brennan lewis is making the south safer for queer youth
College student and activist Brennan Lewis is working to unite LGBTQ youth in the notoriously closed-minded South with their group QueerNC.
When Brennan Lewis won the Peace First prize in October, it brought them and their work into the national spotlight. But that work was already well-known and well-appreciated in the area that it so uniquely serves: North Carolina. Having started the group QueerNC when they were just in high school, Lewis sought to provide LGBTQ youths in their historically closed-minded home state with resources that they couldn't find anywhere else--information, education, acceptance, support, and safety. Talking to the ambitious advocate, it's easy to tell just how much they care about the wellbeing of every LGBTQ person out there, how much they believe in today's youth, and how much they love North Carolina and want it to be somewhere queer people don't feel they have to escape.
Congratulations on your Peace First prize! What does that mean to you, how does it feel to be recognized?
The past month or so has not even felt real, it's fantastic. One of the things that's been really amazing is that my school system tweeted about me, which is wild to me, because I've done so much work with administrators that aren't always supportive of LGBTQ students. So, it feels like my state and my school have finally recognized the achievements of someone who is LGBTQ, which is so great. Also, I was recently covered in The News & Observer for my work with QueerNC, and I think that's the first time that a genderqueer person has been on the front page of a newspaper in North Carolina, which is so groundbreaking. We've been getting calls all week long from people that want to help youths in their communities.
What has your own personal path to establishing QueerNC been?
I personally identify as a queer person, which is sort of more of a blanket term to cover LGBTQ identity. I really don't like putting firm boundaries on myself. I first came out in seventh grade as bisexual, which is not how I currently identify, but I had this process of coming out as different things until I really came to terms with me as a person. I didn't have any incredibly huge pushback from my friends, but it was just so isolating. I think there were over 2,000 kids in my middle school and I was the only out person in my school. When I finally got to high school, I started to meet other people that were LGBTQ that were my age for the first time. It was awesome, maybe the best year of my life, making friends that were also queer. But I started to realize that the way my family had treated me when I was growing up was very different from the way other queer kids were treated when they growing up. My mom, dad and sister have always been there for me, and have really created a safe space for me to identify as the person that I am. It's made a huge difference in my life having that support system.
What made you decide to start the group?
As I began to talk to other people, I heard awful stories. Some of my friends being physically abused by their parents, and struggled with self-harm and depression. It started to sink in that there's all this support out there for adult LGBTQ people, but not a lot for youths, specifically. I was seeing all these national movements, but I realized that in my community, we didn't have the time to wait for adults to make change for us. Coming from a supportive family, I wanted to use that advantage to make things better for other people and try to create that safe space that I had at home for my friends and other people in my community. [My friend and I created] a private group on Facebook called QueerNC, and started inviting all of our friends who we knew identified as LGBTQ.
How did the group go from a private Facebook group to such a large-scale community in North Carolina?
We started talking about what we could do to make this a more active group, so we reached out to the LGBTQ center of Raleigh to ask for any advice they might have for us. We scheduled a meeting with the director, and a few weeks later, we were offered the opportunity to be a program supported by the LGBTQ center of Raleigh. Because we had this group of adults with a little more leverage in the community, we were able to use that support to promote our message and reach out to more students. Currently, we serve over 500 youths across North Carolina, and we hope to branch out even more over this coming year with the help of Peace First. We're an entirely youth-led group; we have a panel of about 15 people aged 13 to 18 that make all of the decisions.
Can you talk a little about some of the programs QueerNC has and what it does for North Carolina LGBTQ youths?
We have the online safe space and we also do monthly events. We have different types of meetings, a mix of fun stuff and more activism-based training. We also partner with the LGBTQ center to put on the Aspyre Leadership Camp. It's a weekend-long camp that we hold every year, and we get youths from across the state to come and create an action plan to bring back to their communities to start a gay/straight alliance in their school, or build some kind of community, or even just personal goals so they become more confident in themselves. We're giving students the tools to understand their legal rights in their schools and combat the really bad things that are happening there.
Is this a path you want to keep going down and make a career out of, working with LGBTQ youths?
I'm a student at UNC Chapel Hill right now, so technically I've aged out of the program, because we serve middle and high school students, primarily. I'm trying to find ways to engage the LGBTQ community here to help youths, because that's really what I'm passionate about. We might be launching a mentorship program, and I think we'll try to have that over e-mail so we can reach students in rural areas who don't have any local opportunities to feel supported.
I love youth organizing, it's what I want to do forever. But I won't be a youth forever, so I'm trying to find ways to stay involved without taking autonomy away from younger people, because that was something I struggled with when I was younger. In my ideal world, I would want to start a group similar to the boy scout/girl scout model, but for LGBTQ. I think that would be so, so cool.
What are some of the reasons a group like QueerNC may have been especially needed in North Carolina?
A couple of cities here are liberal, but we still deal with some problems similar to other Southern states. There are some really dangerous undercurrents of racism, homophobia and transphobia that can affect people growing up here. We actually did a survey earlier this year where we reached out to students across the state to evaluate how safe they felt in their schools, and we got a ton of really disturbing stories back, ranging from people who were being called slurs on a daily basis to people who had been threatened at knifepoint by other students.
What do you find to be the most pressing issues that really need change, and what would you say QueerNC is doing to directly contribute to that change?
Probably the education system is the biggest problem that we've worked with, and it's really hard for us to directly impact what's being taught in schools, because there's so much variation from school to school. People see no representation of LGBTQ identities in the material that they're taught, and our sex ed programs are really bad and don't acknowledge gay people. I think having that kind of culture of ignoring LGBTQ existence makes it one, incredibly isolating for LGBTQ students, and two, enables the perpetrators of violence and discrimination.
One of the programs that we think is important to launch is to create workshops that focus on bullying and LGBTQ identities, which is something that many have never talked about before in their lives. I think lack of empathy is one of the biggest things that creates violence. We also want to present workshops to help school faculty members learn how to create a safe space for LGBTQ students.
Text Courtney Iseman
Photography Shae Detar