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Project Contrast is my child. Something I care deeply for. I created it from the ground up, and just like raising a child, Project Contrast has many hurdles to overcome and lessons to learn from the world during its period of transition and growth.
As you may know, Project Contrast was originally created to raise awareness of the astoundingly high suicide rate in my home state of Utah. In Utah, the population of Mormons and strict religious households is high, but the suicide rate is even higher. For the state, suicide is the number 1 cause of death for children between the ages of 10 and 17, and although the state won't admit that its self-made homophobia is a contributing factor, the writing is on the wall for the children who are part of the LGBTQ+ community.
The internalized homophobia and countless other internalized fears are hiding beneath smiles, laughter, and youth, bubbling under the surface, begging to be heard. My project aims to change that.
Furthermore, these cookie-cutter renditions of Utah's culture need to change.
With the success of two series in Utah alone, we have now branched out to states with the same epidemic or a close second. What we have learned from and taken from our newest journey was unexpected, important, and moving.
Organically, my project grew into a platform for LGBTQ+ youth to share their stories, use their voices, and become advocates in their local communities. We have aimed to educate these young people that there is someone in the world just like them. Once they realize that they're lending their hands to those in need by sharing stories of struggles that end triumphantly, they're vocal about their experiences. Some do not end triumphantly but still blister with strength and hope. After their stories are told, the children give advice to each other on what to do next -- not in the future (although it does get better) but now. What about now? What can they do now to feel safe, happy, and loved? This is what we aim to provide at Project Contrast.
The astounding and lingering lessons we've learned from these children are what we aim to share with you. Throughout our journey to five more states -- Alaska, Colorado, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Wyoming -- the resilience of these communities has given me a message to deliver to the rest of the world.
You want to know what it is like to actually be gay in this country? You won't find it on television or even in a heartwarming online article. No, to know what it is really like you must go to places like Rapid City, S.D., Cheyenne, Wyo., Colorado Springs, Colo., Anchorage, Alaska, and even Provo, Utah. These places show what it is actually like to be a queer youth in today's America. Have you ever once thought about any of these LGBTQ+ communities? Probably not.
These communities need to be heard. These teenagers need to know they're not alone. And not only that we are here for them, but that their teenage peers in their community are here for them. Project Contrast wants to give children from all reaches of the U.S. a voice and platform to tell everyone else that there is still so much work to do, that we're not out of the woods yet. While there are many organizations that aim to do the same, the difference is we are the active soldiers on the field.
That is what they have all taught me.
Our previous goal still stands. To lower suicide rates, educate, listen, and share stories, but now we are reaching for higher expectations, and this new series of 68 new LGBTQ+ youth is here to begin the conversation.
I have never put so much blood, sweat, and tears into a project, and regardless of where this reaches, I will be ready to give LGBTQ+ youth my platform to begin their journey as advocates. We will be ready to help children from all around the nation shout loudly about what it is like to be gay where they're from.
Project Contrast will be there for them. They are not alone. And if you're one of "them" that I speak about, know that you are loved. You have a family, and there are countless individuals just like you!
If you are reading this article and following our journey I ask only four things.
1. If you are in Los Angeles, please come to our art exhibit, showcasing the stories from this next series. This will be open starting August 25 for one week only. This will be held at M + B Photo in Los Angeles.
2. Help spread the word. Help spread this project and help spread these voices so someone in some small state in a small town who feels alone may stumble upon these stories and feel stronger.
We will also be selling our new book on our website, with 234 pages of LGBTQ+ stories.
3. "Project Contrast (Love Yourself)" by Garrett Garfield. If you like the song in the video, please purchase it on iTunes.
All proceeds go toward Project Contrast. This is an original song written, produced, and sung by the talented Garfield, also a Utah native who I am so glad to have on board for our project and our new anthem.
4. Donate. As we are an official 501(c)3 nonprofit, you can donate to make the gallery a bigger possibility and to help me reach future states. To donate you can simply visit our website and click under the donate button.
Thank you to everyone. You are loved.
Cortny (Mom) & Zelda (My Child)
We always knew that Zelda was different, that there was something incredibly special about her. I call her my rainbow child. As Zelda's mom, I struggled to reconcile the black-or-white views I was raised to never question with the reality of gender diversity. Growing up, every issue was a moral issue. Having Zelda as a daughter has helped me to see the many beautiful colors and spectrums of identity that color this world.
