For the LGBTQ+ community, the fight for equality in America and around the globe has long subsisted on the right to be seen and valued, and to be treated with basic human dignity.
June is LGBTQ+ Pride Month -- a time to look back at the history of the LGBTQ+ movement, from the uprisings at Stonewall in the 1960s, to the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and subsequent innovations in HIV/AIDS treatment, and the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015, to name a few.
This progression in representation and visibility comes as a growing number of people in the U.S. identify as LGBTQ+.
A February Gallup poll found that the number of U.S. adults who identify as something other than heterosexual has doubled in the last decade, jumping from 3.5% in 2012 to over 7% in 2022. Among Gen Z, just under 21% identify as LGBTQ+, while 10.5% of Millennials say the same.
The direction of this community’s movement, then, sits heavily with the nation’s young people. Their fight to be seen and heard has never been more apparent and we are inspired by these change-makers who are advancing the conversation and driving progress in their communities.
They exemplify excellence in equality in every way; they demand dignity, respect and understanding so that others may have it as well.
Meet our 2022 PRIDE Inspiration List -- the LGBTQ+ youth who are creating that change.
Ashton Mota, 17 (He/Him)
Ashton Mota, a 17-year-old Black, Afro-Latino transgender advocate, is at the forefront of the Pride movement, creating social change not only in his own community but on the national scene as well.
“It was a bumpy road at first,” Mota said about his activism. “It was kind of the first time I dipped my toes in, not necessarily because it was something that I wanted to do at the age of 12, but something that I had to do. It was the first time that my chosen advocacy and activism from this LGBTQ+ lens aligned with my identity.”
Mota introduced President Joe Biden at a White House Pride ceremony in 2021. In doing so, he was able to share his personal story and represent not only other LGBTQ youth at the national level, but Black and Latino communities also.
“Something that I thought a lot about going into that event was not only the power behind the words that I was saying, but the power of the platform that was given to me,” he said. “Not only was I there to share my story, but to also represent the LGBTQ+ community, as well as the Black and Latino community. It was … a moment for representation.”
“That's the first time that I did public speaking on a national level on some legislation,” he added.
Mota has gotten involved in his local community, bringing awareness of LGBTQ+ issues to his high school campus.
“It was something where I was like, ‘Listen, this is a problem that's impacting me and my identity and people who look like me. So, we're going to stand out and we're going to stand up for what we believe,'” he said. “I'm doing this for the many other people who look like me and go through the same experiences as me, who aren't yet in the place where they can speak up for themselves. I think that's really where my passion for advocacy was rooted.”
Mota is also part of the GenderCool Project, a youth-led movement that works to “replace misinformed opinions with positive experiences meeting transgender and non-binary youth who are thriving,” according to the project’s website.
“GenderCool has given me the opportunity to share with others that I, alongside my transgender and non-binary siblings and community, that we’re just like every other young person,” he said. “We like hanging out with our friends, we like going to the movies, we like listening to music, playing sports, whatever it may be, but conveying the message that we're just like everybody else.”
Mota said GenderCool has “given genderqueer champions the opportunity to bring our full and authentic selves to whatever spaces we're in and speak about social issues that are important to us, which I think is really cool, because it kind of showcases a unique way of activism.”
Through the GenderCool Project, Mota co-authored a children’s book titled “A Kids Book About Being Inclusive.” The book is one of a three-part series, included in the GenderCool Collection, which intends to “bring clarity and positivity to the national conversation about Who we are, not What we are,” according to the group’s website.
“The LGBTQ+ space is a chosen family for me and for so many other people,” Mota added. “That is something I want to put a huge emphasis on. There is a community waiting for you.”
Cristian Hernandez, 18 (He/They)
Eighteen-year-old Cristian Hernandez from Jeffersonville, Indiana, is a nonbinary teenager with a love for makeup and creating bold statements.
Hernandez, who goes by he/him/they pronouns, was also named their high school’s prom king this spring -- an honor they accepted that night dressed in full drag.
