Last year, Jesse, a 15 year-old trans man in Missoula, Montana, was looking for young people like himself. He found them at Youth Forward, EmpowerMT’s after school program for high school aged LGBTQ+ youth.
“Before getting involved, Jesse didn’t have much information about LGBTQ+ issues or the community,” Claire Michelson, EmpowerMT’s Youth Programs Coordinator said. “He felt lost, and didn’t have connections to LGBTQ people his own age. At first, he was scared and nervous about joining in, but he soon found a supportive community.”
With the vision of creating a more just and inclusive society by empowering youth leaders across Montana, EmpowerMT—a 2018 Pride Foundation Community Grants Recipient— stands out as a resource for vulnerable youth and students who need support the most.
In a state with nearly 150,000 square miles and only about one million people, the rural and remote landscape can be challenging for many youth pushed to the periphery. EmpowerMT works to end mistreatment, correct systemic oppression, and strengthen communities with a particular focus on supporting youth who experience additional barriers because of who they are, like LGBTQ youth with disabilities and LGBTQ youth of color.
Over this past year, EmpowerMT has been able to help Jesse navigate coming out as transgender and transitioning. The first year of high school is an uncertain time for most students, and the additional support is especially important for students who are LGBTQ. EmpowerMT helped him connect with allies in school, arrange health class accommodations, and even assisted his parents in navigating the school system.
To gain even more connections and community support, Jesse also attended EmpowerMT’s Youth Leadership Camp.
“At first, camp was terrifying to him, but he ended up really loving it,” Claire remembers. “For the first time, he was able to meet other young people like him and was able to talk openly about the issues he faced in school and the community.”
Since getting involved, Jesse has also grown in his own leadership. He helped found EmpowerMT’s new after-school program for LGBTQ+ elementary and middle school youth and allies called the Be You Crew.
“Jesse has been a calming and compassionate mentor to this group, and for many participants he is the first trans person they have gotten to know,” Claire shares. “He gets to share what he’s learned through EmpowerMT and his own journey.”
Today, Jesse feels more outgoing and confident, and he has grown into a stronger advocate for other LGBTQ and marginalized youth.
“Queer youth deserve the dignity to live safely and authentically,” Claire shares, “and Jesse is one of the incredible queer youth working to make that a reality in Montana.”