Holding up a pink and blue “Trans People Belong” poster, I marched alongside 150 fellow high school students in the heart of Washington D.C this summer. Angered by the direct attack on either themselves or their trans siblings, we linked our arms to protest the approximately 500 anti-LGBTQ bills that have been introduced across the nation.
As an intern and a participant in the ACLU National Advocacy Institute (NAI), I had spent the past week learning alongside other young activists about major ACLU issues. The NAI is an annual program that engages high school students like me in grassroots organizing, professional advocacy, and legal activism. To prepare for the rally, which took place on July 5, we learned the principles of organizing and about the bills at large. Chase Strangio, deputy director for transgender justice with the ACLU’s LGBTQ & HIV Project, taught us how they harm or affect young people, whether by not allowing trans kids to use the bathroom and receive gender-affirming care, or by banning drag queens from reading to children in public libraries and schools.
After seven days of learning, I found myself chanting in front of Capitol Hill. The first rumble of thunder resounded, and a steady drizzle fell upon us. Despite the weather, the energy remained strong as we waited to hear our speakers.
Chloe McKeown, an intern with the ACLU LGBTQ+ Campaigns team, introduced the speakers who were as young as 17 and as wise as 73. “If we had more intergenerational events and collaboration it would be phenomenal,” they said, reflecting on the experience. “All forms of leadership come together that way.”
Some students came to the Institute as experienced advocates for trans rights back at home. Others knew less. Despite their previous knowledge, however, all the students listened to the speakers with an open mind — each speech was interrupted by bursts of claps and enthusiastic cheers.
The first speaker, 17-year-old Meeks Annillo from Texas, blew me away. I had the privilege of speaking to them a week later, when I learned they were initially hesitant to go onstage. In 2022, Anillo attended the NAI virtually, and heard Amber Hikes, deputy executive director for strategy and culture at the ACLU, speak at a panel.
“I was in tears. It was the first time that I felt like I had a place in this world,” they said. When Anillo returned to the NAI in 2023, they were able to meet Hikes in person. “Talking to Amber is what gave me motivation to speak at the rally,” they added.
Another student speaker, 17-year-old Fynn Remhof from Illinois, came from a town with 3,000 people. “I wanted to speak because we hear about gender- affirming care in the big cities, but not a lot in the rural communities,” she said. Since NAI, she has been working on creating a proposal to introduce a student advocate to serve on the school board in her hometown. She is hoping that that youth advocate will be an ally for trans kids. “I just want one gender neutral bathroom,” she said.
The final student speaker, Alia Cusolito, was a 17-year-old from Massachusetts and the co-president of Queer Youth Assemble, a nonprofit led by and for queer youth. They helped organize marches across the country and spoke at the National March for Queer and Trans Youth Autonomy in the same exact place in March. Cusolito shared an anecdote during that time.
“We were contacted by a mother in Kansas who had never organized a protest before, but she wanted to,” they shared. “She had lost her son the year before to suicide. She told me that she believes that it was because of how afraid he was of the threat of anti-trans violence and legislation. The work we do every day is a step closer to a world that Kai would have stayed in.”
Annillo and Remhof also shared other people’s stories. Annillo used their close friend’s experience of transitioning as a testament to the powers of gender-affirming care, saying that this was their source of “trans hope.” Remhof told the story of her friend, Noah, who attempted to take his life and was institutionalized after, hoping to foster urgency and bring awareness to the fact that it is not an uncommon experience for trans kids, especially those from rural areas.
The older speakers captured me as well. Rayceen Pendarvis and Diego Sanchez, who are both trailblazers in the queer and trans community, taught me how long the fight has been going on. “We have to love those who do not understand us,” said Pendarvis. “I was you, and you will be me,” said Sanchez.
Earlier in the week, the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project Director Ben Wizner and Senior Staff Attorney Emerson Sykes repeatedly told us during their Student Free Speech keynote, “Behind every brief is a story.” It was the stories of the speakers and their loved ones that touched me the most and helped me understand the magnitude of the issue.
In turn, sharing those stories helped speakers feel seen. “It was crazy to just be listened to and to be heard,” said Annillo. Remhof agreed. “There were people fighting for me [at the rally]. I was not familiar with that.”