How student activism can stand up to hateful rhetoric


By Jessie Wang and Lisa Chasanov

In a recent poll by the Trevor Project, a nonprofit organization that aims to reduce suicide rates among LGBTQ+ youth, 86% of transgender and nonbinary youth reported experiencing worsened mental health as a result of the political discussion surrounding transgender issues.

In response to anti-LGBTQ+ messaging in the media and the resulting dangers being faced by the queer community, advocacy groups across the country are promoting the interests of affected youth through programming, social media outreach and events in their communities.

Nicole Frydman is the director of operations at Uniting Pride of Champaign County, a local nonprofit organization that provides LGBTQ+ support, advocacy and education. According to Frydman, LGBTQ+ youth are in greater danger now than they have been in recent years.

“Queer and trans youth are a target in a way they never have been before in some very scary ways,” Frydman said. 

Frydman emphasized that youth voices are an integral part of advocacy for LGBTQ+ issues.

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“It’s one thing to, as adults, be speaking about these things … but it’s another thing to allow young people to lead and to have a voice in this conversation,” Frydman said. 

According to research conducted by the Trevor Project, some of those most affected by political discussions targeting LGBTQ+ issues are young people living in rural communities.

Aydin Tariq, sophomore at Mattoon High School, said that being a queer student in Mattoon, a rural town with a population of about 17,000, can be trying.

“Students living in these rural communities are feeling a lack of representation by the people who lead them and they’re feeling very isolated and alienated,” Tariq said. 

According to Tariq, queer students have the power to influence people in power through advocacy and communication. 

“It is our job to help the leaders and the people making decisions about our schools … to understand that we are a demographic that they have to consider when making decisions,” Tariq said. “Passion has the ability to change minds, laws and the future of this country.”

Tariq said that because their peers will soon have the power to influence many social issues, it is crucial for young people to stay informed and engaged.

“The future generation – they’re the next group of critical thinkers and leaders destined to take positions in power and leadership,” Tariq said. “We’re the ones that are going into the workforce and becoming voters … It’s our responsibility to take (on) a lot of the issues that are plaguing the world today.”

In Tariq’s opinion, youth have not been sufficiently included in important discussions in the past, but social media has given many young people a necessary platform.

“For so long, the youth voice has been sort of silenced and quiet because we haven’t had the opportunities to speak out,” Tariq said. “One of the upsides of social media is that youth … now more than ever have an opportunity to organize and rally, exchange and find a sense of community.”

Although social media has given a new generation the opportunity to speak out on important issues, it has also amplified existing voices with hateful intentions.

According to research published in 2022 by the Human Rights Campaign, hateful “grooming” rhetoric against the LGBTQ+ community on social media has increased by 400% since the passing of Florida’s recently controversial “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

Such comments have not only come from individual users of social media — elected officials and influential media personalities have promoted similar anti-LGBTQ+ messaging to their constituents.

Tariq said that in a conservative and largely white community like Mattoon, people are less likely to “travel outside of town” and be exposed to diverse perspectives. The promotion of a single idea can contribute to the development of an ideological echo chamber, or an environment where the dominant viewpoint is never challenged.

Because of this, Tariq said that when exposed to a new idea, Mattoon residents’ initial curiosity can turn into animosity due to a lack of understanding.

“When we look at students, specifically queer students in Mattoon, they’re dealing with a student body that looks at them with animosity, that treats them with prejudices and discrimination,” Tariq said.

Tariq said that representation in the media is important for queer students because it creates a sense of belonging and combats discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community. 

“Our media needs to accurately represent society as a whole and [to] show everybody that it’s OK for them to be who they are,” Tariq said. 

Tariq has made LGBTQ+ advocacy a personal priority throughout their life. Most recently, as part of the PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs Advisory Team, Tariq has engaged with queer students from diverse communities across the country.

We had really in-depth conversations about how it feels to wake up every day and to see the people that were elected to represent you arguing about whether you should have the right to exist,” Tariq said. “I (can’t) imagine being the only queer student in a conservative community, because I know that I have a community of LGBTQ+ students at my school that I can fall back on.”

Tariq is a member of Mattoon High School’s Spectrum Alliance, an organization that they say helps their queer-identifying peers feel supported in a political climate that normally alienates them.

“We focus on making sure that our school is the safest and most welcoming it can be to all of our LGBTQ+ students,” Tariq said. “We try [to] engage and educate the community through a number of service projects.”

Tariq met Frydman at a LGBTQ+ sensitivity training session that Uniting Pride hosted at a local summer camp where Tariq was a counselor. Afterwards, Tariq reached out to Frydman in the hopes of collaborating with Uniting Pride on a Transgender Day of Visibility rally.

According to Frydman, the response to the rally from the Uniting Pride Board was overwhelmingly positive.

“We want to do everything we can to make space, not just for this local teenager, but for all the youth in our community, as well as all of the people who love the youth in our community,” Frydman said. 

Although the rally, scheduled for Friday at the McKinley Memorial Presbyterian Church, was postponed due to severe weather warnings, the organizers still believe that it is “incredibly important” for the local LGBTQ+ community.

Despite Tariq’s interest in politics, they said that the repression of marginalized identities should not be on the ballot.

“Human rights should not be a political issue,” Tariq said. 


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