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.
As educators, we hope to instill the idea that the media young people create can have a positive impact on others, but in reality that cannot happen unless youth media is distributed widely—with the conscious efforts of producers and mentors to go beyond the final production phase.
Youth media usually focuses on the three phases of production, which unfortunately cuts youth out of the distribution portion of the equation. Yet, a successful distribution project can provide youth media makers with valuable experience interacting with a critical audience, and witnessing the impact of their work—which is powerful.
Such an effort must be a conscious extension of the original product, and involve youth—ideally the original producers—every step of the way. An example of such a project is Reel Grrls’ 2004 film Coming Out… and its accompanying distribution campaign.
Reel Grrls & Coming Out
Founded in 2001, Reel Grrls is a Seattle-based, after-school media and technology training program that empowers girls to critique media images and to gain media technology skills in a safe, open environment, mentored by a network of multi-cultural women media professionals.
In 2005, three young producers created Coming Out…a short mockumentary about a straight girl who faces the challenges of coming out in a queer world. The film’s youth-infused humor and unique format flipped the often-painful coming out story as an aid to spark dialogue about homophobia and heterosexism. Although only one of the youth involved in the project was queer-identified, the three producers were extremely open during the production process, exploring the challenging issues within the film, placing them in the perfect position to contribute to next steps.
Executive Director Malory Graham suggested to the youth producers and mentors involved with the project that Coming Out… had the potential to live on outside of its initial screening and create an impact through distribution. Once prompted, the producers were excited to remain involved and were an integral part of generating the outreach and distribution model that would eventually be put into action. Our youth hadn’t yet thought about what would happen to their film after the final screening. By planting this seed, we invited them to utilize their creativity to envision the next steps in the filmmaking process.
As educators and mentors we faced many questions and challenges in extending the project beyond its production. The Reel Grrls spring program in which the film was created had ended. Did that mean the film itself was the product, or could we push the process to a further end? How could we keep the youth producers involved, and who would ultimately define this involvement? We recognized that carrying out this campaign would require long-term commitment, continued engagement, and the willingness to explore non-traditional modes of getting the film’s message out.
Our approach to shaping a distribution campaign around Coming Out… was not a typical one, although Reel Grrls has used a similar model two other times. The first took place the previous year and was led by an adult facilitator, which was not as successful.
We realize it is unrealistic to pursue an extended distribution campaign for every film created. These opportunities require a unique cocktail of content displayed, invested youth, funding, time and energy, and the ability to frame a film for extension into youth-led distribution.
Outreach and Additional Funding
We could not have started those conversations without the humor component.
—Malory Graham, Reel Grrls’ Executive Director.
The three student creators of Coming Out… emphasized their desire for their film to speak to both straight and queer audiences. We began by brainstorming what an extended distribution campaign around the film would look like, and came up with a list of organizations and festivals that could be allies in continuing the project. Although LGBT festivals and organizations would be ideal distribution partners, everyone agreed that for the film to reach its full potential as an outreach tool we had to look beyond these niches.
We all felt that Coming Out… made the challenges of being a queer young person appear to be a more universal experience, and that it was one that could resonate with many people who don’t share that experience. For this reason, the young filmmakers decided that leading discussions in schools and community groups would provide a greater and more far-reaching impact, using the film as a centerpiece to a set of guiding questions. With this input from the youth, the project mentors wrote a grant for the Coming Out… distribution project, naming two of the original producers as facilitators.
A year and a half later, funding was secured. In the interim, Reel Grrls championed Coming Out… on the film festival circuit. It won audience choice awards and festival curators began to specifically request it for submission. The project mentors remained involved with Reel Grrls, revising and submitting our initial grant to several different organizations.
In 2005, our persistence paid off. The Pride Foundation, a Northwest organization awarding grants and scholarships to leaders of the LGBT community, presented Reel Grrls with a $5,000 grant. The project allocated funds to hire Reel Grrls graduates to: create a discussion guide for the film; facilitate peer-led screenings and discussions for school and community groups in Washington State; and distribute the DVD and discussion guide at no cost to organizations across the U.S. interested in mediated dialogues about homophobia and heterosexism. The Pride Foundation was hugely supportive of this model, especially emphasizing the need for youth to occupy central roles and receive financial compensation for their work.
Re-Engaging Youth to Take the Lead
After securing funding, the next challenge was re-engaging our youth. For this project to work it had to be youth led and adult supported. Of the film’s three initial creators, we were only able to track down one who was still interested in taking part in the distribution campaign. We offered the role of the second youth facilitator to a graduate of the most recent Reel Grrls program, who was now an accomplished youth media maker committed to social change and questioning her own sexuality. We hired a Reel Grrls graduate from 2003, now studying graphic design, to design the discussion guide, which needed to be professional and eye-catching to young people and reflective of the aesthetic of the film.
