Hometown Heroes | LGBTQ+ (BAGLY)

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The past three months have brought drastic change to our daily lives as virtually every pocket of society has felt the effects of COVID-19. Some segments of the population have been harder hit than others, but every community has been forced to adapt to the changing landscape.

That includes the LGBTQ+ community, which has been challenged to find new and unique ways to stay connected and celebrate Pride Month at a time when large-scale social gatherings – like the 50th annual Boston Pride Parade, originally scheduled for June 13 – have been put on hold.

Locally, one of the groups tackling that challenge is BAGLY (The Boston Alliance of Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer Youth), led in part by the two Co-Chairs of their Youth Leadership Committee, Lala Shanks and Leo Austin-Spooner.

Lala has been involved with the AGLY network since 2015, and in 2017 they became a peer leader at BrAGLY, based in Brockton, Mass., while Leo was introduced to the organization in 2018, when he helped coordinate youth outreach on the Yes on 3 campaign to uphold trans non-discrimination protections in Massachusetts.

Both said they felt instantly welcomed by the BAGLY community, and immediately searched for additional ways to get involved. Now, as Co-Chairs of the Youth Leadership Committee, they facilitate a weekly meeting between youth leaders and adult staff, help with marketing and development, represent BAGLY at community events, and offer support in any other ways that they can.

Hometown Heroes | Youth leaders at BAGLY helping unite local LGBTQ+ community -

“I feel very lucky to do the work that I do,” said Lala. “Every day BAGLY pours love and care back into me the same way I have through my role in the community.”

“To me, BAGLY is a way to stay engaged in the trans community, space where I access mental healthcare, a space that supports youth-led advocacy, and a second family,” added Leo. “Between art workshops, BAGLY family potlucks, and field trips, I have so many memories and friendships from the community center that are deeply important to me.”

But in recent months, those types of communal events – workshops, potlucks, and field trips – have been derailed by COVID-19, and the BAGLY community center had to close its physical space on March 17. Undeterred, BAGLY’s leadership immediately began the process of transitioning that physical space into a digital community, where youth could continue to access BAGLY’s plethora of resources.

While several of BAGLY’s 40th anniversary events had to be postponed or transitioned to a digital space, the work of leaders like Lala and Leo has helped the youth LGBTQ+ community of Boston stay connected to their BAGLY family throughout this challenging time.

“We had a remarkably quick turnaround making our social support programming and behavioral health services accessible digitally,” said Lala. “It’s very important for us to continue serving our community and sustaining access to the resources we offer.”

Hometown Heroes | Youth leaders at BAGLY helping unite local LGBTQ+ community -

“The YLC and adult staff have worked hard these past few months to transition our community center virtually,” echoed Leo. “For BAGLY, this means not a recreation of our in-person center, but finding ways to adapt to the virtual space to meet the needs of our youth.”

The move to digital, Leo said, has actually increased attendance at online meetings, as the potential barriers to attending physical gatherings – like family acceptance – have been removed.

“People can come to us online as their most authentic selves without risk of family rejection,” Leo said.

BAGLY has also allocated more than $7,000 of funding to youth in need in the form of a direct-aid initiative, which has provided financial support and gift cards to LGBTQ youth across Massachusetts. It has been their way of lessening the financial strain of COVID-19 in their community.

In recent weeks BAGLY has tackled yet another challenge in their community, as the organization is doing its part to fight racial injustice. BAGLY’s web site states specifically that the organization “prioritizes the needs of LGBTQ+ youth of color, trans and gender non-conforming youth, and homeless LGBTQ+ youth,” so recent instances of police brutality on members of the Black community and the ensuing nationwide protests have hit home.

Hometown Heroes | Youth leaders at BAGLY helping unite local LGBTQ+ community -

“BAGLY has been actively sharing resources and news across our social media to sustain the momentum this movement has, as we are dedicated to dismantling all systems of oppression,” said Lala. “In the ways that we pride ourselves in holding space for LGBTQ+ youth, we understand that people are multifaceted and we must be intersectional in our advocacy.”

That advocacy has come in many forms, from providing a space for discussion about racial injustice, to attending a Black Trans rally, to making a “substantial donation” to the Trans Emergency Fund, which is a Black- and Trans-led organization that serves low-income trans community members in Massachusetts.

Lala and Leo are also working with BAGLY’s Marketing and Development team and the office of Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley to organize a multi-day conference to highlight LGBTQ adults, particularly trans people of color, working in a variety of career paths.

Much in the way that the Black Lives Matter movement articulates that all lives can’t matter until Black Lives Matter, BAGLY and the LGBTQ+ community know that – to quote Martin Luther King Jr. – “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

“All forms of oppression are interconnected in ways beyond our control,” said Lala. “We use our resources and platform to speak out against injustices of all sorts, and contribute actionable solutions for these issues.”

Circumstances mean that Pride Month looks a little different this year in Boston, most notably to the general public in the absence of the annual Pride Parade, which has consistently included the New England Revolution. In fact, last year Scott Caldwell became the first active professional athlete to march in the Boston Pride Parade.

But the absence of traditional events doesn’t mean that Pride takes on any less meaning or importance, and youth leaders like Lala and Leo are working hard to make sure that June continues to be both a celebration of the LGBTQ+ community, and a reminder of the progress that’s still to be made.

“We have made so much progress as LGBTQ people, and we continue to fight for a world where we can live freely,” said Leo. “Pride is a time to celebrate our successes, particularly the recent and hard-fought win in the Supreme Court (which ruled that federal anti-bias law covers gay, lesbian, and transgender workers).

“Pride is also a time to think critically. Who among us is benefitting from these rights and protections? Who disproportionately faces violence and marginalization? How can we analyze our own privilege and use it to uplift others? How can we continue to fight for justice for all of us in the LGBTQ community, not just a few?”

It’s the youth LGBTQ+ community, like Lala and Leo, who will continue that fight into the future.

“The community is still fighting for our rights and capacity to thrive across the world,” said Lala. “We must be dedicated to highlighting the experiences of the most vulnerable people in our community and uplift the most overshadowed voices. We cannot celebrate our culture, achievements, and self-love by overlooking our history and ignoring the struggles our community is having today.

“Pride is intersectional. Pride is chosen family. Pride is using our privilege to support our loved ones and those whose strife we benefit from. Pride is intentional. Pride is continuing to create a world where our whole community can happily and safely be who they are.”