“I wanted to make a fashion statement and be myself, so I dressed in my drag queen outfit,” Hernandez told “Good Morning America.”
“It made everyone's mouths drop,” they added.
A now-viral TikTok video shows Hernandez walking down the red carpet at prom to accept their crown and sash in a black sequined gown and sky-high heels, dazzling jewels, a blonde wig, and a feather boa. The outgoing senior told NBC News previously that the look took them five hours to create.
Hernandez said everyone at the school had been “pretty supportive” of the win.
“I didn’t get backlash but everyone was surprised I came in glam,” they said, noting that the decision to dress in full drag had also come from a place of advocacy for LGBTQ issues -- specifically the hope that, by showing up dressed to the nines, others might feel more confident in their own skin, too.
Hernandez hopes to focus on just that after graduating high school, through content creation and makeup. Already, the 18-year-old posts videos of their makeup transformations on TikTok, including both low-key and high-glam looks.
“I learned [how to do] makeup in 2020,” they said, adding that they had been “bored and wanted to learn something new.”
Hernandez said they were “influenced to start doing makeup by my sister, [makeup vlogger] Louie Castro and drag queen Naomi Smalls,” a contestant on from season 8 of “RuPaul's Drag Race.”
Hernandez told “GMA” they specifically hoped to encourage teenagers to be themselves and -- if they’re ready, safe and able -- to come out to their parents, things that might help them feel more comfortable in their own skin.
They also urged other young people to find a safe place among friends and get involved in the broader LGBTQ+ community.
"I hope [they] learn to be themselves and love themselves,” Hernandez added. “I want fellow members of my community to love each other and help others feel safe."
Lily Clifford, 21
As a young girl in southern Missouri, Lily Clifford wished she had a source of guidance in her early journey to discover herself, especially growing up in a community deeply rooted in religious fundamentalism.
"My whole life it was just told to me that gay people aren't loved by God, and they aren't deserving of love and they need to change, and I believed that," Clifford told "Good Morning America.” "But I also had a thought in the back of my head, like, ‘that doesn't really seem right’ -- if we're talking about ‘God is love,’ why wouldn't he love gay people too?”
Leaving her hometown for bible college in Portland, Oregon, “started my deconstruction journey,” Clifford said. She said that COVID quarantines forced her to “[get] really honest with myself” and “dig deep” to learn more about being gay and how to embrace it.
"I came out in September of 2021," Clifford said, adding that she got a lot of hateful messages from strangers online.
Clifford is now a youth ambassador for the religious nonprofit Beloved Arise, which works to empower and celebrate LGBTQIA+ youth of faith.
Her experience coming out “inspired me to do what I do with Beloved Arise because we are advocates for youth and that's when we're most impressionable and I just wish that I had someone advocating for me when I was younger,” Clifford said.
“I just want kids to know that they are loved truly by the people around them that accept them, and also that the God that they worship loves them too,” she added.
Clifford suggested that other LGBTQ+ youth who may be struggling as she did "read unbiased" and "historical things."
"Our God is love and he is affirming and it's very clear when you read that from his words,” she said, urging young people to "research" their faith themselves.
Roswell Grey, 16 (He/They)
Roswell Grey is a queer and non-binary 16-year-old from from Sherman, Texas, who wants other LGBTQ+ youth of faith to know they're not alone and that they are valid.
Grey, who goes by they/he pronouns, is one of five ambassadors chosen this year by Beloved Arise as "young leaders who give voice to LGBTQ+ youth who are often silenced and marginalized in religious communities." Beloved Arise is a religious nonprofit organization dedicated to celebrating and empowering LGBTQ+ youth of faith.
Having been raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – widely known as the Mormon Church -- Grey told "Good Morning America" their faith and their identity "directly correlate and are some of the most important things" to them.
The Church says that while it is welcoming of LGBTQ members, it prohibits those with “same-sex attraction” from “act[ing] upon these inclinations” and transgender individuals from holding church callings or leadership positions.
