Esmée Silverman(‘25), co-founder of the Queer Youth Assemble, discusses the group’s origins and their activist philosophy.
Esmée Silverman, a current Reed sophomore, non-binary fem, and religion major, had just graduated from high school when they organized the queer youth community event, “Let Trans Athletes Play.” This event sparked the beginning of an organization Silverman would later go on to co-found, Queer Youth Assemble, a group that has garnished nationwide participation and sparked the interest of news organizations like The Boston Globe and Vice. Currently, the group is organizing a country-wide march scheduled for March 31, 2023.
The original event was in response to the huge swell in anti-trans legislation that was being passed at the time. Silverman, as a former student-athlete in high school, stated that “we were really upset at the amount of steam [the bills] were picking up and, more importantly, the lack of anything being done by major LGBTQ+ organizations.” However, the event was also one dedicated to community building, with queer youth playing games such as basketball, kickball, and cornhole.
This first gathering not only led to the birth of the QYA, but also inspired Silverman to the impact their activism could have on other trans youth. “One of the things that really shocked me and gave me a lot of hope for the future is that there was this four-year-old trans girl there,” Silverman recounts. “She was originally like, you know, I don’t want to be trans… I just want to stay in the closet, I don’t really want to be known as that. And then the second she met me, it’s just like her whole world changed. And eventually, after that, she started getting into activism work…that lit my heart up.” Additionally, Schuyler Bailar, the first openly trans swimmer for the NCAA, spoke at the event.
With the presence of multiple generations of trans athletes and activists, this first event showcased the importance of community and role models among trans and queer youth, a community that many LGBTQ+ kids are deprived of. This need for community is one of the pillars of the Queer Youth Assemble organization, with events such as “Queer Youth on Skateboards” or “Monster Mingle” aimed for the goal of bringing joy to queer youth. This focus on joy is incredibly present in the QYA fundamental goals. Silverman emphasized that “These events are purely for one thing and one thing only: to bring joy to the lives of queer and trans youth, and to help build community.”
Silverman’s dedication to the queer community and queer joy comes from a very personal place, and they state that local groups, like their high school’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance Group, truly saved their life. “We’re community builders” she states, “it’s our primary mission to build community in these areas.”
Other events are more education-based, with the event “Over the Rainbow” discussing drug abuse and honoring those who have passed away due to overdose.
Although QYA is a group dedicated to community building and support of queer youth, it began its stake as a nationwide activity organization in March of 2021 when it organized a nationwide walkout. This walkout was, again, in response to intensifying anti-trans bills.
In fact, 2021 was a staggering year regarding legislation restricting transgender people’s rights and autonomy. While these types of bills began accumulating in 2016, specifically with North Carolina’s “bathroom bill” in March, The Washington Post identified over 131 bills across 34 states in the year 2021 alone, over double the number from the prior year. Many of the bills in 2021 restricted trans women’s autonomy in sports, while others restricted gender-affirming care for trans youth.
Despite QYA only being founded seven months prior, the walkout was incredibly successful, with over 25,000 student participants across 25 states. While this walkout garnered further volunteers and donations for the QYA, Silverman felt unsatisfied. She felt there was a division among queer groups, with each group pursuing their own responses to the bills, which were effective in the short-term, were ineffective long-term. “What we need,” she states, “is a unified response, with the entire country on board…That’s when people start paying attention, that’s when the media starts paying attention, that’s when the people who are coming up with these bills start paying attention. it’s when we’re all unified as one and empowered to stand up and fight these bills together.” After the success of their first march, the QYA began to plan a second, larger march, with the goal of unification at its forefront, with Silverman emphasizing that “We’re trying to unify states. We’re trying to unify the LGBTQ-plus community. We’re trying to unify the country. We’re trying to unify the whole world on the basis of LGBTQ plus safety, autonomy, and joy.”
