The common narrative about queer youth today is often one of crisis. They are bullied and tormented at schools, experience higher levels of depression and are at increased risk for homelessness and suicide. It is true, and it has long been true for gay youth. But another storyline has emerged: Queer youth are thriving and organizing.

Queer youth are coming out younger and younger. In doing so, they are breaking their isolation earlier and building the resources that they need to feel safe at their schools and in their communities. They are forming Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) at high schools and middle schools, educating administrators and teachers, and organizing gay proms and days of silence to honor victims of hate crimes.

This is not to say that it has become easier to be young and gay. The first battles often start at home, where many queer youth confront parents who refuse to accept, believe or affirm them. If a young person comes out as queer, or is even perceived as queer, he or she can be harassed and isolated. And if not out, a young person internalizes his or her identity and lives in fear of being discovered.

When stories emerge in the media about gay bullying in schools, the blame goes to individual bullies rather than focusing on the larger role that administrators, teachers and the culture play in stigmatizing queer youth.

But queer youth are receiving other messages earlierthat there is community, pride and solidarity in being queer. The political and cultural space opened by older gay activists provides a safer place to land for queer youth as they come out. Online they are finding community and places to ask questions and receive affirmation for who they are. In rural areas, where queer support resources are scarce, the Internet and social media sites help to build a wider community and “a place” for queer youth to hang out.

Queer youth are also challenging long-held notions about gender. For some, sexual orientation is only one part of the equation as more youth identify as gender nonconforming, or genderqueer: that they are boys who feel, act or look like a girl, and girls who feel, act or look like a boy. For some of these youth, questions about their own gender identity surfaced far earlier than any questions about their sexual orientation. They may see themselves as neither male nor female or identify as the opposite gender or a blend of both genders.

I wanted to know what it is like to be young and queer today in North Carolina. I wanted to hear stories from youth about discovering and accepting their own queerness in a society still explicitly homophobic, about finding their voice in a society that still asks them to be quiet. Over two months, I spoke with more than 40 young people.

What I found were youth who are stepping forward and choosing to build authentic lives for themselves rather than the ones they were told to lead. Youth who are resisting labels while redefining them. Youth who faced cold rejection at home and wide acceptance in unlikely places. Crossing the gap between parental and cultural expectations and their own personal truths has been a remarkable rite of passage.

Jordan Powell

Jordan, 21, grew up in Clayton and Rocky Mount and is a student at Appalachian State University.

I came out to my family as a lesbian when I was 15, and it went horribly. I did not really take the time to think about how I was going to present it, and I just sort of blurted it out because I was heartbroken over a girl. My parents forced me to go to church all the time. According to them, homosexuality was just wrong, and since I was living in their house, they were not going to allow it.

It was painful to me how they reacted. I had always been this sort of perfect child, and for once I wasn’t perfect to themit was upsetting to be rejected on so many levels. I thought they would be more supportive than they turned out to be. My mother went to therapy with me and tried to learn about my life and tried to understand it, but it has been an ongoing struggle.

I came out as transgendered over a year ago, after I came here for college. I was trying to figure out why my body and my mind were not matching up. It was such an uncomfortable feeling. I started doing a lot of reading and learned the term “genderqueer,” which means a person who does not feel like they fit into socially constructed norms about gender, and it sounded like me to a T. Society teaches us that there is one or the other and that there is no in between, so to learn that there were people who were both, or in-between or neither, was amazing to me.

So I thought that maybe I was genderqueer. I tried binding my chest to make my breasts less pronounced, and it was like night and day; my confidence went through the roof. I went from binding a few days a week to every single day. It became more clear to me that although I was born female, I did not identify with being feminine. It’s like my body and my mind did not exactly match. I cut my hair and decided that I wanted a different name for myself. My birth name was so feminine, and I did not feel like it matched me at all. So I chose the name Jordan. I was so happy to feel like I was actually certain of something.

