How I found my voice

The rainbow flag in my dining room makes me giddy, even when I am cranky before my morning class on a Monday. I live in the Pride House with two of my friends. We hold events for the LGBTQ student community and work with Students For Queer Advocacy to provide a safe space for students. Our house is like a Where’s Waldo book, queer edition. How many rainbow flags can you find? Did you spot our feminist bath mat with the faces of Michelle Obama and Ruth Bader Ginsburg? Did you take a look at our sign about destroying the patriarchy? While tapestries and coffee table books decorate other houses, constant reminders of the validity of our identities decorate ours — and the feeling of giddiness never fails to come over me each morning as I sip my coffee and take in the inclusive beauty of the place I am lucky enough to live. I feel sixteen-year-old Val jumping up and down in awe. I hear her voice asking, “We really get to live here? This is our home?”

When I came out at sixteen, I was absolutely terrified. I posted on Facebook with shaking fingers and watched as likes, comments and calls came in. There was a feeling of relief coupled with a feeling of tension. The idea that I would no longer have to hide who I am was one I had been waiting for since I asked my mom if there was a country where I could marry my friend Rachel in preschool.

But then there was the tension; no one else was publically out at my high school. We had only gotten a Gay Straight Alliance a few years ago. I had been bullied before and I didn’t want to be bullied again again. For the first few weeks, I got called f*ggot and would wear my gym clothes to school because the girls would spread rumors that I was checking them out if I dared change in the locker room. I felt helpless and exhausted.

I googled “what to do after you come out” and the phone number for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) popped up. I called and an old woman answered. I explained my situation and she directed me to Vinnie Pompei, the Director of HRC’s Youth Well-Being Project. He told me he was starting a youth ambassador program and asked if I wanted to be a part of it. I immediately said yes and a few months later, I was attending my first HRC Time To Thrive Conference as an ambassador.

Growing up in a dominantly straight world, I was like a kid in a candy store — surrounded by other queer youth, educators and influencers who were all there for the sole reason of making sure LGBTQ youth could not only feel safe in school, but thrive. For the past four years, that same weekend in February each time, I would find myself at Time To Thrive again. It’s acted as a marker for how my queer identity had been supported or suffered and how I had grown as an intersectional advocate.

Two weekends ago, I attended my last Time To Thrive as an ambassador in Orlando, Florida. The end to my term is very bittersweet: HRC took me in when I was a lone wolf at my high school, struggling to sustain the love for my sexual orientation in a space where the majority would tell me I was too young, too gay, too much.

It provided me with a community of other queer youth hailing from all over the United States. I spoke with Jazz Jennings about the action we could take to make sure transgender youth like herself could use the bathroom that matches their identity at school. I listened to Weston Alexander as he told me how he was put in the foster-care system after his parents threw him out for being gay and discussed how to put platforms in place so other queer, displaced youth could be put in homes where they would be given the love they deserve. I chatted with Zoey Luna about the struggles of Latinx queer youth and the importance to fight for LGBTQ dreamers to sustain their DACA status.

It also felt extremely full-circle to be at this conference full of empowered educators and youth after my self-designed major of Education Advocacy was approved this week (cue my happy dance). HRC’s environment of activism pushed me to work with professors here at Muhlenberg to design this major and educate myself on the variety of issues our country’s youth are facing that interfere with their ability to feel safe and supported in schools.

Especially in the spring semester with the pressure of scoring a resume-worthy summer internship looming ahead, it can be easy to forget why we are here. So much emphasis is put on the future: What job will you get? Where will you live? How much will you earn? While these are important questions, they blur our vision all too often. I hadn’t thought about sixteen-year-old Val in awhile, until Time To Thrive this weekend. I had blocked out how much fear I associated with school. But the idea that in studying education advocacy, I am preparing to collaborate with others and fight for the kid that feels isolated and alone today — whether that be because of their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, abilities, religion or other — fuels me to keep going.

It’s no secret that the life of academia we are all in can be draining, especially when mixed with maintaining a social life, extracurriculars and navigating the various other factors of being a college student. But as we step into midterm season, I challenge you to think of the first time you realized that what you’re studying was your passion. Could you dance before you could walk? Did you hear the Schoolhouse Rock song “I’m Just A Bill” and know you wanted to be on the steps of the Capitol? Was your school library your safe haven? Did your childhood lemonade stand become a love for business?

Whatever fuels your re, remembering your roots can remind you why you’re doing it. And it can change your life.

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