Youth in the LGBTQIA+ community raise their voices in unity

A new hope: United Action for Youth Pride group. Photo courtesy of UAY

Iowa City Pride Parade

Downtown Iowa City — Saturday, June 17 at 1 p.m.

The United Action for Youth (UAY) Pride group, along with students and recent UAY graduates, are hoping that pulling together what UAY’s Jamie Ellis a “gay teen mob of awesomeness” to participate in the Iowa City Pride Parade will give young members of the LGBTQIA+ community a greater presence and more recognition.

UAY’s Pride Group meets on Mondays and is open to local junior high and high school students. The group, which is in its 25th year, works to provide a safe place for “like-minded individuals to be themselves and feel good about that,” said Ellis, UAY’s Youth Development Specialist.

Kids who come to the group can explore their identities in a supportive environment. They can also participate in discussions about issues like representations of the LGBTQIA+ community in pop culture, healthy relationships and self-advocating in schools to get peers, teachers and administrators to adopt the names and pronouns they identify with (as well as trickier subjects, like bathroom and locker room usage).

“It’s so important to create spaces that centralize communities,” said Natasha Finnegan-Kennel, a UAY Americorp member. “It’s a support in and of itself, even if the group isn’t doing any particular activities. If someone has a crappy day, having that support as a baseline is important.”

Ellis said that teens can face conflicting expectations from the wider community — being treated like kids, but expected to act like adults — and often don’t have much of a voice. Creating more of a presence in Iowa City’s Pride Parade could help to give teens a space to express themselves and feel validated.

“The idea is to have a big teen gay mob of awesomeness — to say, ‘We exist and we are important and we are nice,’” she said.

Jacob Kinlein, a 2014 graduate of Iowa City West High, created a new group, Iowa City LAYUP (LGBTQIA Area Youth Unity Project) that is working to bring together students from Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) organizations at local junior high and high schools to march in the parade.

“I went to my first Pride parade my freshman year,” Kinlein said. “I was really nervous about going, but it was really fun. It’s a great way to get out in the community and see that support.”

Kinlein was a member of UAY as a student and said it was one of the few places where he felt comfortable and was able to meet more of his peers who held the same interests. He said he was frustrated watching the GSA organizations fall apart after he graduated, lacking communication between groups for planning events, like participation in the Pride Parade.

His ultimate goal, he said, is to help organize the local GSA groups to increase communication between the alliances and UAY, which he said was like a home base for area students. Uniting the various groups could help give local teens a louder voice.
“Youth don’t have a big place in the community and the parade, at least that’s how I felt,” Kinlein said. “My voice was harder to hear because the groups I went to were kind of small.”

Jace Halter, an Iowa City High School student, said he plans to attend the parade, as well as one in Des Moines. Halter has been part of UAY since he was 11 or 12 years old, he said.

“Thanks to UAY I’ve become a completely different person than I was when I was little, and probably would have been if they hadn’t showed me you could be different,” he said.

Halter has participated in the Pride Parade before and said that it is important for young people to be involved.

“It shows all the different faces in the community. It would be really nice if more generations would be involved,” he said.

Michael Menietti, a 2017 graduate of Iowa City High School, also plans to attend the Pride Parade. He said he first started going to UAY events when he was about 12 years old, and was really active in his first two years of high school. This will be his first time marching with UAY in the parade.

“To me representation is very,very important,” Menietti said. “Even if it’s just seeing kids your age in a parade. It helps people know that, ‘Hey, I’m not alone.’ I also think pride parades, especially family-friendly ones ,are very important to help people change their view on the LGBT+ community. It can show that, hey, we’re people too and we deserve respect.”

Lauren Shotwell is Little Village’s News Director. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 222.

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