I have not come out as trans yet to my parents, but it is just a matter of time. But I am not looking for their approval anymore. I am an adult, and I am doing what I think is best for my life, and I am happy. I am what I am, and they can accept it or not.

Mohammad Moustafa Kakar

Mohammad, 20, is a student at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte. He grew up in Fairfax, Va.

I grew up Muslim, and I knew that according to my family and the Koran, being gay was a sin. I went through high school and middle school thinking that there was something wrong with me and that my family would never accept me because I was gay. My uncle used to make the most horrible jokes about gay people, saying words like “faggot.”

I practically lived a double life. There was a close group of my friends who knew I was gay, and for the most part I was able to be myself around them. But I was also this straight person in front of my family and at school. I went to extraordinary lengths to hide the fact that I was gay.

I was outed on Facebook last fall. At a party some photos were taken of me kissing my boyfriend, and even though I asked the girl who took them to not post them, they were online the next day. Those photos were only posted for 14 minutes before I deleted them, but in those 14 minutes, two members of my father’s family in California, my sister and three of my mother’s co-workers saw them.

I was so upset. I knew that I was about to lose everything. My father said I was dead to him, and his whole side of the family disowned me. My mom said to me: “I still love you. You are still my son. I may not agree with your life, but I still love you.”

A few weeks later, my great-grandfather died, and I drove home to Virginia for the funeral. When I arrived at the mosque, they would not let me go in. My dad sent a message through my cousins telling me not to come inside, and another cousin told me that I was no longer part of the family. I was hurt, but I was also really angrythey each took turns coming outside and yelling at me for being gay. I was always taught to be respectful to my elders, and I was trying to do that, and it was really hard to bite my tongue, but I did that the whole time, as if they had some kind of right to say that to me. When my mom came outside she gave me the biggest hug and she was bawling her eyes out and said that I did not deserve that.

My dad gave me an ultimatum. Through my mother he said: “Quit college, come back home, and I will still let you be my son. You can go to the mosque and pray for forgiveness and say that you will never be gay and then you can be my son.” And I said: “No, I am going to be who I am. I am already out, and I am not going to lie again. I am going to make something of myself and be the person that I want to be. I am not a drug addict; I am not living under a bridge. I am turning into someone, and I am going to live the life that I want to live.”

I don’t consider myself Muslim anymore. I stopped believing the day that I went to the mosque and they told me that I was not part of the family anymore. To say no to my family was a big deal for me because I grew up knowing only how to say yes and doing everything that my family asked of me. So when I actually stood up for myself in the biggest way possible, it was such a liberating experience. I was standing up for who I was and the person that I always wanted to be.

Jordan Martin

Jordan, 18, grew up in Albemarle.

I have lived in rural North Carolina my whole life, and where I lived, you didn’t fit in unless you had a truck, you were straight and you had a girlfriend. And you didn’t fit in especially if you wore skinny jeans and tight shirts.

I have always had that feeling inside that I was different because growing up I would always wear ankle bracelets and play with my sisters’ dolls and put on my mom’s high heels when she wasn’t around. I didn’t know what being gay was; I just knew that I felt more like a girl. My parents wanted me to be more of a guy and would try to get me to wear guy clothes, especially my dad.

I was not even out, but I was picked on a lot and called “gay” and “faggot.” People were really mean. I knew there were risks that came with just being myself. I would walk down the hallway and people would look at me and whisperI felt like an alien. There were no administrators or teachers who stood up for me.

I tried to deny to myself that I was gay. My mom is very religious and made me go to church all the time where they told us it was wrong and that people who are gay go to hell. I was scared and I thought, I don’t want to be this way because I don’t want to go to hell; I want to go to heaven. But eventually, I accepted that I was gay. But I was scared to come out, because if all the bullying and the hatred was that bad before, what would happen if I actually came out?

