Photo Credit: Fabrine Reis/Shutterstock
Like many young people, 19-year old Sophia Smith-Gatto struggled with her sexual identity growing up. She wanted to express herself but worried she wouldn’t be accepted in her Arizona community. “It wasn't until my best friend came out to me that I realized it was actually okay for me to like girls, and it didn't mean that there was anything wrong with me,” the Girl Scout tells CircleAround.
Smith-Gatto knew she wasn’t the only LGBTQ+ youth who needed support. This was even more apparent after she became a camp counselor, when campers expressed their thoughts and confusion about their own gender and sexuality. Inspired by this experience, Smith-Gatto decided to make a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ youth, and to make this the central focus of her Girl Scout Gold Award project. She earned that award — the highest honor a Girl Scout can achieve — after organizing events and a website to help connect LGBTQ+ youth.
Smith-Gatto organized a virtual conference in collaboration with such organizations as one-n-ten, the Southern Arizona Gender Alliance, and THEM Youth Ensemble. Attendees were provided with engaging presentations on pronouns, how parents can support trans youth, how to create safe spaces, and how to form similar organizations in their own communities.
From this conference, Smith-Gatto created Understanding the LGBTQ+ Experience, a website that provides information on LGBTQ+ topics that aren’t necessarily taught in schools, an overview of LGBTQ+ terminology and sexualities, information about the Girl Scout Gold Award, and resources and helplines for LGBTQ+ youth.
“Finding people who were similar to me really helped me find and accept myself,” she tells CircleAround. “I included interviews with LGBTQ+ youth on my website so other LGBTQ+ youth could foster more self-acceptance.
People in the LGBTQ+ community go through a long journey of finding out who they are,” Smith-Gatto says. “It's a very confusing process, particularly for LGBTQ+ youth who are already going through the struggles of being a kid. For many, figuring out who you are, overcoming internal and external biases, and learning how to accept and love yourself overall can seem like an impossible feat.
“People in the LGBTQ+ community go through a long journey of finding out who they are,” Smith-Gatto says. “It's a very confusing process, particularly for LGBTQ+ youth who are already going through the struggles of being a kid. For many, figuring out who you are, overcoming internal and external biases, and learning how to accept and love yourself overall can seem like an impossible feat.”
Through all of this, Smith-Gatto also learned to overcome challenges that the pandemic presented. “With everything having to be online, I relied on email to communicate with my organizations,” she explains. “However, it was often difficult for me to get through to my partners because with the pandemic, everyone is communicating via email.”
Kristen Garcia-Hernandez, the CEO of Girl Scouts of Southern Arizona and Smith-Gatto’s Gold Award mentor, commends Smith-Gatto for her hard work, saying, “Sophia persevered through the various challenges of COVID and remained dedicated to rolling out her project, pivoting to offer her series via online platform. It has been incredible to watch Sophia grow in her voice and her advocacy.”
To earn her Gold Award, Smith-Gatto also leaned on the support of Maggie Myers, the adviser for Girl Scouts of Southern Arizona. Myers provided expertise on the Gold Award process to make sure that Smith-Gatto’s proposal, final report, and project were as strong as they could be.
Smith-Gatto advises busy adults who feel they don’t have time to support youth in their communities to make the time.“We're all incredibly busy, but when something is important we find ways to make time,” she explains. “Young people are the future and we're going to change the world. So make time for us.”
Now a student at the University of Arizona Honors College, Smith-Gatto is pursuing a degree in Applied Humanities: Public Health. She hopes to work for a nonprofit someday and feels her Gold Award experience has prepared her for the future.
“Through my project, I was able to help LGBTQ+ youth know that they are not alone, give them resources and support, and also educate allies and parents about LGBTQ+ issues and how they can create the most supportive environment possible,” she tells CircleAround. “It is important to foster an environment of understanding and empathy in the minds of parents and allies, as well as connect LGBTQ+ youth with community resources that can help them thrive.”
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