Growing up queer in a hetero-normative society is complicated, risky and tricky to navigate. More than a quarter of queer youth have dropped out of school, and a third have attempted suicide in the previous year, citing harassment as a reason. Twenty to forty percent of queer youth account for young people without homes—often because their families find fault with their sexuality (Wright, Colorlines).
For many queer youth (an inclusive term for Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender, Intersexed, and Questioning individuals), looking or “acting gay” is fraught with dangerous social ramifications. The process of coming out and “becoming” queer is difficult to explore. As a result, it is sometimes safer to stay in the closet. Unlike their peers of color, queer youth are less likely to have a queer parent or family member to go to when oppressive comments take their toll. In general, queer youth have a difficult time finding the support of adults, family members, and peers because they risk abandonment, rejection, and abuse in “coming out.” Finally, many of the existing LGBT centers and queer social spaces predominantly cater to adults 21 and over.
Fortunately, queer youth are able to find support and community at youth media programs because they encourage young people to tell their stories and share their perspectives. For many queer young people, youth media programs allow for a confessional “coming out” as they build community in a safe and supportive environment—often alongside non-queer peers. Learning from queer youth experiences at these organizations, practitioners can get a better sense of how and why they should support queer youth media.
A Space of Becoming & Belonging
In almost a dozen interviews, almost every queer young person at youth media organizations remarked on the unique, close-knit community among queer peers and mentors. The prominence of this theme suggests queer youth require and value a safe space to confess their coming out story, explore and express identity, and essentially “become” queer within themselves, their homes, and communities.
“Becoming” is a term used by Lori MacIntosh and Mary Bryson two professors at the University of British Columbia, in their article “Youth, MySpace, and the Interstitial Spaces of Becoming and Belonging,” in the Journal of LGBT Youth. In their article, they identify how social networking sites like MySpace have become “everyday locations of engagement…changing the way [queer youth] are made visible [and are] recognized.” Establishing one’s identity as queer in a public space is essential to “becoming.” To that end, youth media programs are similar to virtual social networking sites and, arguably, better since they provide a physical space for becoming that youth desperately need in their lives.
For example, Daniel, an 18-year-old queer Puerto Rican-raised-Muslim, dropped out of school in 9th grade because he felt constantly harassed by peers and adults. Fortunately, together with six of his peers, he co-founded SupaFriends at Global Action Project in New York City and became part of a family of queer youth (and supportive adults) who shared their coming out stories by creating video pieces with a social justice component. Daniel (aka Gaydussa) explains, “SupaFriends helped me feel comfortable and safe enough to come out to my parents. To feel safe—not be judged, have fun, work together, lead and inform—[and] have a visible and visual coming out story is important.”
Importantly, youth media programs also allow queer youth to control how they define and express their identity. Jeff McHale, creative director of Split Pillow—a non-profit motion picture and media literacy education company in Chicago, IL—states, “Creating art, whether it be film, theater, music or fine arts can be a therapeutic [process] for many queer youth.” He continues, “Giving them the opportunity to create their own [media] allows them to make the kind of [queer representation] that they wish [and] want to see.” Through youth media, queer youth can be part of a more positive, visible and recognized representation of queer identity and culture.
By claiming a queer identity and then collectively representing it, queer youth can accomplish what MacIntosh and Bryson identify as the next stage in development: “belonging.” Belonging occurs when a public community develops and becomes “the space of movement.” By screening films, airing radio shows, or recording songs, queer youth media achieves that space by reaching a public audience. Often, this audience is interactive, inciting community and belonging. For many queer youth, this opportunity to be recognized is life changing.
Social & Political Impact
Through youth media programs, queer youth are finding the space not only to look inward but to create media that questions societal norms, challenge oppressive outlooks, and inspire a change in perspective. For many queer youth, this is their one shot at getting a message out. By working with other young people, queer youth discover inventive and collaborative ways to interact with and affect their audience’s perspective.