Ultimately we, the mentors, followed the lead of these young people in exploring how to affect a young audience’s understanding of queerness and heterosexism. As a group, we researched and created content for the Discussion Guide that would accompany Coming Out…, which included sections on terminology, setting ground rules, and follow-up activities and resources. Some adult members of the group pushed to use the term “gay” in the guide, but the girls insisted that they preferred to identify as “queer,” and that this term was more inclusive and would bring more young people to contribute.
The youth producers also led the charge to make the discussion guide more accessible to middle school aged students, since young people are now more likely to come out (and experience harassment) at that age. For this reason the guide contains separate comprehensive question sets for pre and post-video discussion questions specific to both middle and high school age (and older) audiences. The section for pre-high school age students includes more general questions like “Have you ever had to tell people something you didn’t want to about yourself? What kinds of anxieties did you feel? How did you feel afterwards?”
Audience outreach goals for our project were also set by youth and mentors together, and included partnering with a variety of organizations, reaching a wide range of ages, races, genders, and sexual orientations (including straight-identified audiences unfamiliar with queer issues), and communities outside the Seattle area less acquainted with or having less access to queer support networks. Our youth facilitators took their roles seriously, and requested specific trainings to aid them in facilitating discussions, which were donated by the National Coalition Building Institute http://www.ncbi.org. It was great to partner and work with an outside community organization to offer this support that went beyond the skill set of the mentors for the project. As the adult project leader, I was always ready to step in if needed but, thanks to the training the facilitators received, the producers held their own.
Between August and November of 2006, the Coming Out… Discussion Project presented nine screenings and discussions, meeting or exceeding all of our outreach goals. Over the next two years, Reel Grrls partnered with national LGBT and youth organizations to send out targeted press releases and mailings, ultimately distributing the film and accompanying discussion guide free of charge to over 50 schools, non-profits, and community groups throughout the country.
Response and Impact
“I had never before experienced a discussion that was directed towards youth and led by youth as well. At times it’s easier for students to open up and say what is on their minds when they feel like they are just having a talk with their peers.”
-Monica Olsson, youth facilitator
The biggest lesson of the Coming Out… project was also our biggest success. Providing youth media makers the opportunity to take ownership of an extended distribution project makes their work accessible to other young people, allowing the film to have a greater impact. The Coming Out… discussion and outreach campaign was hugely successful—not just in audience response but the positive effects it had on the youth facilitators, who became more confident in their abilities as the project progressed. These girls were forced into challenging situations, like speaking to a roomful of 6th grade boys, and leading discussion among a group of college students.
One of the youth leaders noted that, for her, the project “was a learning experience. By virtue of leading this discussion I was able to question myself internally. Due to this experience, I feel more comfortable speaking in front of groups and my peers.” Meredith Stone, whose organization hosted one of our discussions, echoed the power of this peer discussion model. She explains, “It meant a lot to see what youth are doing out in the community, and [it] opened doors [for] youth to think about exploring their own ideas in different ways that didn’t previously seem possible.”
Get the Message Out
Youth media educators have the potential to amplify the impact of youth produced media by extending projects beyond production. For such a campaign to work, projects must be chosen carefully, and youth must be involved throughout the process. Adult support should come in the form of mentors that the youth know and trust, and who are as committed to the process and the film as they are. The Coming Out… project took what most of us already know—the importance of treating young people with respect and valuing their time and ideas—and extended it into the fourth realm of film production—distribution.
Cutting short the life of a film that has the potential to make an impact does not have to be a missed opportunity. By focusing more on youth-led distribution, young people can develop the skill of engaging viewers—in this case, inventively using humor—to get their message out. It is up to educators to identify a group of committed youth raising strong content-specific films, and plant the seed, hand them the reins, and be ready to support them all the way.
Lila Kitaeff is a media activist, freelance writer, videographer, radio DJ, and Technical Director for the Reel Grrls program. She has been active with Independent Media Centers throughout the United States and Mexico. Along with PepperSpray Productions, a Seattle-based video collective, she coordinates a weekly television show that airs on over a dozen stations nationwide, and submits documentary work to the national Free Speech TV Network. She also produces socially progressive video work via her own business, Longshot Productions. She believes in using media as a tool for social change and passing on the tools of media production to as many people as possible.
Learn more about Reel Grrls at www.reelgrrls.org. See the film profiled here and others created in this program at www.youtube.com/reelgrrls.