Heidy Rodriguez, 17, created an LGBTQ support group at her Miami-Dade high school when she realized that like her, many of her friends needed a place to share their struggles and successes.
“My main concern was seeing kids who don’t have a safe space,” she said.
But Rodriguez said in addition to support, LGBTQ youth and adults need stronger laws and policies that support their needs.
This summer, she was one of several high school students who participated in the Changemakers Summer Program, a week-long workshop for LGBTQ youth about the legal system.
“If we don’t start with these kids and understanding the law, we are really setting them for not being engaged citizens,” said Allison Matulli, executive director of Legal Kid, who taught the classes.
Matulli said the workshop is designed to empower young people to use their voices and their personal stories to create change. They learned about the basic language of the legal system, hate crimes and how to challenge laws that are not equitable.
One of the cases the students studied was Plessy V. Ferguson, a U.S. Supreme Court case that upheld separate but equal laws in 1896. The case stemmed from a man who appeared white but was one-eighth black. He refused to sit in the segregated blacks-only rail cars and was arrested. Plessy believed his constitutional rights had been violated, but the courts ruled that racial segregation was legal.
That case was an example of how laws can be used to uphold discrimination, but Matulli said it’s also a lesson that people have to challenge and work to change existing laws.
Rodriguez, the high school student, said she wants to use what she’s learned to change gendered bathrooms in South Florida public schools. For transgender and gender non-conforming young people, she said it makes sense to have gender-neutral bathrooms.
“It’s a simple policy like that can change people’s lives,” she said.