After I graduated, I told my mom and stepfather that I was gay and that I no longer wanted to be at war with myself. They said if you are going to be gay you are going to do it outside of this house. My stepfather gave me 30 minutes to pack my stuff. So I left and slept at friends’ houses and in my car until I found the family I live with now. I was scared, but my confidence started there, when I decided to be my own person.

All my life I have been scared, fearful of being judged. I thought no one would ever accept me. All my life I have been looking for acceptance, but when I just stopped looking and came to peace with myselfI am gay and I am happy and I am proud of myselfthen acceptance found me.

Jackson Mower

Jackson, 17, grew up in Kings Mountain.

I figured out that I was gay in the sixth grade, but I did not accept it until I was a freshman in high school. I was somewhat homophobic, not in a malicious way, but I was uncomfortable with homosexuality because I was struggling with it myself. Nobody in my family had ever told me homosexuality was wrong, but I just felt that it was. I was worried about their reaction. So I continued to live closeted. But having to keep something about myself inside made me feel like I was only living half a life.

I came out to my mom the day before I moved to boarding school in my junior year. I just thought that it was time. She didn’t take it very well. She burst into tears and walked away. I was shocked at that, because she had gay friends, but I guess she was not really sure if she was OK with one of her children being queer. It was one of the worst nights of my life. I was disappointed in her response; it hurt me and it scared me.

The next morning we acted like nothing happened. We didn’t talk about it till a week later. I think it was just something that she had to spend some time coming to terms with. She was raised fairly conservative and it was like she had to relearn something. Now she is accepting about it, and in fact, a year after the night that she cried and walked away from me, we were making gay pride buttons together for a GSA event. It made me feel really good. It gives me hope for the world and hope for progress that people are not static, that they can change.

I think that it is important that kids are educated earlier about different sexualities. It would have helped me so much to have known that there was such a thing as homosexuality when I was a little kid and having feelings about other boys. It would have helped me understand those feelings. I want to make the world better and safer for children following in my footsteps.

Tyler Kissinger

Tyler, 17, is a student at the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics. He grew up in Winston-Salem.

I first noticed that I was having sexual feelings toward people of the same gender when I was in the sixth grade, but I did not admit it to myself. I listened to what I had heard my entire life, that I was expected to marry a girl and anything other than that was wrong. I lived in an environment where people would say “That’s so gay” as a substitute for “That’s so awful.” I just knew that I was not supposed to be gay.

Internally I was in anguish and hated myself. Every time I heard a negative comment about gays, there was a sharp pain in my chest because I knew that I was gay, and that if anyone ever found out it would ruin me. I thought I would be doomed to a life of nothingness. I clung to the idea that maybe one day I could make myself straight, that maybe one day I could live up to the expectations that society had made for me. I heard all these things about gay people, and it reinforced my own self-loathing. I would make anti-gay comments too sometimes to hide the fact that I was gay, so that maybe it would deflect off me.

Once I got to high school and got my own computer, I was able to research things without my parents finding out. I read about what it was like to be gay, and it made me realize that there was not something wrong with me, that what was wrong was that people do not accept me for who I am.

As I learned more about the LGBT community, I became prouder of the fact that I was gay. One time I was eating lunch with some people and we were talking about me being gay, and this guy came up and thought we were joking, and he said, “Oh, you’re gay, that’s gross,” and it infuriated me. I stood up and set him straight and then walked away. I guess that was my first LGBT activism. It was the first time I was comfortable enough with myself to not only admit to someone else that I was gay but to confront them about their viewpoint. It felt powerful, and I felt oddly happy. It was a key moment for me: Between my fear of being found out and my anger of discrimination, I found the courage to say something. In that moment I became my own independent person, responsible for my own well-being. I feel really happy with where I am right now.

Santiago Garcia

Santiago, 21, grew up in Marion.

I was very questioning from a young age. I was quiet about it because I didn’t want people to see me as something I was not even sure about yet. But I definitely knew as a child that I was more attracted to boys than girls. But I was not comfortable with all these labels; they just did not fit me very well, because when I would hear stories about gay people, they were always represented by someone white and I could never identify with a white person.

