How HistoryMiami Empowered LGBTQ+ Youth with a Project OF and BY Them

From October 2018-March 2019, 21 diverse organizations participated in the First Wave pilot of the OF/BY/FOR ALL Change Network. We’re sharing stories from their journeys to become of, by, and for the communities that matter most to them. These stories were written by Titania Veda in partnership with the First Wave teams. Tina Menendez, who is featured in this story, will also be speaking about it at the AAM 2019 conference.

“When I came out as a transgender man, it was difficult news for my parents. My mom thought she could never see me as a man, dressed as a man. But it was something I had to do. My parents are now my number one supporters,” said Elijah Vives, a 21 year old psychology undergraduate at Florida International University. “Change starts in your community and here I am in my community doing something. We were just painting doors for people to see [at HistoryMiami] but every little thing adds up over time. I want people to leave feeling powerful, that they're being celebrated.”

Elijah is one of the volunteers behind a youth-led exhibit at the HistoryMiami Museum, as part of larger exhibition, Queer Miami: A History of LGBTQ Communities. The youth-led exhibit features the stories of 16 youth volunteers and how anti-gay and gender-related stigma impacts their lives through 8 doors painted by the youth. This co-created exhibit was a key project as part of HistoryMiami’s goal to become OF/BY/FOR LGBTQ+ youth in the Miami area.

“This exhibit gave me chance to talk about gender. A lot of trans people are often ignored, especially people my age,” said Elijah. “This gave me the opportunity to express my feelings about what's going on with the trans community. It's unfortunate that we think adults have all the answers. So it's important to bridge the gap. There shouldn't be that hierarchy [between youths and adults]. We're all people, we can learn from each other.”

Elijah standing by his door in the exhibition.    (Photo: courtesy of Elijah Vives)

Elijah standing by his door in the exhibition. (Photo: courtesy of Elijah Vives)

“They talked about how vital it is to be seen and represented”

YES Institute youth volunteers and staff member, Jen Rodriguez.    (Photo: Monique, History Miami staff)

YES Institute youth volunteers and staff member, Jen Rodriguez. (Photo: Monique, History Miami staff)

HistoryMiami partnered with the YES Institute, a local nonprofit focused on gender education, to involve queer youth.  It was important to both partners that the exhibit be told from the youth’s perspective, by them, and for them for it to make a resounding impact on the community. Both HistoryMiami and the YES Institute played the roles of spacemaker, facilitator, and thought partners, giving youth the space to create in the foreground.

“That dance was interesting. It was difficult to have things open ended because people want guidance and support. It’s interesting to see how much we can offer support without making it feel that we were dictating the show. What’s important is being at the table with them to have a dialogue. They talked about how vital it is for them to be seen and represented,” said Tina Menendez, HistoryMiami’s vice-president of education.

Creating the work was a deeply personal and vulnerable process for the youth. During the creation process, Dani Dominguez, Community Education Coordinator of the YES Institute, and Dani’s colleague Jen Lopez, were on hand to help them navigate the emotions that came up.

“We wanted them to understand the importance of what they’re doing. That they’re creating a sense of awareness that we're human beings and want to feel a sense of love and belonging. How do we create understanding across the board and not only for people who identify with us? Even for the parent who stands by the doors and think this is still a sin?” said Dani.

“Are you sure you aren’t just gay?”

Door by Elijah Vives from Queer Miami youth exhibition.    (Photo: Dani Dominguez)

Door by Elijah Vives from Queer Miami youth exhibition. (Photo: Dani Dominguez)

Elijah’s door draws upon his experience and those of his community. The top part contains phrases commonly heard within the trans community, such as ‘It’s too hard to call you that’ or ‘Are you sure you aren’t just gay?’ A red pulse line is drawn through the middle, in reference to the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. Across the line are the words ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will always hurt me’. The bottom holds a birthday cake with trans colors with the simple words ‘Happy Rebirthday’ and balloons with gender-inclusive pronouns.

“The words you say can be a make it or break it moment for a youth going through something. They may take their own life. Your words can give them a new birth or completely erase them. I'm glad I was able to have that rebirth,” said Elijah, referring to his gender transition from female to male. “But not a lot of people have. There's such a high rate of suicide in our community, it’s devastating.”

A YES Institute report found that 34% of middle and high school students report using anti-gay words or jokes to tease others. While South Florida youth who identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual are five times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers.

“The youth voice is important. If somebody came to the museum or saw the exhibition, seeing it has the potential of being incredibly important and significant to that individual who sees it and identifies with it. We don't know everyone's story when they walk in the door. So there’s potential for having people feel valued without having to say anything,” said Tina.

“I left with a great sense of empowerment”

A week after the exhibit opened, Elijah went to see the exhibition with his partner. There was a portion in the museum that allowed people to write their story. Elijah read stories written by his community’s elders about their journeys, what they’ve sacrificed, and how far they’ve come. Their struggles and hopes continued by the youths, taking their first steps on their own journeys.

Visitors wrote responses like: “The youth exhibition was my favorite part of the Queer Miami exhibition” and “My story is that of an ally. I am an ally for my transgender son and all children who identify as transgender. I always say I am a mother, first and foremost. I admire and respect my child for choosing to be himself at the age of 12. #proudallymom”

For Elijah, the experience as a co-creator was powerful. “I had never really been given the opportunity to create something artistic that others could walk by and see. I had never really created something that reflected my experience of gender and what being transgender meant to me,” said Elijah. “It was an overall emotional experience, that allowed me to reflect on why I continue to be proud and share my experience with others. I left with a great sense of empowerment. It really highlighted how resilient and strong the queer community is.”

The final doors created by youth for the Queer Miami exhibition.    (Photo: HistoryMiami Museum)

The final doors created by youth for the Queer Miami exhibition. (Photo: HistoryMiami Museum)

In a spirit of representation and visibility, we honor everyone who was part of making this project:

  1. Seth Morales, 18 years old

  2. Elijah Vives, 21 years old

  3. Alexis Mejer, 19 years old

  4. Ethan Rodriguez, 17 years old

  5. Victorino Marti, 20 years old

  6. Valentina Sanchez

  7. Belen Lopez, 19 years old

  8. Mya Thompson, 16 years old

  9. Marshall de Lamar, 13 years old

  10. Mahalia Malary, 16 years old

  11. Sofia Heuchert

  12. Jen Lopez (YES Institute Educator)

  13. Dani Dominguez (YES Institute Educator)

  14. Barb Zohlman (YES adult volunteer)

  15. Monique Alfonso (Educator)

  16. Tina Menendez, Suarmis Travieso, Hana Squires & Michael Knoll from HistoryMiami Museum