This current march is planned to occur on March 31, 2023, and while it will be a nationwide effort, Silverman will be traveling to Washington DC to lead the QYA and speak on trans and queer autonomy. The event itself is titled a “March for Queer and Trans Youth Autonomy.” The word choice of “autonomy” has a very particular purpose, with Silverman explaining that common alternatives such as “rights” or “safety,” don’t do justice to what the Trans and Queer movement should be about. “Those words imply such a basic concept that should already, quite frankly, be given,” they argue. As opposed to simply safety or legal equality, the QYA activists have pinpointed “autonomy” as a more appropriate goal. This is reflected in the march’s list of demands (which you can find by scanning the QR code at the end of this article), such as the demand that trans youth be able to begin hormone treatment at 16 without parental consent, the demand that schools create a path for trans students to use their chosen names, or the demand that transgender athletes be allowed to participate on the sports team of their gender identity. As Silverman states, “it’s about the autonomy to make the decisions that best benefit you.”
Of the demands listed, Silverman emphasizes three major ones: 1) The implementation of a Safe School Program for LGBTQ+ youth in every state, 2) The implementation of gender-neutral bathrooms, and 3) the ability for 16-year-olds to receive hormone treatment without parental interference.
In addition to its purposes of unity within the LGBTQ+ community, this march also serves as a conversation starter with those outside of it. Silverman emphasizes that to her, activism is an exercise of radical empathy, and that conversations with those who oppose her, even those who are openly transphobic, are the best vehicles of change. They assert that “the only way I am going to get people on my side is by people talking with me. We have to be open to those conversations, we have to be open to understanding and listening to other people.”
Silverman recounts a particular experience at Boston Pride 2021, where they spoke to an anti-LGBTQ+ protester. Despite this person’s obvious political and philosophical differences from Silverman, she states that she found similarities between the two of them: “we both cared very deeply about our families, we both love our partners to death, we both want to see a better world for our communities.” Despite the unbelievably different viewpoints of this person, viewpoints that would make many feel revolted or afraid, Silverman prides themselves in their deployment of empathy, and found that through conversation and listening, they were able to connect on a human level.
This loyalty to radical empathy, even against those who threaten her very existence, is both staggeringly admirable and controversial. Many have been angry with their persistent dedication to empathize, and with good reason. The Williams Institute cites that LGBTQ+ people are nine times more likely to be the victim of violent hate crimes than non-LGBTQ+ people, so disgust at homophobic and transphobic rhetoric has real, fearful roots. Silverman does emphasize a distinction between plain homophobic rhetoric and violent threats, and agrees that the case of the latter is a very different situation. In the case of the former, however, Silverman encourages everyone to understand and view others as humans, to view them as people raised in different circumstances and environments, and to not lose hope in these people’s capacity for redemption. As she states, “Co-organizers have told me, ‘Don’t give these people sympathy for anything, because they don’t deserve it.’ But I was once there in some ways. I transformed … why are we not giving these people the chance to transform?”
With Silverman’s dedication to conversation and empathy, the march is redefined not only for the purpose of LGBTQ+ unity and community, but also an expansion of that community. An opportunity to open dialogue with those pushing for anti-trans bills, and communicate with them on a clean slate. “What this March is trying to emphasize,” Silverman begins, “is that regardless of where you are, we want to have these conversations with you. We want to advance the best interest of the community, and all of us organizers who are gathering here today are willing to have those conversations with you.”
Silverman ended our conversation with an emphasis on one of their favorite quotes: “Change is never a question of when, it is an answer of now.” They state that this quote helps to remind them that despite the dejected feeling that activists can often experience, that change is unreachable, the act of unification is significant. “That’s why,” they state, “this movement we’re trying to do is not only to unite LGBTQ+ people, we’re trying to unite everybody.” While the Queer Youth Assemble began, and continues in many ways, as a group to unite and provide joy and community to queer and trans youth, it has expanded into a group of nationwide activists, with Emsee Silverman at its forefront with their incredible force of radical empathy.
Participate in the Queer Youth Assemble march on March 31, 2023, by meeting at Tom McCall Waterfront Park at 2 pm. The march will end in Pioneer Courthouse Square.
If you can’t make it to the march, be sure to follow Queer Youth Assemble on Instagram at @queeryouthassemble, and sign their list of demands by scanning the QR code at the right.