Republicans Attacked These Queer Students’ Lives. So They Fought Back.

Republicans Attacked These Queer Students’ Lives. So They Fought Back.

Republicans Attacked These Queer Students’ Lives. So They Fought Back.

How three Kentucky high schoolers joined forces to stand up to a GOP assault on their rights—and brought hundreds of people along with them.

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Kenzie Roller took a deep breath as they approached the stage microphone. It was Wednesday, March 29, and Roller, a high school senior from Louisville, Ky., had traveled to the state capitol in Frankfort so that they could be here, on this stage, to kick off the rally that they had spent the last 19 days planning. The message they had to share was as clear as day: Senate Bill 150—legislation that dramatically limits the rights of queer and trans youth in Kentucky—would harm them, their closest friends, and their entire community.

Minutes earlier, Roller had waded through a crowd of hundreds to find the annex steps that would lead them to the platformed stage. Behind them, two large transgender flags covered the entirety of the back wall. In front of them, the crowd chanted its support, full of pride and rage. This was the moment Roller had been working for: the moment to prove to Kentucky legislators that queer youth deserve to be treated like human beings with the right to self-determination.

Three weeks before, Roller hadn’t even been particularly interested in politics, let alone activism. Now, they’d pulled off a feat of organizing that many adults would envy. As they looked out at the crowd, they refused to let their nerves get the best of them. They took another deep breath, exhaled, and began, “This is a poem I wrote about my experience of discovering I was queer.”

From a young age, Roller knew that they were attracted to people of the same gender, but their private feelings became public when they were forcibly outed in the eighth grade. Luckily, their parents gave them their full support.

It was only about a year ago that Kenzie began to also publicly use they/them pronouns. The moment of acceptance stemmed from a job interview. In Kenzie’s interview process, they were asked which pronouns they’d like to be used for them at work.

“I was finally brought home to a place that loved me for who I was,” Roller told me. But they added, “Finally choosing to be open about my pronouns hasn’t been an easy experience for me…. not a lot of people respect it and even the people closest to me choose not to use them. In high school, it never goes over well when it comes to meeting new people. Telling people to use them and then correcting them when they misgender me usually turns heads.”

In early March, Roller was sitting in their debate class at Pleasure Ridge Park High School in Louisville when they overheard some students voicing support for SB 150. Though they were broadly aware that queer youth were under attack across the country, Roller said the extent of the problem had passed them by. “For my own sanity and comfortability of going out, I tried to not get involved or look into all of these cases as I was not doing well mentally,” they said.

Because of this, Roller hadn’t even known about SB 150. But what they discovered horrified them. The legislation bans gender-affirming care, including puberty blockers, hormones, and surgery, for anyone under 18. In an echo of Florida’s infamous “Don’t Say Gay” law, it also bars public school teachers from discussing gender identity or sexual orientation.

As disturbed as Roller was, they kept their feelings to themselves. But on March 10, a Senate subcommittee added an amendment to the legislation that allowed teachers to disregard a student’s request to use their preferred pronouns. For Roller, it was now as if the rights of queer and trans Kentucky youth were diminishing amendment by amendment. Discussion among both advocates and opponents of the bill occurred again, but this time in Roller’s creative writing class with their classmate Madison Yates, a junior, by their side.

“One of my closest friends in the world is transgender. As soon as he heard the news, he confided in me how scared he was. ‘I’m never going to be able to transition,’ he told me. I felt heartbroken. I knew I had to do something,” Yates said.

“I was suddenly being reminded of all of these instances of attack against queer people and then seeing the bill move forward pushed me to get involved,” Roller said.

Despite having very little history of political involvement, Yates and Roller felt compelled to act. They found their senior friend Africa Iteka, and Roller proposed the idea of a school walkout. Iteka was in.

The young queer trio approached their principal, Sheri Duff, with a detailed proposal of a school walkout in which the three would lead a group of students out into the campus courtyard for a one-to-two-hour rally. Duff was impressed, but not completely sold.

Roller said the principal had logistical concerns. How would they get students back in the building? Were teachers expected to excuse these absences? Who would supervise? The trio came back with answers to these questions, but by this point, Duff had a different idea.

“We had the whole thing planned,” Roller said, “We had a set schedule printed out page by page, and as we were reading it to [our principal], she stopped us and was like, ‘I don’t even know why you did all of this. I had a meeting. And instead of the walkout, [the administration] think it’s a good idea to send y’all to the capital and host a rally there.’” (Duff declined a request to comment.)

Roller stared back at their principal. They had never even been to Frankfort—let alone spoken or led a rally there. But they, along with Yates and Iteka, dove in.

“We’re just trying to go to school, get an education, have happy lives, and love who we want to. Why are [lawmakers] trying to stop that?” Iteka told me.

The trio quickly started spending all of their time planning the rally, using their free class periods to call legislators and study crowd control procedures. They got a lot of help—several teachers pitched in, as did organizers from the Fairness Campaign, a leading LGBTQ rights group in Kentucky. (They decided not to tell most people at school about the rally following some negative comments from opposing students.)

They started a Facebook group, “Teen Frankfort Rally (March 29),” where they invited everyone they knew. Those people then invited everyone they know; soon, there were almost 800 Kentuckians planning to travel to Frankfort to protest SB 150.

