This has been a period of intense change for everyone. Whether you are working from home, going to school online, or finding ways to spend time while in quarantine, this pandemic has been hard on all of us. As a planet, we’ve been forced to adjust to big changes and an emerging new reality, and many of us are still trying to find ways to cope.

This is especially true in the case of LGBTQI+ communities. Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, young people identifying as LGBTQI+ were already among the world’s most vulnerable. In many countries, they faced significant challenges, from denial of human rights to everyday offensive stereotyping. Although significant progress has been made, and continues to be made, the virus and ensuing lockdown has put many lives and livelihoods at risk, with various outlets and organizations, such as OHCHR, fearing the worst and calling for special measures to be taken to protect these vulnerable communities.

It is in times like these that people show their true colors, and, fortunately, I have not been disappointed. Despite the fear and uncertainty ahead, the world is seeing countless LGBTQI+ youth stepping forward and doing their best in support of their communities, ensuring that they remain safe, empowered and happy.

In honor of the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia on May 17th, it is my privilege to highlight the work of the following young people. Through education, advocacy, material support and the arts, these young people are selflessly finding ways to help their communities through this trying time as we all continue into the unknown.

It can be difficult to not know what is ahead but seeing displays of communal love and support warm my heart and give me hope that things will indeed get better. I hope that reading these stories make you feel the same.

1. Georgia (Czech Republic) – Supporting LGBTQI+ youth through bullying awareness

Bullying is a serious issue in schools around the world, with LGBTQ+ youth often being the most impacted group. Georgia Hejduková, a 20-year-old high school student from the Czech Republic, is acutely aware of this. About a year and a half ago, Georgia realized that there was little awareness of bullying on social media channels and sought to find ways to inform people and support people who had been bullied. Motivated by her own experiences of being bullied and her passion in advocation for human rights, she founded Zastavme šikanu (“Stop Bullying”), an organization that aims to raise awareness of and develop solutions to stop bullying in schools and support LGBTQ+ youth as well. Before the outbreak of COVID-19, Georgia visited schools in her area, hosting and giving talks about bullying, how it can affect mental health, and how to address the issue. Due to the stay at home order, she has been forced to scale back her work, but refuses to give up: moving online, Georgia has been sharing information on social media and hosting webinars and virtual lectures. Although, with schools being closed, bullying is not the main issue on everyone’s mind, she does not want things to go back to how they were before once children return to school.

2. Diversxs (Chile) – Empowering LGBTQI+ youth through activism, education, and a platform

Often, discriminatory behaviour is a result of engrained social attitudes. This is seen in some parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, where LGBTQI+ communities suffer from discrimination, violence and isolation simply because of their sexual orientations and gender expressions. In an effort to support these communities, several members of Amnesty International’s Diversity team formed Diversxs, an activism project that aims to promote the human rights of LGBTQI+ youth through education and empowerment. Since 2018, Diversxs has been organizing workshops to empower young activists to advocate for themselves, sensitivity trainings for schools and universities, and protests against violations of their human rights. Inspired by this work, Ethan Langenegger, a young Chilean activist, joined the group in September 2019. He explains that Diversxs’ horizontal structure allows for members to have equal participation and impact, fostering a community mentality. Ethan has supported Diversxs’ social media accounts, which have been key during their transition to online work in light of COVID-19. They have moved much of their activism online and have launched an online course titled “Mobilizing diversity”, which aims to promote learning in the field of Human Rights and Sexual Diversity.

3. Amanda (Uganda) – Changing narratives, sensitizing her community and advocating for LGBTQI+ rights

“Someone must stand up and speak out against any form of discrimination affecting LGBTIQ persons in accessing equal treatment and services. If no one can do this then who will?” These words outline the motivation behind Kamanda Bosco’s work. Kamanda, AKA Amanda is a Ugandan human rights defender who has been advocating for minority groups particularly LGBTIQ persons through online and in person advocacy and work. Kamanda is a UNFPA She Decides 25×25 young leader on sexual and reproductive health rights and also part of the UN Women Beijing +25 youth task force advancing gender equality. She is also the co-chair of inclusion and diversity with the Society of Gender Professionals (SGP). A civic graduate of the Young African Leadership Initiative (YALI), she is accredited with a UN ECOSOC status as a human rights council task force co-chair. She has worked with the youth coalition for sexual and reproductive Rights (YCSRR). Despite the outbreak of COVID-19, she has not slowed down. She is currently working at Transgender Equality Uganda as a program assistant and was recently selected to be an Outright action international UN religious fellow for 2020. Through these roles, she has been working to change narratives on social inclusion in Africa, working to defy and dispel stereotypes surrounding LGBTQI+ people by conducting sensitization trainings, contacting legislators, and encouraging collective action and support.

4. Milton (Puerto Rico, USA) – Paying it forward: Spreading love to his community                

Growing up, many LGBTQI+ youth are led to believe that their sexual orientation is “not right” and find it difficult to gain support from those around them. Milton Rodriguez, a Puerto Rican student in the Master of Public Health Education program at the University of Puerto Rico, wants to provide his community with the support it needs. Although he was familiar with this discrimination, he cites one important and unconditional supporter who made a world of difference: his mother. When she died, he was inspired to share the love that he received by engaging in LGBTQI+ activism and empowerment through work with the Alliance of Queer Diversities on his campus and an LGBTQI+ education and advocacy Sex Team, aiming to create safe spaces and provide resources for members of his community. With the support of his mentors, Souhail Malavé and Carlos Rodríguez, Milton has been leading emergency responses during the COVID-19 crisis, providing this support to youth who are quarantining in unsafe spaces, transgender people, older members of the community, and offering sexual health support to those who are in need. Raising awareness through social media campaigns and educational material, Milton and his team have been able to reach thousands of people online and have had their work featured in newspapers and blogs. Milton is also a member of Amnesty International’s Diversxs initiative.