"I have an untraditional outlook on my gender, and it helps me fit into my faith in a similar way. I believe that the way I treat my beliefs is non-binary in nature," Grey explained. "Despite being part of an organized church, I can separate the church and church culture from the true religion and faith, practicing in my own way."
Grey said they hope to give comfort and reassurance to other queer youth of faith by being outward and open about their own queer identity and gender in religious settings. One way they do this, they said, is by trying to wear a rainbow accessory.
To those young people who are struggling with how they identify, their religion or a combination of the two, Grey gave the following advice. "It is completely OK to question yourself, to wonder, to experiment with identities or religions,” they said. “You are the only person who knows what it is like to be you, and you do not have to fit into a box."
This carries over into how Grey said they feel when they are told that their queer and non-binary identities cannot co-exist with their faith and the beliefs held within that faith.
"For me, my faith exists because of my queer identity, and my identity exists because of my faith," they said. "One could not exist without the other. My faith is queer, and my queer identity is faithful."
Grey said being included in the 2022 Inspiration List is "a really meaningful experience" for them because it gives them a platform to reach more young people than normal.
"I will hopefully help at least one person who is struggling," they said. "I know that something like this would have really helped me when I was younger."
Stella Keating, 17 (She/Her)
Stella Keating, 17, from Tacoma, Washington, is a trans teenager on a mission to make life better for future generations of LBGTQ+ youth.
Keating said she first felt like herself at 2 years old when she put on a Cinderella dress. At 9 years old, she came out as trans and began her advocacy journey, speaking to her school board about the need to feel safe as a trans student.
“You want to be yourself and you want to be able to, you know, be as open as you can be,” Keating said. “I think back to when I was in first grade having to hide who I [was] to try to not get bullied … and now here I am, and pretty much everyone at my high school knows that I’m trans and I’m really myself.”
Keating has continued her advocacy work over the years, becoming a founding Champion for the GenderCool project, a youth-led movement that works to "replace misinformed opinions with positive experiences meeting transgender and non-binary youth who are thriving."
"By simply meeting us, it changes hearts and minds," Keating said. "Creating positive, lived experience with successful youth like myself has a huge impact."
Through her work with the GenderCool project, Keating shared her story with the world, testifying before Congress in 2021 in favor of the Equality Act, a bill that prohibits discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity.
“Every single state has had legislation introduced trying to silence trans people … specifically trans kids and trans girls. And not enough people are talking about that,” Keating said. “To be able to have one unified law saying you can't discriminate against queer kids and LGBTQ+ kids … that's fantastic. Of course I want protection for everyone. Why wouldn't I?”
The Equality Act passed the House of Representatives in early 2021 but stalled in the Senate, where it has yet to be brought to a vote. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in June that year that the chamber was “considering” a vote on the bill, but has not scheduled one.
LGBTQ rights advocates have been pushing to pass some version of the Equality Act for nearly 50 years, but have faced staunch opposition from conservatives. Republicans have by and large objected to the legislation, expressing concerns about religious protections while backing anti-transgender efforts nationwide.
Keating hopes to one day enter into a career in politics in hopes of building a brighter future for LGTBQ+ children.
“I'm not looking for my brighter future. This isn't for me, this is for my kids, my grandkids, and every single child after that,” Keating said. “My hope for the future generations of queer kids and LGBTQ people is that they get to live in a world where they don't have to endure bullying and where they don't have to have deep amounts of trauma, because they were bullied for who they are.”
ABC News’ Tony Morrison, Carson Blackwelder, Kelly McCarthy, Shannon Mclellan, Rebecca Anderson, Ivory Ward, Suzanne Dacunto, Donald Pearsall, Andrew Van Wickler, Melanie Schmitz, Elisa Tang, Asher May-Corsini, Joel Lyons, Lauren Sher, Caterina Andreano. Special thanks to Disney PRIDE and PRIDE ABC News + OTV business employee resource groups.