When I was growing up, gay people were never portrayed as black or brown, so I never had that idol or person to look up to. So I decided that I wanted lighter skin, to not have an accent, to not do the other things that Latino kids were doing. I wanted to be the cool gay guy and was embarrassed that my parents were so connected to their culture, something I had been proud of as a kid.

But I was not happy. I was just not being myself, and it is not until now that I am learning to let go of those things and know that for me to exist in this space in this country, I don’t need to assimilate. I love my brown skin, I love my brown eyes, I love my black hair, and I want to see more representation of that. I want to talk about white privilege and queer privilege. Because the experiences of a white person as opposed to a person of color is going to be totally different, and it is important to talk about.

I am also undocumented. We call ourselves “undocuqueer,” those of us who are both undocumented and queer. For many of us before we came out about both, it was like living double lives. Most of the time you are not out to your family about being queer, and you are not out to your friends about being undocumented. Because in school you never talk about immigration statusit is something you always hold in secret, and by coming out you are owning it and saying, “I am human, not illegal.”

This is why we decided to put ourselves at risk, and it feels good. We know that we are risking deportation by coming out, that we are risking a lot of things, but we want to show our community that we are unafraid.

I definitely put more focus on my undocumented identity than on my queer identity. For me, queer issues are more about civil rights, and being undocumented is about human rights. I recognize that there is a lot of homophobia in this country, but my heart and my anger and my frustration is mostly about injustice going on in the undocumented community. Whether or not gays can marryfor me this is not a priority. To me, a priority is whether my mom is going to be OK, whether my dad is going to be OK.

Being out brings on more responsibility. I have to check myself about other people who are not there yet. Because I can get comfortableOh I am out and no longer in the shadowsand I can forget that there are still youth that are not there yet. I can’t forget that it is not just my struggle; it is our struggle. Not everyone has the privilege of coming out. But I do think it is important to come out and be yourself, because if you are not, if you keep quiet, nothing is going to change. I am thankful for the place that I am in life, because I am building who I am. I’m not sure that if I was not undocumented, if I was not queer, I would be the same person. I love the struggle because you fall, and then you rise.

Jacob Tobia

Jacob, 20, is a student at Duke University who grew up in Cary.

I have always had a good relationship with my parents. When I came out to my mom, it brought us closer instantly. With my dad, it took him awhile to get over it, but when he finally did, it brought us closer as well. I think he started respecting me as an adult after I came out. I think he respected me for taking a stand and being honest about something that was difficult.

It was actually a relief when I realized that I was gay, because before I figured it out, I was just the weird kid who liked wearing tutus. It is very ostracizing being gender nonconforming when you are a little kid: It is not OK to paint your nails; it is not OK to play with Barbies.

The sexuality part was never the big deal for me, it was always the gender stuff. Sexuality was imposed as a big issue by a society that is homophobic. Now I am in a place where it feels totally OK to be gay, but I am not in a place where it feels OK to be gender nonconforming.

My mom tried really hard to be supportive of my gender nonconformity. One year at Halloween I wanted to dress up as Pocahontas, and I remember that my mom was so conflicted because she wanted to say yes, she wanted to affirm me, but she was worried because we lived in a society that wouldn’t. Would her little boy survive if she let him dress up as Pocahontas? Would he be OK? Looking back on it, she should have just let me. The world is going to be discriminatory regardless; the fact that the world is not going to support your child for being queer or gender nonconforming doesn’t mean that you can’t give them a supportive home life.

I identify as genderqueer, for sure, but I really consider myself a gender transcendentalist, because I really don’t seek to live up to an identity as a man or a woman. I am interested in being Jacob. All gender has ever done for me in my life is close doors. I would never say to someone, “Oh, you go to Duke so you have to act a certain way,” or, “Oh, you’re gay so you have to act a certain way.” But people do that all the time with gender. Having identity is good, but we could have gender identity in a way that celebrates all parts of that spectrum, that celebrates uniquely where each individual is.