Since kindergarten, Zelda has literally left a trail of glitter and sequins everywhere she goes. The first time Zelda tried to tell my partner and me that she was a girl on the inside was when she was 3 years old. It was Halloween, and Zelda desperately wanted a costume that included a dress and tutu. We bought her the tutu and dress but also bought her an Iron Man costume and told her she could only wear the dress at home. I tried to explain my reasoning to her, telling her that I wanted to protect her from people who might say or do mean things because they just didn't understand.
At the age of 4, during bath time, Zelda asked me why she had a penis and when it would "change to the thing girls have." Zelda shared that she felt like "a girl on the inside". My partner and I didn't have the tools or the understanding to support and affirm Zelda's gender identity, so we did what we thought was the right thing -- we allowed her to have a few stereotypical girls' clothes and shoes, but would not allow her to wear them to school.
Zelda has always loved pink, purple, and bright neon colors. Even her "boy things" were as feminine as she could find. When Zelda started her second-grade year, she refused to get her hair cut and stated that she would only go back-to-school shopping if she could "go into the girls' section". We tried every incentive we could think of to talk her into a haircut, and getting the usual boys' clothes, but she was not having it. Zelda started having terrible emotional meltdowns, crying, almost hyperventilating several times over the course of two weeks.
My partner and I realized we needed help, that we didn't have the tools or knowledge we needed to help Zelda. We went to the New Mexico Transgender Resource Center (NMTGRC) and attended a Parents of Transgender and Gender-Expansive Kids Playgroup. At the play group, we met an amazing advocate and co-director of NMTGRC named Adrien Lawyer. He let me say everything that was on my heart -- even things I said out of ignorance, things I'm embarrassed to say I believed at that time. Then Adrien very gently educated my partner and me. It was like our eyes were opened to a reality we hadn't realized was there the entire time.
After that first play group, we took Zelda to the store and let her pick out a new wardrobe. Every piece of clothing had a combination of glitter, sequins, rainbows, neon leopard print, or pink and/or purple. We stopped censoring her altogether, and she went to school the next Monday in a dress, with a huge stripped purple flower in her hair. Zelda's emotional meltdowns stopped immediately, but the bullying at school had only just begun.
I came out 3 1/2 times before I got it right as a bisexual transgender male. It was all slightly right in the sense of "something is wrong so I'm going to slap a label on it for as long as I can until it becomes uncomfortable." But it always led to a relationship ending, because I felt uncomfortable with either my gender expression or sexuality. None of my exes appreciated that, even if I didn't explicitly tell them why. They knew something was different by the end, but unfortunately it was always me who ended the relationship because I was scared of hurting them and hurting myself.
Going back to eighth grade, I came out as bi. I didn't even think about gender back then; I didn't even know it was a thing. By my sophomore year I thought maybe I was genderfluid and told three friends, but I soon got into a relationship with a guy who saw me as female, so I ignored most of my feelings for almost a year. It wasn't the best thing to do. Pro tip: Don't let other people decide who you are. It doesn't help anyone.
By the end of that relationship I was sitting in a whirlpool of self-hate and depression. I couldn't look at my body and I didn't want to think about my sexuality. Everything hurt. I remember the first time I legitimately saw myself as male; I was straightening my hair and I looked in the mirror and thought, You're a guy, why are you straightening your hair? I stopped what I was doing and looked at myself. All of a sudden, I realized that everything I was doing was forcing me to lie. In April I knew I was trans, but I didn't tell anyone.
When I broke up with my boyfriend I told him I was a lesbian, but it felt wrong and foreign to me. I didn't picture myself as "lesbian" -- it wasn't me -- so "gay" is what I used. Immediately after the breakup I started dating a good friend of mine until the summer. That summer was the start of the worst time of my life. After we broke up I shut down most of my emotions. I couldn't tell what I liked or loved; I became angry with everyone including myself. For about three months I couldn't cry no matter how hard I tried. Through all of this I hid it well and only told one person.
By August I was at my worst. I had started and ended a relationship with a good friend about three times in three weeks, and finally my friend had enough of my mood swings and inability to decide what I wanted. When he told me we couldn't try again, that was the first time I had cried since May. I felt disgusted and alone, as if the world had no plans for me being happy. I specifically remember that as I walked into my house that night, watching the leaves turn different shades of orange and brown as the sky above looked a sullen gray, I thought, I am never going to wake up when I go to sleep tonight.
That was the night I attempted suicide.
