Josh Shaffer

Shaffer: Brennan Lewis, co-founder of Queer NC, reached out to others

Brennan Lewis, a UNC student who founded Queer NC, was recently awarded the Peace First award Wednesday, November 18, 2015 in Chapel Hill.
Brennan Lewis, a UNC student who founded Queer NC, was recently awarded the Peace First award Wednesday, November 18, 2015 in Chapel Hill.

When they were preschoolers, too young now to remember, Brennan Lewis wrote their mother a card and signed it, “From your son.”

Years later, in the third grade, they asked a girl to marry them – a proposal the schoolmate declined by explaining, “Girls don’t marry girls.”

For most of their childhood, Brennan struggled with the idea of gender. They felt better wearing cargo shorts and oversized T-shirts than they did in pink or flowery blouses. They felt nervous in public restrooms, worried people would laugh at them or tell them to leave.

By now, you’ve noticed that I’m referring to Brennan as “they” and “them” rather than “she” or “her.” This is the preference of some people who identify, like Brennan, as queer, and I’ll admit it’s difficult for me to follow – not out of any notion of gender or sexuality, but because of my inflexible outlook on grammar. But I decided that, given the flexibility of a columnist, I’d rather be respectful toward someone I admire than stubborn in my approach to the English language.

As a freshman at Enloe High School, Brennan co-founded Queer NC, a student-led group aimed at reaching out to gay, lesbian, transgender and other teens statewide whose identity falls outside biological sex. Four years later, the group has attracted 500 people to its Facebook page and drawn teens from as far as Beaufort County to its meet-ups and dances. Every summer, nearly 100 teens attend a leadership camp in Greensboro.

Then in October, Brennan won the Peace First Prize from a national nonprofit, one of five students nationwide to win a $25,000 fellowship to further their work. The prize took them to New York, where the prize-winners’ pictures flashed in Times Square. Now a freshman at UNC-Chapel Hill, almost too old for Queer NC at age 18, Brennan reflects on the impact made by a handful of people. By their work, teens feeling the same confusion and fear can find, at the very least, a virtual ally.

“If you are sitting at home,” Brennan told me over coffee, “and you’re saying, ‘I feel alone,’ and you’re looking for things online, which is the process we went through, you will immediately find us.”

Like a lot of people, I grew up in a rural county and felt off-kilter: bookish, nerdy, into marching band and drama. A lot of the time, it felt like high school didn’t offer anything but football. So I held my breath and waited for time to pass. It wasn’t that hard. Had I been gay, I’m sure the world would have felt twice as unwelcoming.

If you want an idea of what life can be like for an LGBTQ kid, read the comments section of this column – assuming they haven’t been deleted by now. This week marks Transgender Awareness Week nationwide, and on Friday evening, a memorial will be held at the Capitol for transgender people lost to violence worldwide – a depressingly long list that has its own Wikipedia page.

For Brennan and others who identify as queer, much of the world stops listening the second they start to explain. Jacob Tobia, a recent Duke University graduate who identifies as genderqueer, wrote this for The New York Times: “I had a very difficult childhood, because I constantly found myself trapped between two opposing options—never masculine enough for the boys and never feminine enough for the girls.”

Brennan grew up in Apex, which they described as a semi-friendly environment, where people would act accepting to their face and speak harshly behind their backs. They didn’t socialize much outside of school. They joined a club that read seven books a week, handing out their own Newberry Awards. They cut their hair short and wore mostly men’s clothing, finally feeling happier with themselves. But they heard slurs from strangers on the street – strangers who would feign innocence when confronted.

In the seventh grade, Brennan thought they might be bisexual. By the eighth grade, they suspected transgender. Even now, as queer, attracted to women and others who identify as queer, Brennan isn’t certain they’ve ever been 100 percent certain.

So I applaud Brennan not only for navigating their own world, emerging so confident and ambitious, but more for extending an arm into hostile territory. And they do it with a level of organization that would have staggered anybody I knew as a teenager. The group spent months sending letters to every middle and high school in the state, tracking down every address, to ask whether each had a gay-straight alliance.

Queer NC sent out surveys asking LGBTQ students about their experiences around North Carolina. Predictably, they heard accounts of threats not only from others students but also from teachers, especially in counties outside the Triangle. Students in Wilmington described having no outlet to ask questions or find shared experience.

“There was nothing before QNC was founded,” said Rebekah Michel, 17, a student at Enloe. “Now there’s a very cohesive board. It’s a very regular thing that you can count on.”

When I sat in on a board meeting a few weeks back, Brennan had decided how best to use the $25,000 prize. Top goals are to reach 200 new students, connect with 30 new schools and hold QNC events in two new locations. Not long ago, the group spent months writing to every middle and high school in the state, asking if a gay-straight alliance exists on each campus. The response?

“Pretty minimal,” said Brennan. “We feel like a lot of schools are more receptive, but they don’t know where to start.”

I can relate a bit. Even having a sympathetic ear, a lot of this information is new to me. I’d never heard of any one person using a they/them pronoun, and I couldn’t find any journalist in any state I’ve ever worked who has that experience – even some who are gay. Other than UNC’s The Daily Tar Heel, which wrote about Brennan last week, I haven’t seen any newspaper adopt this form. But language, society and our own minds are at their best when they’re willing to evolve, and I encourage the rest of North Carolina to give Brennan and the group a good, hard listen.