LGBTQ Pride Month

Meet The Activist Who's Empowering LGBT Youth All Over The World — And Hasn't Graduated High School Yet

"Sometimes you get to the most amazing places by overcoming adversity."

With a head full of rainbow curls, Kian Tortorello-Allen might not look like your typical 16-year-old, and that's because he isn't. For starters, he knows exactly what he wants to do when he "grows up" — and is already doing it. 

"I want to work in music... I really want to study music education in college because I would love to be in that field and community," Tortorello-Allen told A Plus. For him, music is intertwined with activism — something he does every day as part of GLSEN's national student council. 

"I would love to see myself in the future do music, do activism because I feel like as a trans person and especially as a trans person of color, just my existence in the classical music world is kind of shocking," he explained. "So I feel like I already will be an activist in making my voice heard because of who I am and my identity." 

Kian Tortorello-Allen
Kian Tortorello-Allen

But before he makes his voice heard on stage, he's already using it to make a difference every day through blog posts and social media work, furthering GLSEN's overall message advocating for equal rights. Through his work with the organization, Tortorello-Allen has met former secretary of education John King at a student voices sessions, filmed a public service announcement, and most recently, been a model and spokesperson for Hollister's safe spaces campaign. 

"At first, I was super nervous about it because I'd seen Hollister stores in the mall, and I was like, 'That's not really my scene,'" he explained. "But when I went there, it was really cool because they were super interested in actually listening to us and working with us." Since the ads and videos have gone up on the clothing company's website and social media accounts, Tortorello-Allen has noticed some homophobic backlash from Hollister customers threatening to never shop at the store again. 

That, he believes, just makes GLSEN and Hollister's joint message of inclusivity all the more powerful. "The coolest thing is all the people at Hollister are standing up for the LGBT community," he said. "It's really amazing to be this small, queer kid from New York and seeing this mega clothing company... call people out for being homophobic." 

Even when Tortorello-Allen isn't modelling in national ad campaigns, he's no slouch on his social media presence. A while back, he "and some internet friends" created an Instagram page all about LGBTQ rights called @justlgbtstuff. "We didn't really expect anything to come of it, but three years later we actually have 154,000 followers," he said. "I talk to people on a daily basis about queer rights and activism, and that is my main channel of everyday activism because it's just a platform that I can always use [to] get my voice out there." 

Tortorello-Allen first found his voice through his school's Gender and Sexuality Alliance, a place where he "can make local change and try to be an advocate" in his community, even when it hasn't been supportive of his identity. "I haven't had some of the best experiences being openly LGBT in high school," he said. "When I was in eighth grade, I identified as a lesbian — that was before I came out as trans — and these kids on the bus, every single day, were horrible." Tortorello-Allen said they called him "homophobic slurs" and even threw a rock at him. 

"At first, I was super scared to go back to school," he said. But then the summer came, and when the new school year started, he realized, "All of a sudden, I was back at this place with all these people that had done that, and it really just clicked with me that I want to make a difference." That's when he started his activism work through the high school's GSA and, later, GLSEN. 

"I started actually being a voice and helping out with things… and it all just kind of took off from this experience," he said. "It was honestly one of the worst things that has ever happened, but I don't think I would be in the same place if it hadn't happened... Sometimes you get to the most amazing places by overcoming adversity." 

Wise beyond his years, Kian hopes his experiences can empower other LGBTQ youth. "I really want people to know that it may seem really difficult now, I had a really hard time last year. I almost dropped out of school, it was that bad, but here I am a year later and I am doing national activism work... Even when you're in that really horrible position, and you're being bullied and harassed, and you feel like it's not gonna get better, it always will get better," he said. "And part of it getting better is you saying, 'Enough is enough' and standing up and spreading rights for your community and being really involved." 

Though he was always comfortable "being part of the LGBT identity," it was his activism work that has helped him become more comfortable than anything else. .In my mind it was either like, 'You're the scared, bullied kid' or 'You're gonna say something and make your voice heard,' so — for me — it was really important to actually reclaim my identity [and] reclaim my experience," he explained. "That's what I think is the most important thing is just getting your story out there because so many people within the LGBT community have such a powerful story about coming out, about harassment or bullying, about so many things that I believe people should just take a moment and listen."  

Tortorello-Allen (third in from the right) joins other students in a powerful pose. 
Tortorello-Allen (third in from the right) joins other students in a powerful pose.  Kian Tortorello-Allen

He believes the next step the LGBT community needs to take to increase inclusion is to emphasize the intersectionality of identities that can be found in each and every individual within that community. "As somebody that is multi-racial and LGBT, I find it super important to have queer voices of color out there," he said. "I believe that there is this certain image of what it means to be LGBT and that's totally exclusive of people of color, of people of different religions... of people that aren't necessarily 100 percent physically or mentally able." 

Bottom line: "I really want to impart that there is no right way to be LGBT, and the community should never be exclusive of any identity ever," Tortello-Allen said. "I want people to know that you should never let somebody else police your identity and tell you who you are."

And he's going to continue doing everything he can to ensure that happens, no matter how long — or how much— it takes. "Even if you're a teenager, you can change the world..." he said. "Get involved with your community. And if you can't get involved with your community, make your own one." 

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