I'm still here. After that Tuesday, I went back to school. I saw the world in a new light; everything made me thankful to be alive. The mountains behind the field my band practiced on, the support I found in my friends, the flowers that grew from the cracks in the cement -- all of these things caused me joy.
If I had died, I wouldn't have been able to date my most loving and caring girlfriend, I wouldn't have been able to march in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, and I wouldn't have ever met my puppy, who I now love. There are so many things, I realized, that I'm living for. Even the small things that I never thought about: the end of a book or TV show, getting to eat my favorite meal again, and getting to sleep in my bed with the infinite number of soft blankets I own.
Even with this newfound love I had for life, I understood things weren't perfect; I still wasn't in the body I wanted. Looking at my body in the mirror was close to impossible. It still is.
But change is slow. Last week I changed my name officially. By next month, nothing in my school will have my deadname lurking around in the system. When I log in to a school computer it won't say my deadname, and when a sub calls out my name it won't make my heart drop with anxiety. In less than a month now, I'm going to the doctor for my first talk about testosterone. In less than a year, I'll start looking the way I've always wanted to look.
One thing I've learned on this wild journey is that if I had been successful any of the times I was suicidal, I wouldn't have fully realized how much I value my life. I also wouldn't have gotten into my strongest relationship with the most beautiful girl I have ever known. My life would have been stopped short of the best part, so I keep living.
Suicide. Mental illness. LGBTQ+ rights.
These are some of the most important things to me.
I'm still not really sure how it all happened, how I got so involved in the LGBTQ+ community. It could've been the fact that I was questioning my sexuality or the fact that almost all my friends were in the LGBTQ+ community. All I know is that once I started, I never looked back and will never stop.
Hey! I'm Melly and I'm asexual. It wasn't until my junior year of high school that I came out using the term asexual, because I was embarrassed! I found out about asexuality in ninth grade but never used it due to fear of being laughed at and shamed. All my friends had crushes, dated a lot, and enjoyed talking about sexual things. I've only had 1.5 official crushes (it's a long story; just go with it) and dated here and there, but still felt a little uncomfortable and was never completely sure. That's part of the reason I had half of a crush and the long story behind it. I felt like I had to do it for my peers, friends, and teammates. I wanted to feel like I belonged.
By this time maybe you are reading this and wondering if I am aromantic. While yes, I am on the spectrum, I am such a huge hopeless romantic. I love everything that has to do with love, but the actual thought of dating and the mushy stuff itself is bleh, except for with this one guy.
I finally had the courage to come out, and to my surprise, it went well except for a couple of friends. I was really shocked, and I've met some beautiful aces since then.
On my journey of finding my term, I did endless research, watched videos, and learned as much as I could. In fact, I ended up doing so much research that my friends call me "The Human Dictionary of Sexuality and Gender" and ask me questions about labels and other things. Soon I even had classmates ask me current questions about their identity. I try to spread more awareness and teach people.
Another really important thing to me is mental health, specifically suicide awareness. If you didn't know, Alaska has one of the highest rates of suicide among teens and young adults. I have a deep fear of losing someone to suicide, and seeing what my friends go through in the darkest nights makes my heart cry. I'm so heartbroken that suicide is linked with LGBTQ+ teens. I want to help change that, because no one should ever have to go through it.
Mental health has definitely taken a toll on my life. I've been on and off medication, have almost had to go to a behavioral hospital twice, was on 24-hour watch, and have weird things come and go like jumpiness and light sensitivity, and even a swallowing problem that makes it difficult to eat solid foods.
Just like LGBTQ+ education, there should be more education on mental health, because there is so much a mental illness can do to someone. I find it disgusting how some people ignore it and say they are pretending or whatever. There's so much to learn that can help you or a friend, and maybe even make your relationships stronger and better. Education can do so much for a person, so go on and give it a try.
Here's an uncommon statement: I'm Catholic, but my parents taught me to love everyone and not to judge. They wanted me to be kind to everyone, because we are all his kids and shouldn't hate. Our world is filled with so much hate, but I believe we can change it! I'm trying my best to do that, and I know many other people are each day. Let's bring love to the world.
For those who are struggling right now with finding a term, there are so many out there, and I promise you there are others just like you. Do not feel like you have to put yourself in a box or label yourself. Do whatever makes you happy.
For those who are struggling with suicidal thoughts, I'm sorry you're in a dark place. You may get sick and tired of hearing this, but I promise that things will get better. All I can ask of you right now is to take your time. Take your time in healing and do things that bring you peace. Do not rush; you are allowed to take all the time you need!