5. The Trevor Project (USA) – Providing Crisis Intervention & Suicide Prevention Services to LGBTQI+ Youth

For youth across the globe, isolation and lack of support can be fatal. Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among youth from ages 10 to 24 around the world, and LGBTQI+ youth are almost three times more likely to commit suicide. The Trevor Project aims to keep American LGBTQI+ youth under 25 from becoming a part of this statistic and have been working to ensure that they stay true to this mandate, even amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Every day, members of The Trevor Project’s advocacy team engage in legislation and education to protect youth. One of their ground-breaking initiatives, the 50 Bills 50 States campaign, has persisted, for instance, through videos, articles, and an interactive map. This campaign is the largest aiming to protect LGBTQI+ youth from conversion therapy, targeting such programs in every American state and across the globe. They have also published a white paper and blog posts on the Implications of COVID-19 for LGBTQ Youth Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, outlining the ways that social distancing, economic strain and increased anxiety brought upon by the coronavirus have been impacting LGBTQI+ Youth.

6. Miguel Pinto (Colombia) – Offering support and empowerment

While many of us struggle to find ways to pass the time and keep our spirits up while in quarantine, people around the world do not have access to basic needs and support. Miguel Pinto, the Representative for the Latina America and Carribbean region at the ILGA World Youth Committee wants to make sure that these people are cared for. Before the pandemic, his work mainly involved him working in the public sector of Cúcuta, Colomia, specifically making sure to support young people and their needs. Now, he has been finding ways to keep to this mandate. In addition to organizing and conducting food deliveries, Miguel and his team offer emotional and psychosocial support to underserved youths in his community. He has also been using virtual platforms to promote youth participation and action, empowering and reminding young people to fight for their rights, even during times of crisis.

7. YA_ALL (India) – Building a community

Founded on the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia in 2017, Ya_All (pronounced “Yawol”) is the first queer led and focused Youth Network in Manipur state in North East India. Founded as a secret WhatsApp group to support the region’s LGBTQI+ community, increased stigmatization and violence inspired its members to change into a visible support group, becoming a registered youth network in 2019. Ever since, they have organized several initiatives, such as mental health and SRHR workshops and the foundation of the safe space “Meitram”, the first co-working and networking space owned and run by queer individuals in India. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, they have added the KHUDOL (Gift) initiative, a program aiming to provide families and youth with various health needs. Mobilizing a network of 100 volunteers, they have provided around 2000 families and individuals with over 1000 health kits, 6500 sanitary pads and 1500 condoms.

8. Kat Louis (Canada) – Healing through the arts

Following periods of trauma and difficulty, art can be used to heal and empower, providing people with communities, outlets and safe spaces to express themselves. Kat Louis, a healer, community organizer, and artist, and other members of Montreal’s Queer and Trans Black, Indigenous, People of Color community (QTBIPOC) had been finding it difficult to find creative spaces for them to express themselves and be understood fully. They found that the spaces organized by members of the city’s mainstream LGBTQI+ communities did not address their entire realities, and the need to have spaces for QTBIPOC artists to heal and support each other became more apparent. This led to the creation of Fruition, a creative collective that provides safe, inspiring and communal spaces for queer, trans, black and indigenous youth of color. They organized open mic nights, workshops and discussions, but when the crisis hit, they were forced to stop all of their operations. But, Kat, who will be starting her master’s in creative arts therapy this September, understood the importance of art and expression during times like these, and Fruition found ways to continue their work: they began by sharing links to support resources, and now have been working to move their mental health workshops, talks and creative spaces online using Zoom. “Even though it’s not food delivery, it’s important to provide spaces for people to still be able to come together and engage in things that bring them joy” explains Kat, adding “We think that it’s important to facilitate discussions because people think they’re alone. It helps people in the community not only feel like they’re not alone, but also sensitizes people and helps us collectively find solutions”.

9. Flor Paltri (Argentina) – Strength in Unity

Although we may feel more isolated than ever, times like these show us that there is really strength in unity. This is the idea that motivates Flor Paltri’s work in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Through the “Orgullo y Lucha” network (an organization that brings together over 30 LGBTI organisations from all over Argentina), Flor, a non-binary feminist, is helping to carry out a campaign to support LGBTQI+ community. Named “We Take Care of Ourselves” the campaign raises funds to buy and distribute food and supplies to members of the LGBTQI+ community who are in need. A special focus is placed on trans people, who are the most affected by the pandemic and by the effects of the subsequent exclusion.

10. Sofia Jimenez Poire (Mexico) – Supporting LGBTQI+ Youth

While being in quarantine protects us and others from an unmanageable spread of the virus, for many, it also brings up other risks. Members of the LGBTQI+ community, for instance, may face a particular set of concerns. Many reports show that LGBTQI+ youth could have a higher risk of experiencing anxiety and suicide especially due to potential issues stemming from being confined with family members who may not accept them. Sofía Jiménez Poiré, a Mexican activist and SheDecides 25×25 Young Leader, has been working to help people trapped in these situations. Using her experience supporting women and children who have suffered domestic and intimate partner violence, she is using her current platform as coordinator of Balance’s Sexual Identity programme to help LGBTQI+ youth cope with the stigma, abuse, and domestic violence that they experience due to their sexual orientation and gender identity.