It seems so radical to some folks, but I don’t think that I am asking for that much. I am not trying to get rid of anybody’s gender identity. I am not asking for anyone to change on the gender spectrum if they don’t want to. I am just asking them to not judge others for being in the middle or for being on the other end.

Emiley Steiger

Emiley, 19, is a member of the U.S. Army Corps. She grew up in Kentucky and lives at Fort Bragg.

I joined the Army when I was 17 years old. My dad died from drugs and my mom never graduated from high school and I wanted something different for myself. I wanted a challenge.

I have known that I liked girls since my junior year in high school. There is just more that I like about a woman than a man. At first I freaked out because I did not think it was normal. I just knew it was wrong. When I was in the sixth grade I had a best friend and we were always together and people made fun of us and called us lesbianseven then I knew it was an insult.

I knew that I was gay when I joined the Army, but I never told anyone. It was not something you talked about. You just were not supposed to be gay in the military. The fact that you could get kicked out if they found out, well that was a major motivation to stay quiet. Your relationship issues had to stay behind closed doors. Gay couples could not walk around holding hands. Heterosexual couples could be as affectionate as they wanted, but we had to keep it all quiet. I knew that it was unfair, but it did not feel like there was anything I could do about it. But I did not like the feeling of being discriminated against. Why does anybody care? Why should it matter?

Once I get close to someone, I don’t mind telling them. The units I have been in have been close, and we have built trust. When you build trust it does not matter if you are gay or straight. But I do feel that if people had known they would have seen me as different.

Things are different since Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed. I put a rainbow sticker on my car. I also cut my hair off. I had very long hair and in basic training, they make you wear a bun, because your hair is not allowed to touch your collar. It is supposed to be perfect, and I could never get it tight enough. I wanted to cut it, but I knew that it would make me look gay, and I did not want to stick out like a sore thumb. So after DADT was repealed, I finally cut it off. I also joined OutServe, an organization of LGBT active-duty military, because I wanted to hear stories and talk to other people and find out their experiences.

I would like to have a career in the military. I am definitely re-enlisting. I think it is getting a lot easier for gay folks coming into the military. I have friends here who say it used to be a lot harder. I can’t exactly say I have the whole gay pride thing yet, because I have not yet told my mother. I want her to know, but I don’t want to see the disappointment in her eyes. The world is still cruel and looks at you differently, and I know she will worry. It is changing though; it is getting better and easier to live the life you want to live instead of living a lie.

Roc Reams

Roc, 17, is a student at Hillside New Tech High School. She grew up in Durham.

My first kiss was with a girl, and my first relationship was with a girl. My mother is supportive of everything about me, not just my sexuality. It is so important to me to have her support; my mother is my backbone. If I ever feel uncomfortable in my skin, she gives me little motivational speeches like, “Hey, you’re beautiful, and so is your girlfriend.” It just makes me feel good. I know that some in my extended family don’t like it that I am bi. They gave me a big speech about how God would be unhappy and I said, “Well I think that God would be perfectly happy with me and how I am living my life.” And that was that.

I identify as a sister, and I identify as a bi-queer female. But I don’t draw a line, and I don’t feel like they are separate identities. Being black prepared me for being seen as different. But my mother always told me that it was OK to be different, and that I was beautiful just as I was. At first I was like, “Well what if I don’t want everybody to pick on me? What if I don’t want to feel different? What if I just want to fit in?”

Eventually I started to appreciate my difference and feel more comfortable with myself. Now I feel like I have found community and a space that is comfortable.

It makes me really upset to think that some parents cannot accept their child’s sexuality and don’t realize how special their children really are. I wish that everyone had parents who were accepting and loving and caring. When they brought their child into the world there were no guarantees. There is no reneging on a child; you have to love your child no matter how they turn out.