A ninth grader in Mission, Texas is bringing a queer youth conference to his rural hometown after winning a $10,000 grant from the nonprofit group the It Gets Better Project.
Marz Gamez told TODAY that he was inspired to apply for one of the LGBTQ advocacy group's "50 States, 50 Grants, 5,000 Voices" initiative after learning about them from his club advisor Alexander Hernandez and seeing the program advertised online.
The initiative, in partnership with American Eagle, aims to provide fifty grants to student projects.
Gamez, the president of the Warrior Prism Alliance, the school’s equivalent of a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) group, said the students decided to do a conference because of how small their own community is.
"(In our town) you know most people, coming into this whole entire school," Gamez said. "It's really difficult to just present ourselves to our parents, because they have this cultural division ... The (conference) will provide a safe space and support for everybody."
Hernandez, the school’s advanced placement computer science teacher and faculty leader of the Warrior Prism Alliance, said that the conference isn't just for kids.
"Our goal is to be able to create a bigger space, to have a conversation, to be able to learn from each other ... to just help create a stronger support system throughout the region," Hernandez said.
Hernandez said that the grant isn’t the only way the club is making a change at their small school. The alliance has taught students about influential members of the LGBTQ community, held events to discuss representation and community building and more.
Justin Tindall, director of programs and operations at the It Gets Better Project, said other grants have been provided to schools in 40 states around the country, as well as the District of Columbia. The winners were selected from a pool of 128 applications. The applications were for everything from the establishment of gender-inclusive closets (where students can access clothes that match their gender identity on their school campus), the construction of gender-inclusive restrooms or the creation of GSAs.
"Every applicant had something different, or a different angle, or a different ideas of how they make it work at their school, which is what makes us really excited," said Tindall. "Rather than the It Gets Better Project going into any given community or school saying, 'This is what you need to do,' The students spoke to us and they said, 'This is what we want to do. This is what we think can make a difference at our schools.'"
During a time of increased legislation targeting LGBTQ people, particularly focusing on youth and schools, Tindall said the grants and the choice they offer are a way to empower students. According to NBC News, nearly 240 anti-LGBTQ bills have been filed in 2022 so far.
Ross von Metzke, director of communications for the It Gets Better Project, brought it all back to the youth, adding that part of the purpose of these 50 grants is to just let kids be kids in a safe environment. As simple as that may be, it also's quite vital.
"So much of the (political situation) is not about education. It's not about bathroom bills. It's not about you know, trans participation in sports, it's just about kind of going after an easy target and trying to dehumanize and diminish them," von Metzke said. "So much of what we do just sort of gives (kids) a platform and a space to just be kids and show everybody how special they are."
CORRECTION (June 27, 2022, 2:59 p.m.): An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Marz Gamez. His first name is spelled Marz, not Mars.