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Making education safer and more inclusive for LGBTQ+ youth

Sameer Jha participated in this year’s Youth Activist Summit in Geneva, Switzerland. ©Sameer Jha

While growing up in the United States, Sameer Jha enjoyed feminine toys and colors like playing with dolls and wearing pink clothes at school. His preferences weren’t accepted by his classmates in middle school.  

“I was bullied,” he said. “Mostly homophobic bullying and sometimes even physical bullying as well. And it made me feel ashamed of these things that I happened to enjoy.”

It made him feel that he had to hide or change who he was to not face this bullying.

“It made me associate the word gay with negative things, with something you didn’t want to be,” he said. “And it wasn’t until I moved to a much more inclusive high school that I realized that it wasn’t the case, that gay is something you can be proud of, and the queer community is something to be celebrated,” he said.

Jha decided that children like him shouldn’t have to experience bullying when they go to school. So, at the age of 14 he founded The Empathy Alliance to make schools safer for LGBTQ+ students regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. His efforts have impacted more than 35,000 students and 42 schools in the United States. He has also reached more than 1 million people through The Empathy Alliance’s events that promote family acceptance and increase community engagement on LGBTQ+ relevant issues and through his speaking engagements.  

Jha, now 21 and a student at Stanford University, was also one of the laureates of the 2022 Young Activists Summit in Geneva, Switzerland that featured young individuals working for an inclusive and equal world. Each year since 2019, the Summit celebrates young people who have achieved outstanding results in advancing sustainability and human rights.

The young activist has seen how inclusivity in school can make such a difference in young student’s lives.

When Jha was just 16, he wrote a book, “Read This, Save Lives”, which is an anti-bullying guide for educators through a student’s lens and provides tools based on creating an inclusive environment.

“A lot of books for teachers are written by other teachers, by adults who have long since graduated school,” he said. “So, I felt like this was a piece that was missing. I wanted to share my story, but also the tips and tricks and everything that I'd learned from activism work.”

Sameer Jha shown with his father and mother at San Francisco Pride 2017 in the United States. ©Sameer Jha

Sameer Jha shown with his father and mother at San Francisco Pride 2017 in the United States. ©Sameer Jha

His hard work has paid off because it has given so many LGBTQ+ students a safer space to thrive at school. Jha credited this freedom to advocate for others to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, especially article 26, which states that everyone has the right to an education.

“Article 26 is the one that I feel most represents what I am fighting for,” he said.  

Seen and Heard

Jha also said that having a supportive environment both at home and in his own community is crucial. He said while his parents have been incredibly supportive, it was a journey to get to this place. But, once they did it helped him feel proud of being part of the LGBTQ+ community.

“I think my biggest piece of advice for young LGBTQ+ people today is that it may seem like there are a lot of people who are against you who, you know, may seem like they hate who you are as a person and who you stand for,” he said. “But there are so many more people who love you and who support you and want you to thrive and be yourself.”  

It's so empowering to share your story and it's so empowering to have people listen to you.

Sameer Jha, Founder of The Empathy Alliance & LGBTQ+ youth activist

He was also invited to the White House by President Joe Biden on the Hindu holiday Diwali, as well as for the White House’s Pride celebration, to talk about his advocacy work in the United States.

“It felt amazing to feel both sides of my identity celebrated — my queerness and my South Asian identity, and to feel seen in all parts of who I am,” he said. “But I really appreciate the White House and the current administration for being willing to work with me and listen to what I have to say and really understand the importance of protecting LGBTQ youth in this moment where so many harmful bills are being passed across the country and across the world.”

While it may seem scary for young people to stand up for what’s right, Jha said there are many points of entry to have your voice heard.

“I think for young people growing up in the world right now, it's so easy to share your story and to use your voice because you have social media,” he said. “What other people think about you doesn't define who you are, so it’s important to seek out the supportive spaces, whether that's online, whether that's locally, or whether that's getting involved with activism on a national scale.”

Jha recalled the time he went back to the middle school where he was bullied to implement a club where students could talk about LGBTQ+ issues and discuss anti-bullying. At first, he was worried if people would even show up or if the people who did come were just there for the food.  

“But afterwards, they came up to me and they said: Your experiences with bullying are exactly what I'm experiencing right now, and it's not okay. And I don't have support from my family, and I don't have support at school, but I really want there to be a space for me to thrive and to exist,” he said. “And they were so happy that this club could be a possibility. And that just warmed my heart so much that even if I experienced bullying at that school, the next generation of kids won't anymore.”

Disclaimer: The views, information and opinions expressed in this article are those of the persons featured in the story and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.