Ever since I can remember, I've always been the faggot. I was the faggot of the school bus, I was the faggot of the church, I was the faggot of the workplace. Everywhere I went, people always questioned my sexuality even before I knew what sexuality meant. I grew up thinking that being gay was one of the worst things anyone could possibly be. It was like being a terrorist, a communist, or even worse, a feminist. It had such a negative connotation that even though I somewhat knew that I found boys attractive, I would tell myself repeatedly that I was without a doubt 100 percent straight. I was a normal straight guy who had this very straight habit of starting at other boys for an awkwardly large amount of time.
That's how I was determined to spend the rest of my life -- being a guy's stalker. It seemed like the perfect plan, until November 2013 came along. I was 15 at the time and I met a boy. I met a boy and just staring at him wasn't working anymore. I wanted to talk to him, hug him, and (in a very straight way) kiss him. I eventually found out he was dating a girl from my English class. That of course left me heartbroken until two months later, when I found out he had broken up with his girlfriend and posted a huge text on Facebook coming out as a gay boy. I couldn't contain my excitement. He was the first openly gay boy I had ever known of, and that was my chance to finally talk to him -- so I did. I messaged him. After that first message we then started talking and we talked about everything. We talked about him, we talked about me, and we talked about us.
For about eight months we talked, and then I decided it was about time to finally tell someone I was not as straight as I've been bragging about. Since it was really hard for me to even pronounce the word gay, I told my younger sister I was bi. I didn't know it then, but that moment was the beginning of a nightmare. My sister threatened me, telling me to immediately tell my mom; otherwise she would do it herself. She looked me in the eyes and said, "After Dad left, I thought we were finally gonna have a perfect family again. Thanks for ruining that." I never forgot what she said, and I remember going down the stairs with my hands shaking. I wasn't ready to tell my mom -- I knew she wasn't ready to hear it, and I didn't know how to start or what to actually say.
I walked into the kitchen, and I found my mom facing the stove preparing the family dinner. I told her I had something important to tell her, and that I had to tell her at that moment. I was terrified. I could feel every heartbeat as if my heart was about to jump out of my chest. I don't remember how much time it took me to finally say the words, but I remember being able to slowly say, "I am not attracted to girls." My mom's immediate reaction together with the next four years of my life can only be described as driven by pure despair. I've heard my mom say things like "You think I'm gonna let you screw around, cause that's what these people do, they're all nasty," "There's nothing that can't be achieved through Christ. If you tried hard enough, God would make you straight," "Being cheated on by your father was completely easy compared to what you're making me go through right now," and finally "If I were a gay man, I would want to date a man, not a sissy dressed up as a girl." And I've also seen my mom do things like run a hormonal test on me to see if I had lack of testosterone, take me to a religious psychologist who would help me understand my "true nature," and beat me so desperately with a flip-flop that her nail broke in half, spilling blood on my arms and face while she hit me.
I will never forget that moment. Although I was the one being hit, my mom was the one bleeding. I realized in that moment that I could not hate my mom or my sister. They were products of an institutionalized system of oppression that for centuries made sure that LGBTQ+ individuals across the world would not have the right to even exist. They killed us, tortured us, raped us, and they made my family together with thousands of other families believe that being LGBTQ+ is disgraceful, infamous, and/or sinful. That was the moment I realized I wanted to spend the rest of my life ensuring that no one would ever have to face what I and thousands (if not millions) of LGBTQ+ individuals had to face daily with their families.
Today, I have come a long way with my family and myself personally. They learned to "never let a problem to be solved become more important than a person to be loved," as once said by their favorite religious leader, and we try to be as normal as any other loud Brazilian family can be (not normal at all). Now when it comes to me and my experience with self-acceptance, I have to say it was really hard getting where I am today. There were particular times when I felt like dying would be the only thing that would ever bring me peace. Fortunately, with long years of therapy and the help of intimate friends such as Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, and the queen of all queens Madonna, I learned to love to be alive. I learned that being here and earning my space in society is the best way of showing homophobes exactly why they should hate me, because I will never let their hate destroy me. If there's one thing I could say to every LGBTQ+ kid struggling with self-acceptance right now is that you're a firework, baby, you were born this way, and you better work, bitch, if one day you want to introduce yourself as "Bitch, I am Yvoty Lisvada."