How I Became a Student Leader for Equality

Henry-Asher-Seaton

As one of the five Bank of America Student Leaders in Nashville, I spent my summer learning, exploring, growing and challenging myself through a summer internship with the Oasis Center, an organization that helps youth grow, thrive, and create positive change. The Bank of America Student Leaders program recognizes approximately 200 community-minded high school students across the country and connects them to summer employment, skills development and service opportunities.

Until this summer, I thought I knew myself and understood what I was capable of. I also thought I knew what I was passionate about; prior to my experience with the Student Leaders program, a majority of my time and energy was dedicated to making a difference in the local LGBT community through guidance and education. It’s a cause I hold close to my heart because it’s a big part of my life.

Following my sophomore year, I came out as transgender. I finally rejected the long-haired girl who never felt comfortable in her own skin and embraced the person I knew I was: Henry, the confident, artistic boy. Friends re-posted my coming out story over Facebook with statuses and comments in celebration of my transition and bravery. I was welcomed with tremendous love and support, and during that time, I wasn’t worried about going back to school.

I entered my junior year excited to run for the many leadership opportunities within my high school community. My eagerness to do more good, however, was met with dismay; not only did I face tremendous adversity, but I also received death threats for being who I was. The girl in the dress had been loved, appreciated and respected by all of her classmates. I had her same ideas, accomplishments and attitude, but as Henry, I wasn’t welcomed, I wasn’t valued and I wasn’t elected to any of the leadership positions I ran for. Coming from a small, conservative town, I knew I would face judgment at some point, but losing these elections was when the reality of my transition hit me. The discrimination only continued, and I knew something needed to be done.

After weeks of preparation and back-and-forth communication with the administration, my friends and I founded the Human Rights Alliance, an organization that celebrates equality and acceptance in an effort to transform our school into a welcoming learning environment for all students. The instant success of the Human Rights Alliance inspired me to do more, particularly with the local LGBT community. I discovered the “Just Us” program at the Oasis Center, where I befriended and connected with several other LGBT high schoolers. I became a chapter leader for the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network, joined several local pride groups, and petitioned against HB2414, Tennessee’s proposed “bathroom bill.” I did not allow discrimination to hold me back, but used it as an impetus for action.

This summer, I redirected my focus toward volunteering with local youth through my summer internship at the Oasis Center. At the Oasis Center, I taught and mentored young people through the Nashville Scholar’s Academy program. While the program focuses primarily on academic enrichment, the Nashville Scholar’s Academy also offers College Knowledge workshops and extracurricular activities.

On the first day of my internship, I came into the program with preconceived ideas about the kids I would be teaching. I assumed the students would be rowdy and disengaged, and I expected them to take out their frustrations on me. I felt intimidated presenting myself an authoritative figure to a group so close to my own age. I struggled to find my own leadership style, and earning their respect was difficult.

After just a couple of days, I was no longer uncertain or nervous, and I began looking forward to each day at the Oasis Center. Just as I had tried to bring support to the LGBT community through guidance and education, I quickly became determined to make a real difference in the lives of my students at the Oasis Center. These students are brilliant, kind-hearted and talented. They want to learn and grow and become successful. My newest project was to push these kids to discover who they are, become more confident and leave the program a better person. Over the course of my eight weeks at the Oasis Center, I became wholeheartedly invested in this program and these young people.

While I will continue making a difference in the LGBT community, I realized through my internship that passion shouldn’t be limited to one cause or one concept. From an early age, people are pressured to commit to one hobby, one sport or one issue – but why put a quota on passion? Why limit the growth and positive change that can come out of realizing you care about several different causes or concepts?

In mid-July, I spent a week in Washington D.C. for the Bank of America Student Leaders Summit, where I connected with the other Student Leaders from across the country and had the opportunity to meet elected officials from Tennessee and elsewhere, including Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rep. Diane Black and Sen. Bob Corker. We spent our time focusing on building a more inclusive society and discussing different pathways to leadership. The experience was a powerful reminder that transgender youth have a voice. All gender identities, all sexualities, all minorities, all religions and all people matter. And for that reason, I will continue to explore causes and chase opportunities to serve others.

Over the next year, I will focus on LGBT activism throughout the greater Nashville area. I’m thrilled to start an internship with the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee and I’ve also created a support and empowerment group for LGBT youth called MobiUS, which will begin convening in late August.

Each day with these young people was rewarding, and I am grateful to Bank of America, a progressive and supportive corporation, for giving me this opportunity. One of the most inspiring moments during this summer was finding out I am the first transgender Bank of America Student Leader. I hope to inspire others facing discrimination to redirect that challenge into positivity, and I sincerely appreciate that Bank of America has been supportive in my quest for positive change.

Pictured: Henry Asher Seaton