How to Advocate for LGBTQ+ Youth and Young Adults in Rural Communities

Laurel Shugart
Laurel Shugart

I have learned firsthand how difficult it is to be authentically yourself living in an area that simply does not support that. I was born and raised in a typical rural Alabama town. A population of 14,000 created that “everyone knows everyone” atmosphere where anything outside the social norm was hard to hide and typically shunned. Everyone’s journey with acceptance and coming out is different, and the shared ideals of my community shaped mine significantly. The struggle of hiding such a critical part of my identity, paired with a lack of accessible mental health resources in Alabama, led to the lowest point in my life to date. However, it also inspired me to advocate for systemic change by amplifying the voices and stories of LGBTQ+ youth and young adults who, like me, lacked a safe space to be authentically themselves. 

It is critical to focus specifically on historically oppressed communities regarding mental health because the resources publicly available in many states aren’t designed for the needs of these marginalized groups. I experienced that firsthand. That’s why, after coming out publicly years later, I made a conscious effort to foster spaces in my community where other youth like me could thrive. I realized my voice was enough to spark change, and yours is too. 

Through the Active Minds Mental Health Academy, I obtained the resources needed to begin building a platform of my own that I could utilize to make advocacy accessible. Anyone can be an advocate, but I didn’t know that until I worked with Active Minds. I heard the word advocacy and felt that it was too big of a role for me to fill, and I didn’t think that the story I had to share would be valuable to anyone else. However, my perspective has changed thanks to my time in the Academy. I recently launched my new platform, Speak Out (@spk.out), created at the intersection of advocacy and technology and specifically designed to amplify the voices of other advocates. I know that if I had heard another young queer person speak on their journey when I was struggling that it would have given me just a bit of light in a dark time. For any high schooler wanting to step into the advocacy world, the first step is to recognize the power your voice and your story hold and then start to share them. 

During Pride Month, we are especially aware of how critical the communities we build for ourselves as queer youth are, even when they’re being attacked. Our unique stories bind us together, and a shared identity within the LGBTQ+ community only makes us stronger. During this month, it certainly feels like a spotlight of criticism and intolerance is pointed directly at us, whether it be in person or plastered on social media. I advise anyone wanting to contribute to a safer, healthier, and more accepting world outside of Pride Month to share your story on your terms. I believe that when someone in the position and safety to share their story uses it to inspire others, the world changes one step at a time. To build a better world for LGBTQ+ youth and young adults everywhere, we must push our voices into the world and actively advocate for change. Your story has the power to shake the roots of your community, and ultimately the more we mobilize and make resources accessible to queer youth, the stronger our community becomes.