Queer youth produce media that serve as models for how to combat homophobia and stereotypes in powerful, sometimes playful, and, most importantly, effective ways. Most, if not all, queer youth media are tailored to both queer and straight audiences, broadening dialogue across difference. Professor Mary Gray, who focuses on youth media at Indiana University, suggests, “Queer youth challenge mainstream media, [demonstrating] that they are politically savvy and already at the forefront of community activism [with] a host of other young people. They aren’t just concerned with their identities—although they are certainly important—they’re also concerned with what’s happening in the world.”
In 2007, Daniel at SupaFriends and two other queer youth producers created an animation called Three Queer Mice. Their piece was based on their approach to, and research of, nursery rhymes. Daniel and his co-conspirators imagined what it would be like to have grown up hearing queer tales. So, they changed the words in the rhyme, revealing the stories of three queer “mice”—a gay mouse that leaves school “because his gender expression was in disregard,” a transgender mouse that gets arrested for using the “wrong” bathroom, and a mouse representing Sakia Gunn, who was stabbed and murdered in 2003 for being a lesbian.
After screening the film at Urban Visionaries Youth Film Festival, a straight peer came up to congratulate Daniel on what he felt was a “really good, clever, and eye opening” film. This conversation meant a lot to Daniel, as it not only proved the film did its job but also connected him to a seemingly impossible audience to reach. As a result, Daniel believes that youth media is part of social change. He explains, “If you’re queer and making media and you have a certain issue you want to approach using media—that is social justice.”
Liza Brice, a young woman who has interned at various queer radio programs explains, “[Young people] need spaces to be involved [in] transformative change to undo oppressive pressure and in doing so, produce something liberating.” In Seattle, WA, three young producers at Reel Grrls worked to create a liberating and humorous approach to homophobia and stereotypes in the mainstream. The team of queer and straight young women wanted to encourage audiences to examine prejudices in a non-threatening manner by asking the question, “What would it be like to live as a straight person in a gay world?”
Dedicated to “all those still in the closet,” Coming Out… is a mockumentary video the team produced that illuminates the impact of heterosexism and homophobia on the identities of queer youth in a strategically welcoming manner. The film serves as an important example of the approaches queer and non-queer come up with when they work together to address a social issue.
Recognizing the power of the film, practitioners at Reel Grrls pushed beyond the typical extent of a youth media video program so that the producers could engage with youth audiences at schools. Wanting the producers to be part of distribution, they identified ways to support and gain funding, inviting the producers to create an accompanying distribution guide—which one of the producers co-taught—to several middle schools, high schools, and universities (See Lila Kitaeff’s accompanying article). Their anti-homophobic curriculum alongside screening Coming Out… provided important insights as to what collectively queer youth and their families and friends experience in the “coming out” process and how to address homophobia.
If it weren’t for youth media providing an opportunity to make media in such a specific space, queer youth may never have access to a public audience (that includes family and friends). Queer youth need an audience to receive their messages, witness their stories, and see that they, too, belong. Like in Daniel’s case, Global Action Project provided the type of public screening that could make Three Queer Mice accessible to a straight peer. Because these instances are rare—partly due to mainstream media, peer pressure, conformity, cliques at school and fear of rejection or violence for being queer—queer youth benefit immensely from youth media programs.
What Practitioners Can Do
Catering to queer youth requires a lot of care, focus, time, and on-going support. Queer youth need a lot of attention and room to take the lead. The formula for a successful educator relies on a delicate mix of personality, style, empathy and dedication. Almost every queer young person interviewed mentioned a practitioner at his or her organization who really made him or her feel supported, who listened, and who allowed for a space to say whatever he or she wanted. The practitioners that made the most impact were extremely available and understanding. They backed up queer youth, joined forces in their struggles and hopes, and believed in their ability to make a difference. But most importantly, the instructor did not judge them. Finding the right practitioner to cater to queer youth requires professional development and training, resource and time allocation, dialogue, and a compassionate listener.
