A ninth-grade student in Mission, Texas, is organizing a conference for gay youth in his rural hometown after winning a $10,000 grant from the nonprofit group It Gets Better Project.
Mars Gamez told TODAY he was inspired to apply for one of the LGBTQ advocacy group’s ’50 States, 50 Grants, 5,000 Voices’ initiatives after hearing about it from his club advisor Alexander Hernandez and having seen the program advertised online.
The initiative, in partnership with American Eagle, aims to provide around 50 scholarships for student projects.
Gamez, president of the Warrior Prism Alliance, the school equivalent of a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) group, said the students decided to lecture because of the small size of their own community.
“(In our town) you know most of the people that come to this whole school,” Gamez said. “It’s really hard to just introduce ourselves to our parents, because they have this cultural divide… The (conference) will provide a safe space and support for everyone.”
Hernandez, the school’s advanced placement computer science professor and head of faculty for the Warrior Prism Alliance, said the conference wasn’t just for kids.
“Our goal is to be able to create a bigger space, to have a conversation, to be able to learn from each other…to just help create a stronger support system across the region,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez said the grant isn’t the only way the club can make changes at its small school. The alliance taught students about influential members of the LGBTQ community, hosted events to discuss community representation and development, and more.
Justin Tindall, director of programs and operations for the It Gets Better Project, said other grants have been awarded to schools in 40 states across the country, as well as the District of Columbia. The winners were selected from a pool of 128 entries. Nominations were for everything from creating gender-neutral closets (where students can access clothing that matches their gender identity on their school campus), to building gender-neutral restrooms, or creating GSAs. .
“Each contestant had something different, or a different angle, or a different idea of how they made it work in their school, which makes us really excited,” Tindall said. “Rather than the It Gets Better project walking into a particular community or school saying, ‘This is what you need to do,’ the students have spoken to us and they’ve been like, ‘This is what we want. TO DO. That’s what we think can make a difference in our schools.'”
At a time of increased legislation targeting LGBTQ people, with a particular focus on youth and schools, Tindall said the grants and the choice they provide are a way to empower students.
“A lot of the (political situation) isn’t about education. It’s not about toilet bills. It’s not about, you know, trans participation in sport, it’s about it’s just about aiming for an easy target and trying to dehumanize and diminish them,” Tindall says. “A lot of what we do kind of gives (kids) a platform and a space to just be kids and show everyone how special they are.”