Roller managed the Facebook group. Iteka mastered the scheduling. And with assistance from the Fairness Campaign, Yates sourced their wide slate of speakers, including Kentucky state Senators Dr. Karen Berg and Reggie Thomas and Kentucky House members Rachel Roberts, Keturah Herron, Chris Hartman, and Pamela Stevenson.

“We had connections and people who chimed in to help reach out so we could have some pressure taken off of us while we planned everything. It was exciting to hear that Pamela was coming and felt surreal to be able to reach out and plan with people who had such higher power than just a couple teens,” said Roller. (“I was so excited to hear from the students of Park Ridge High School,” Stevenson told The Nation. “That’s the leadership that this world counts on. If democracy is going to continue to exist, we need them.”)

The trio settled on Wednesday, March 29, for the date of the rally. This coincided with a legislative session in which Kentucky Republicans, who hold super-majorities in both chambers of the state legislature were expected to overturn Beshear’s veto of SB 150.

The trio’s parents were supportive, but Yates’ father had a pointed question.

“My dad asked me, ‘You’re not trans yourself, so why are you going out and joining the fight?’ and it certainly wasn’t in a mean way, but he needed me to be sure about why I was doing this. I realized then that I’m doing this to make sure that the kids who maybe don’t have the opportunity or ability to speak out have some way to be heard. I’m doing this to make sure our voices aren’t forgotten,” Yates said.

The night before the rally the Facebook group was buzzing with activity, the schedule was set in stone, and the speakers were all confirmed, but the three had no idea what would actually happen the next day, or if people would even show up. On the day of, Kentuckians arrived in the hundreds.

“When we were even just a few blocks away, we could already hear the chants from hundreds of people who gathered to protest. It was an incredibly positive energy, and I felt such an adrenaline rush walking up to the annex steps. I was just wowed by how many people in our community came out to support the youth.” said Iteka.

“As soon as Kenzie got up to the podium to give their speech, that was the moment it all became so real. All these people were cheering and shouting for our rights and our future. It was young people. It was older people. Everyone really cared,” said Yates.

Yates and Iteka opted to allow Kenzie to share their story among other queer and trans Kentucky youth directly affected by the bill’s prohibitions while they instead emceed the event. Kenzie recounts the opportunity as one of the most unforgettable experiences of their life.

“They had to basically drag me up there. I was so nervous. I looked out and saw the crowd. These people were hyped up and I could not match the energy. I took a big deep breath, and as soon as I started talking, I realized how incredibly supportive these people were, many of them strangers. It was so empowering to share my words as a young queer person living in such a deeply red state. I’ll never forget it,” said Roller.

Representative Stevenson also spoke at the rally. A video of her speech went viral on TikTok. “I got millions of responses from around the world, in different languages in every state and people want the same thing. They want their life to matter. They want to be heard, and they just want to live. We answered every single one of those e-mails. We needed to let them know it’s gonna be all right,” Stevenson said.

But Kentucky Republicans were not moved. The state Senate voted 29-8 to overturn Governor Andy Beshear’s veto of SB 150.

“Not a single nationally recognized medical society supports what we are doing today,” Kentucky state Senator Karen Berg, whose trans son Henry died by suicide in 2021, said at the legislative session. “The misinformation is appalling.”

Roller said that the veto was unsurprising, but that didn’t make it hurt less.

“They say they presented and passed the bill for the children of Kentucky, but it’s never been about the children. It’s about power and oppression and finding new ways to suppress people who are different from them. I was so disappointed,” they said.

Following the rally, Roller’s Facebook group was infiltrated by several vehemently anti-LGBTQ supporters of SB 150. Roller fought back in the replies, and they want to keep fighting. So do a lot of other queer and trans Kentucky youth who are determined to protect their communities, their schools, and themselves.

One of those people is Lexi Voris, a 20-year-old student at Eastern Kentucky University. Voris organized another rally outside the state capitol on April 8.

“I immediately knew that if there were going to be protests on the 29th, we would have to continue protesting and show legislators that we’re not going anywhere. We refused to lose momentum. In two weeks, it all came together so fast. People really care about this issue,” said Voris.

Hundreds of Kentuckians showed up again. Among them was Sam, an eighth-grade student at Westport Middle School who spoke at the rally. Having recently started puberty blockers, he said that SB 150 “terrifies” him and that “to have adults toy with [his] future and [his] rights, like it’s nothing” proved that his own state was working against him.

“The rally was beautiful,” said Voris. “Our power was undeniable. I was overwhelmed by all of the love and support I saw from my community.”

Roller said they hope the groundswell of activism can show younger queer and trans people that there is a community in Kentucky ready and waiting to welcome them in. They don’t want to get involved directly in politics, but they know there’s no going back from this level of engagement with what’s happening to queer Kentuckians.

That’s how Iteka feels too. “I want to be a teacher when I get older,” they said. “I don’t want to enter a workforce where some students feel uncomfortable to come to school, because for a lot of people, school is their safe space. It’s a space where they get to be themselves without fear of repercussions from their parents or their families. In some ways, it’s the first place they can be free—free to be exactly who they are.”

Correction: This piece initially misspelled Madison Yates’ last name as Gates. It has been updated.

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