Practitioners should keep in mind that outside of youth media organizations, it is often not easy to identify queerness or allies. Rejection, violence and other exclusionary social reactions to queer sexuality keep many youth from openly discussing sexual orientation. For non-queer youth subject to oppression, the likelihood that they can turn to an understanding and empathic parent or adult is much higher than that of a queer youth who, unfortunately, risks the same social rejection within their own families. As Zaida Sanabia, a youth producer at Beyondmedia in Chicago, IL explains, “Without [adult allies] it would take a lot of courage for a young person to bring up queer issues [and represent that in media].”
The beauty of youth media organizations is that queer youth can be supported while engaging with other young people expressing their stories. As youth producer Ana Lopez at REACH LA reflects, “We are so different, but we’ve all had similar struggles in finding ourselves.” Lopez’s claim that all young people have had struggles provides the necessary backdrop for queer youth to unite common experiences that, ultimately, bridge the homophobic divide.
With the help of facilitators, young people can engage in conversations not commonly found in every day discourse that positively examine the intersections of race, gender, class and sexuality. Kali Snowden, one of the producers (and main character) of Coming Out… explains, “Oftentimes we create a lot of negative energy by talking about racism, sexism, and homophobia.” She continues, “[We need to] be more light-hearted, all inclusive, and recognize we all take part in oppression.”
McCarter at Split Pillow suggests that practitioners “Have everyone sit around and talk about issues [which] reinforce the fact that queer and straight youth have more in common than they sometimes think.” Professor Gray explains, “conversations about queerness among non-queer youth [are] incredibly valuable. Getting all young people to look at their attitudes about sexual and gender difference gives them a chance to see how they are both different from but not that unlike their queer peers.”
Practitioners can also learn from the few organizations that have queer-specific programming, such as Reel Grrls in Seattle, WA; Beyondmedia, Radio Arte, and Split Pillow in Chicago, IL; Global Action Project in New York, NY; and REACH LA in Los Angeles, CA. And in the U.K., there’s Queer Youth Radio.
Gina Lamb at REACH LA suggests the following to practitioners working with queer youth:
• Set serious group-decided ground rules. Identify space that is positive, safe, and away from outside drama.
• Do not tolerate oppressive comments. It is the responsibility of the group to call out discriminatory language.
• Everyone has participatory buy in (think the film The Breakfast Club) and can be vulnerable to each other.
• Facilitators must be ready and prepared to deal with tough topics, which will require resources and collaborative teaching.
• Reach out to other programs for training.
• Be a supportive and accepting adult ally, advocate and role model to queer youth, knowing that many do not have access to such adults.
Youth media is one of the best tools to support queer youth to build a positive identity because the focus of programs often encourages youth to claim and represent their identities despite harmful stereotypes projected by mainstream media. By providing a space to process becoming and belonging, youth media affords queer youth to finally amplify their stories and share their points of view among a community. Steven Liang, a teen activist in L.A. explains, “[Our stories] really foreshadow what could become amazing change in the future. If [queer] youth don’t tell their stories and document who they are and where they’ve been, then there won’t be much to look back on in the future.”
But their stories, in fact, radically affect the future. As Professor Gray explains, “[The] most revolutionary use of new media by queer youth is to connect with and circulate the range of stories and disseminate political strategies via new media.” These dialogues have the potential to build coalitions, partnerships between youth media and national LGBT organizations/Gay-Straight Alliances, and tap into major youth-led anti-hate movements—echoing the grassroots foundation of the youth media movement in history. Youth media educators who believe in supporting young people need to make a concerted effort to empower queer youth. With the support of youth media programs, queer youth can create media that confronts stereotype and bias in their own lives and in the greater society.
Ingrid Hu Dahl is the editor of Youth Media Reporter and a founding member of the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls in Brooklyn, New York. She has an M.A. in Women’s & Gender Studies and is the guitarist in the band Boyskout.
Macintosh, Lori and Mary Bryson, “Youth, MySpace, and the Interstitial Spaces of Becoming and Belonging,” Journal of LGBT Youth, Vol. 5 (1) 2007. http://jly.haworthpress.com.
Wright, Kai, “Risking it All to Find Safety,” in Colorlines (Issue no 44: May | June 2008) www.colorlines.com.
Reach LA’s Queer Youth Crashpad www.qycrashpad.com.