When Sayer Kirk founded the Queer Fish Center in January, she knew there was a need for a supportive environment for LGBTQ youth. But she wasn’t sure how much support there would be in conservative Alamance County.
“I’m from Burlington – and Burlington itself is fine in terms of queer acceptance,” said Kirk, 18, in an interview last week. “But if you branch out into Snow Camp or Graham it won’t necessarily be the same.”
In the wake of Donald Trump’s election and the aftermath of the HB2 fight, Kirk said, she could feel a shift toward people no longer hiding their homophobic and transphobic views.
“It just felt like people were actively saying, ‘We don’t want you here. There isn’t a place for you,’” Kirk said. “I wanted there to be a place and for people to know there was a place.”
Kirk envisioned a place – maybe a small house – where young LGBTQ people could come together to support each other, plan activism, have access to a library of queer literature and wardrobe of donated clothing for transgender people who are transitioning. But the first step, she realized, was creating an actual 501(c)(3) charity – and that would take some money. She set up a GoFundMe page with a modest goal of $750.
To date, the project page has raised more than $1,600.
“That felt good,” Kirk said. “We realized there was support out there.”
With funds raised to apply for status as a tax-exempt charity, any funding over the $750 ask is going toward books featuring queer characters, clothes for transgender clothes swaps, a group banner for pride events and eventually the permanent physical location Kirk originally imagined.
There isn’t a strong history of activism in her family, Kirk said. But she was inspired to begin helping others because she felt lucky to have a supportive family when she came out as a lesbian. She knew that wasn’t everyone’s story.
“I had a very easy coming-out, in comparison to some people,” said Kirk. “But I had friends who did not. One of my best friends didn’t have a good experience and didn’t have anywhere to go if he were to have gotten kicked out of his house, which was a possibility at one point.”
Her mother, Amanda Kirk, offered to take in that friend if he needed – a generosity and active engagement that inspired her.
Having gotten a taste of activism with the Queer Fish center, Kirk has stayed engaged in the political fights now inspiring young people – particularly in the wake of the mass shooting in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Kirk helped organize a walk-out at Walter M. Williams High School, where she is a junior, to honor the lives of the 17 people killed at Parkland and raise awareness about gun violence.
She faced some opposition from school administration, she said – who confiscated signs that had previously been approved for use in the protest. But faculty like Robin Farber, a Latin teacher Kirk said has been like a second mother to her, have encouraged student passion for change.
Kirk said the greatest current threat she sees to Democracy is the dismissal of youth voices by those in power.
“We’re being directly affected by what’s going on in America right now, and we haven’t really had a voice,” Kirk said. “But I’m 18 and I’ll be voting in the next election. A lot of us will. If they’re politicians aren’t listening to what we have to say, we’re going to do what we can to get rid of them.”
The greatest hope for Democracy, Kirk said, is that an entire generation seems to be waking up from its apathy and conviction that they can’t change the world. From LGBTQ rights to gun violence, she said, young people are leading the way and their views will determine the nation’s direction.
“I have hope that people are getting involved, that we’re getting out of this mindset that mine is just one vote and it doesn’t matter. We’re the ones being killed in schools. We’re the ones who these policies are affecting so we’re speaking up and realizing we have to be the ones whose votes push these things over the edge.”