones messed up the planet and infrastructure and international relations and we have to clean up the mess. ... [With] the idea that the world's a mess, it's like, I couldn't care less what somebody wants to do with someone else or how they express themselves. Not a lot of people care very much.

GenderCool Project Champion, co-author of A Kids Book About Being Inclusive

What was it like to come out just before seventh grade?

My family is from the Caribbean, my mom grew up Jehovah's Witness, so there was a lot of cultural and religious stuff that I was fearing. When I came out to my family, I was met with overwhelming support, but it didn't take me long to realize that not a lot of Black LGBTQ youth receive so much support from their families. Working with GenderCool was like something that stood out to me, basically because my only job is to tell my story and let the world see me for who I am — past my trans identity.

What differentiates your generation from others on LGBTQ issues?

We understand it's a spectrum and that each and every one of us falls somewhere. I feel like we're a lot more open-minded in that we understand people have their differences. It's just a matter of being inclusive, being loved and supported for who they are, and for being their authentic selves. That might seem too easy a way of thinking for older generations, but it's not really something I even think about on a daily basis, because I'm surrounded by people in my generation who understand.

NYC Youth Pride model with a B.A. in psychology

How do you view your modeling as activism?

My existence is already radicalized. … I think as a Black trans and queer person who is a model, who was assigned male at birth, sometimes they commodify you — you're not femme enough or androgynous enough, or they like parts of you and they don’t like parts of you. I want to inspire people who don't fit a particular mold to go for what they want and know that they, too, can be in print and be applauded. And to know that anyone queer and trans deserves a spot and a place anywhere that makes us happy.

What's unique about how your generation sees gender?

I would definitely say nonconformity is up there, and not following or subscribing to gender norms. … Dismantling the gender binary is really important… it's all about finding what best suits and fits ourselves, despite it being met with confusion.

Youth Action Board of COLAGE (originally Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere), for offspring of LGBTQ parents

What got you into activism?

I got hooked in eighth grade, canvassing with NextGen for voter registration. Then I went to boarding school on a full-ride playing hockey but realized I was in this bubble, away from political engagement, so I left and came back to my local school to work on the mayor's campaign for reelection and a reproduction rights fund to end the GAG rule. I didn’t even know [COLAGE] existed until I watched the TED talk about queerspawn, then I joined the board in 2018. … I have two moms and they've since separated, and now I have four moms.

How does your generation uniquely approach sexual and gender identity?

I think because there's less shame in the world right now, people are starting to explore and to learn about themselves earlier, and when people come out now, it's like, "I've thought about this and I’m X, Y, Z identity," whereas, in the past, it was like, "I have this crisis and I can’t ignore it anymore and so I will come out," and that felt more obligatory.

I came out around 14 as queer or lesbian. Being 2nd Gen [COLAGE’s term for children of LGBTQ people who are also LGBTQ] was interesting, as far as not wanting to be the gay child of a gay parent — "Oh, of course gay parents are going to have gay kids!" I wanted to break that narrative, and yet I couldn't.

Working for transgender representation through Out in Tech, on campus

Can you describe being a trans activist in the tech field?

After [going through the mentorship program of] Built By Girls [Yahoo and Built By Girls are both owned by parent company Verizon Media] … I ended up working with Out in Tech to put together a panel for trans young people in tech, and have been working on trying to build out a little bit more of the transgender community.

I'm so grateful for the people who have built communities that I've gotten to be a part of in the past, and I'm a white trans-masculine person, so I have a lot of privilege I can use to help create opportunities for other trans people who don’t have that same access. Society in general, and also tech, has a long way to come in terms of being at a good place for trans people to be.

At Stevens [Institute of Technology, where I just graduated], I’ve been working with some other LGBTQ students on campus … to rename this building named after Gov. Greg Gianforte of Montana. He’s a Stevens alum who donated money to have it built — but he also is a creationist, kind of a white supremacist, he's supported gay conversion therapy, passed anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ legislation, anti-abortion legislation, anti-immigrant legislation, kind of the whole gamut, honestly. We have a petition and are also organizing student boycotts of the building.

GenderCool Champion and co-author of A Kids Book About Being Inclusive

What spurred you into activism?

In 2017, when the Trump administration rescinded protections for transgender students in schools, my mom offered to speak at a rally as the mom of a transgender student and they said, "You and Rebekah can speak." I was only 10, but my mom gave me the option and I took it. I wanted to share my story to make a difference.

What really inspired me was, at that rally, I heard stories of kids or adults who weren't supported by families or communities or the world, and that really hadn't hit me yet … and it didn’t make sense to me. But I heard that and I realized I have so much privilege and I need to use it, and I need to share my voice for those who can't. I think what I'm fighting for is really just to spread hope. I really want to make sure other kids know they're not alone. I also want to teach the world to be a safer place for LGBTQ youth … so we can all be seen as human beings.

[As Champions] we try to focus on more of who we are instead of what we are, which is really important because trans kids are so much more than being trans — and if I'm being honest, being trans is one of the least exciting things of me. I'm an author, I love to bake, I play field hockey. And when people get to know trans kids as kids before trans, they are so much more inspired.

All interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

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