Many LGBT students find themselves victims of exclusion and harassment, especially transgender and gender-nonconforming youth, 75% of whom feel unsafe at school. And even if they do persevere against bullying, they often face hostile teachers and faculty members. (Nearly 60% of trans students report being denied access to restrooms consistent with their gender identity.)
But the rising generation won’t settle for the status quo: They’re using their voices to push for equality, inclusion, and respect. Below, we celebrate six transgender youths making a difference—not just for themselves, but for their peers, their community, and for generations to come.
Grace Dolan-Sandrino, 16
Not many teens have come out in a place as politically charged as the White House. But when the Obama Administration invited 15-year-old Grace Dolan-Sandrino to participate in the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, she took the opportunity to speak about marginalized queer youth—and, in the process, came out as transgender.
“When you come out publicly at the White House,” Dolan-Sandrino explains, “there’s so little the bullies can say anymore. ’Oh, I heard that you were trans.’ No, honey, you know I am. And I’m doing something about it.”
Now a student at D.C.’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts, she remains committed to promoting safety and inclusion for trans students. She serves on The Kennedy Center’s Youth Council, the Gender Spectrum National Youth Council, works for the Aspen Institute, and is a trained peer educator at Supporting and Mentoring Youth Advocates and Leaders (SMYAL), a D.C.-based LGBT youth group. Since speaking at the White House, she’s appeared on panels for the NEA and the Congressional Black Caucus, where she guides attendees on “how to operate in a classroom with trans kids.”
“You spend more time at school than you spend at home—and you spend more time with your teachers than you do with your parents,” Dolan-Sandrino explains. “If your teachers do not understand or respect your identity, do not uplift you in the classroom, and do not protect you from bigotry, that’s extremely detrimental.”
Schuyler Bailar, 21Amos Mac
In 2015, 19-year-old college freshman Schuyler Bailar made history when he joined the men’s swim team at Harvard, becoming the first openly trans swimmer in NCAA history.
Now 21, he’s appeared on Ellen and 60 Minutes to discuss how he overcame years of body-image issues, depression, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts to embrace his true identity. In addition to being a full-time student and athlete, Bailar travels the country, sharing his story with a variety of audiences, from college students to CEOs.
“Obviously not everyone is trans,” Bialar says, “but everyone has secrets and things about themselves that clash with the ‘norm.’ I really enjoy sharing that it’s possible to do what you love, while still being authentic and true to yourself.”
Honesty remains an important part of his message.
“There’s this temptation to see people as perfect if they’re smiling in all their Instagram posts. For me, it’s more complicated than just, ‘I transitioned and now everything is great.’ I’m a normal college student—I have days that are bad, days that are boring, and days that are wonderful. I think there’s a normalcy there that’s incredible and important to share.”
Hazel Edwards, 20
Instead of attending classes at an all-boys high school in Philadelphia, Hazel Edwards spent most of her junior year in and out of psychiatrists’ offices, confronting the anxiety and depression that came with trying to suppress her gender identity. After coming out as trans at 17, she faced hostility from classmates and staff, and wound up changing schools multiple times. Now 20, she’s risen above those challenges to become an educator, advocate, and community leader.
“I feel like my difficult experiences brought me to where I am now,” says Edwards, who works at the Attic Youth Center, where she trains faculty from schools across the Philadelphia area on working with LGBT youth. Edwards even had the opportunity to educate faculty from her former high school “After the presentation, my old principal came up to me and said, ‘The student is now the teacher.’ That was one of the most empowering things I’d ever heard.”
Edwards also co-authored the School District of Philadelphia’s Policy 252, which established protections for and education about trans and gender-nonconforming students.
“It’s easy to wish it hadn’t been so hard for me, but if all those hardships never happened, I wouldn’t have become as strong and resilient as I am now.”
Aaron Wesdorp, 16
When Aaron Wesdorp realized he wasn’t the only trans student who felt uncomfortable using the male or female bathrooms at New Paltz High School, he decided to take action. As a 15-year-old sophomore, Wesdorp launched a petition for a gender-neutral facility, arguing that it was unfair to make gender-nonconforming kids travel to the other side of the school to use the nurse’s restroom. Or worse, avoid the bathroom altogether for the entire school day.
Resistance from a small group of students came as a shock to Wesdorp. “We wouldn’t be taking away anything, we’d just be adding more bathrooms for the students to use,” he says. “After explaining that it would also benefit them, they were still against it and that really surprised me. It was for anyone who had to use the bathroom when there wasn’t one available.”
Opposition aside, Wesdorp garnered more than 100 signatures, enough to go in front of the school board to plead his case. Pushing past nerves, he spoke passionately about the issue and received a nearly unanimous vote of approval. Two new single-stall facilities were soon added on each floor of his high school.
“It was overwhelming how many people were happy and excited that this was going to happen. And it made me feel really good that I was making a difference in not just my life, but the life of every single trans student in my school that didn’t feel comfortable.”
Now entering his senior year, Wesdorp isn’t interested in attending college. Instead, he wants to stay in New Paltz to help fight to make schools more trans-friendly—like adding gender-neutral changing rooms for gym classes and securing an easier way for students to use their preferred names and pronouns.
“Don’t second guess yourself,” he encourages. “You are the only person who knows who you are.”
C Mandler, 22
C Mandler finds it frustrating to be part of the generation often dismissed as slacktivists. “I try and translate the work that I do in real life to social media, rather than the other way around,” they explain.
A senior double-majoring in philosophy and writing at Bard College, 22-year-old Mandler is fresh off an internship at GLAAD, which also awarded them a Rising Stars grant. They’re now carving out time to make the Root Cellar, Bard’s popular music venue, a safe space for queer people of color.
“As a white person, I have a responsibility to make sure that we’re not just saying we’re a safe space, but we’re actually doing what we need to do to actually be a safe space.”
Mandler is working to find talent, create original programming, and provide a place of gathering for LGBT people.
“My work isn’t just my work—it’s an intrinsic part of who I am. I am part of the trans community and you take the stuff home with you,” they say. “It’s really hard to divorce activism from everything else.”
Mandler, who grew up in a fairly affluent, liberal New York family, says having privilege allows them to be a voice for change.
“When trans women of color are facing higher homicide rates every year, it’s my responsibility to advocate on behalf of people whose safety is at risk when they attempt to advocate for themselves.”
Logan Alcosiba, 18
When Logan Alcosiba came out as transgender at the end of her sophomore year at California’s Newark Memorial High School, she lost some friends. “There was so much misunderstanding going on I knew I had to do something.”
In response, Alcosiba founded Newark High’s LGBTQ+ Support Club and started the now-annual Transgender Presentation that educates teachers and students about the transgender community. In May, Alcosiba was elected as her school’s first trans homecoming queen, an achievement that marked her peers’ evolution on acceptance and visibility.
Last year, Alcosiba became the first person under 18 in Northern California to undergo gender confirmation surgery, paving the way for other trans minors. Chosen as a 2017 Point Foundation Scholar, she’s currently attending San Francisco State University. Though she is unsure what career path she wants to take after graduation, Alcosiba set her sights on the humanities: “I’m not certain what I want to do, but I know it has to be about helping other people, so I thought, Hey, I’ll just learn about people first.”