By Rae Sweet-Sandoval
Living in Los Angeles, I often find myself lost in its progressive bubble, despite working with LGBTQ+ youth from across the U.S. who feel the impact of homophobia and transphobia on a daily basis. Much of my work as It Gets Better’s Education Coordinator is done through a screen and sometimes I’m left to wonder if I am truly making an impact. Often it can feel redundant; the message “it gets better” being passed from queer person to queer person, never really knowing if it’s resonating the way we hope it does. Sometimes it feels overwhelming, as we watch a wave of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation being pushed across the U.S. with no end in sight.
If there is anything I learned from attending the Human Rights Campaign’s Time to Thrive conference in Atlanta, Georgia last month, it’s that (A) it is never redundant and (B) there is hope.
This conference focused primarily on LGBTQ+ young people living in Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Florida. Educators, social workers, parents, supportive adults, foster care workers, lawyers, nonprofit leaders, and students joined together for a full day of learning, collaborating, networking, and working together to better understand our role in ensuring that young LGBTQ+ people THRIVE. I was privileged to witness moving speeches, sit in on inspiring workshops, and have deep and meaningful conversations with so many people who are dedicated to that work.
I also had the opportunity to bring one of our very own Youth Voices, Dion (he/they/xe), an 18-year-old high school Senior from Mississippi, along with me for the conference. The experience sparked a conversation. I asked Dion “what is the mainstream LGBTQ+ movement missing or getting wrong about the movement in the South?”
Xeir response was that there isn’t enough representation in or for rural LGBTQ+ communities, and that there is a lack of consideration, assistance, and resources for those communities.
Going to the Time to Thrive: Deep South conference was an opportunity that I was ecstatic to have. Going into the conference, I did not know what to expect. I knew of the topics that would be discussed and workshops that would be held, but that was pretty much it; I didn’t know of the dress code or if there even was one. Despite this, I was able to happily participate in everything the conference had to offer in my champion hoodie, oversized leather jacket, baggy jeans, and my newly-bought hiking boots. Walking into the conference on the first day, I immediately felt welcomed by the upbeat music and saturated, vibrant lights. Being the introvert that I am, I sat in the back of the room, but I could not stay there for long considering the interactive activities that were planned. On the first night alone, I heard a panel discussing the rights of queer youth, played a connection-building game, and was read to by a drag queen! The second day was full of even more opportunities to meet other people and learn more about ways I can implement my activism in my future career as an educator.
LGBTQ+ youth in the South may be experiencing a ruthless wave of attacks by elected officials who are using them as political pawns, but these young people are resilient. They are out, they are proud, and they have a whole community of people fighting alongside them.
There is so much hope, and there is so much more work to be done. And we will continue to our fight to help make it better.
– Rae Sweet-Sandoval is the Education Coordinator for the It Gets Better Project. Click here for more information about Time to Thrive.