We all know who Beyonce thinks runs the world. (Girls!) While I obviously agree with her, there’s another group who I think deserves more credit than they usually get. (Kids!) To judge youth by the way they’re most frequently portrayed in the media, one would assume they’re all constantly sexting, finding online predators, or just playing too many damn video games — and not much else.
Yet, there are a lot of kids out there doing remarkable, sophisticated, brave things every day. In particular, I believe that there is an amazing generation of queer youth who are literally changing our world for the better. In this new occasional series, I’m going to tell you about some of them. And in this inaugural post, I must begin with Willow Smith.
The 11-year-old daughter of Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith made news earlier this year when she decided to shave her head. Yes, apparently a child shaving her head is news. But what was especially great about this move was how supportive both of her parents were, with this quote from Will being particularly awesome:
We let Willow cut her hair. When you have a little girl, it’s like how can you teach her that you’re in control of her body? If I teach her that I’m in charge of whether or not she can touch her hair, she’s going to replace me with some other man when she goes out in the world. She has got to have command of her body. So when she goes out into the world, she’s going out with a command that it is hers. She is used to making those decisions herself. We try to keep giving them those decisions until they can hold the full weight of their lives.
Photo from Getty
Teaching girls they have control over their own bodies? Watch out, Will! There are a bunch of politicians in America who will probably make that illegal soon.
But the reason I really want to discuss Willow Smith is the video she released last week for her new song “I Am Me.”
I almost didn’t watch this when I saw friends posting it online, because the title is so simple I didn’t expect much from it, and I wasn’t necessarily a “Whip My Hair Back and Forth” fan. Yet as soon as I decided to give it a shot, I was so glad I took the second to press that play button. The song is, indeed, as seemingly simple as the title, with Willow repeating: “I’m free; I’m me, and that’s all I can be.” She continues on to the best line of the song: “Your validation is just not that important to me.” Throughout, she is rocking that short hairdo along with an oversized polka dotted shirt while hanging out in New York City. She is androgynous, beautiful, introspective and confident.
And apparently, a young girl who defies conventions of what people think an 11-year-old girl should look like inspires a lot of ugliness. The YouTube comments are a sea of insults, including the unsurprising complaints about her only being famous because of her dad and the disappointingly unoriginal plea for her to find Jesus. But there are also the more distressing ones telling Miss Smith that she is an ugly freak tomboy lesbian, “messed up in the head,” and asking “Why don’t you dress like a girl?” After the video went online, condescending Tweets made their rounds, asking her to come back and preach to us when she was actually a grown up, thanks. Still other bloggers said the video “made them feel weird,” or expressed confusion about why she sounded “so sad.” Even though she’s smiling throughout the video and ends it with a giggling message that includes her saying, “you know, YOLO.”
I know that the opinions of the masses on the Internet often broadcast a dark, scary aspect of humanity that should typically be avoided at all costs for the sake of one’s mental health, but there was something especially disheartening about this. There is clearly something threatening about this video to a great many people, a threat that I can see broken down in two ways:
1) Her age. It is so easy to discount the opinions of the young. Yes, people mature with age, and gain more experience, which gives them more authority to speak on things. Kids think a lot of stupid stuff. At the same time, we adults learn a lot of bullshit along the way, too. We often think even more stupid stuff. Kids feel things, especially with relation to their personal identity, in a clearer, more concentrated way than we can even remember. Their feelings are no less authentic than ours. Willow Smith could grow up and tell us that she’s happy and free to be herself when she’s 30, or 40, or 50, but it would be no less true than when she told us the same thing when she was 11.
2) Her look. Would Willow Smith have invoked this much of an outcry if she had sang the exact same song while wearing a dress with her hair in pretty braids?
What exactly Willow Smith is trying to say with her new look isn’t the point. For one, I don’t think she’s trying to “say” anything; she’s just doing what feels comfortable to her. It’s the message that she’s happy with what she is, whatever that is, that’s important. The power of this simple song almost brought me to tears when I realized what an anthem it could be to so many people. To the genderqueer kids, to the gay kids, to the trans kids, to the kids who are learning their own vulnerabilities, to the kids who are trying to figure it all out, to anybody who is a little bit different. “I am free, I am me, I am me.” Yes, you are! All of us are! Isn’t it great?
Wonderfully enough, Willow Smith isn’t the only person who’s been inspiring me lately. I’ve recently been blown away by portrait series of queer youth that are awesome both for their artistic photographic merit and the empowering messages all of the images express. One is an ongoing project called Queer Kids in America by Michael Sharkey, a project the Brooklyn-based artist started in 2006 that doesn’t seem to have an ending date. His images are full of color, contrast, and intense stares. Yet behind so many of those pensive stares into his camera, there is also so much joy exploding out of every shot. You can view a gallery of his photographs on his website, or see even more of them paired with interviews in this delightful piece by Rookie mag. Almost every youth included in this last set explores the grey areas in between the binaries of both gender and sexuality that we are all taught.
Photo by M. Sharkey
I am particularly in love with the photo of Eleet, a 20-year-old transgender female who is bounding into a shaft of light on a park sidewalk in purpley pink tights, the photo captured when both of her feet are just slightly above the ground, a perfect, airy glide of freedom. If you need further enticement to look through this set of photos, I’ll give you this: another youth is holding an adorable pug.
You can also find two videos on his website from this project, one of which I found particularly moving and sweet, wherein he asks each youth the eternally simple yet complex question: “Have you ever been in love?”
Another extensive photographic project is called We Are The Youth, started in 2010 by Laurel Golio and Diana Scholl, whose images are equally as powerful as Sharkey’s. What’s also great about this project is its outreach; they encourage youth to contact them to share their stories, and they aim to reach as many geographic areas as they can. In fact, their website houses one of the coolest things I have ever seen ever — a Google map with location-specific information about groups catering to LGBT youth.
In the profiles shared on their site, youth share not just their striking portraits but also incredible interviews, including stories of living an open, non-bullied life in places such as Alabama, of embracing the word “queer,” of different cultural backgrounds, of the dangers of hanging out on the Pier, of discovering lesbianism via t.A.T.u. (yeah, remember them?), of parents discovering their sexuality identity by stalking their Facebook profile, and so much more. This quote from Sarah, 19, struck me as particularly interesting:
I don’t think I officially ever came out. It was more of a gradual process. Straight kids don’t have to announce their sexuality, so I don’t think I should have to either.
Photo from We Are Youth
Finally, to round out my shout outs to queer youth being awesome, a news story from this past week: a transwoman, Connor Ferguson, 18, was crowned prom queen at her high school in Ontario. Not only is this story fantastic, but I love how much sass Connor seems to have. For instance, she noted that she had to hold her crown, because her hair was too big to fit it. Fan-tas-tic. And she told her local paper, “If you know me in person you probably know I love the attention, but in this case it’s for all the right reasons.” You deserve it, Connor. Live it up, girl.
If you ever see any stories about queer youth you think the world needs to know about, please let me know. Until next time, I’ll be swaying back and forth to “I Am Me,” reminding myself that society’s validation is just not that important to me.