Houghton High School student takes part in National Youth Summit

Photo provided by Mikva Challenge A group of Upper Peninsula students attending the National Youth Summit in Washington D.C. is seen meeting with U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman. They included Ian Evans, a junior at Houghton High School, standing to Bergman’s right. Evans advocated for LBGTQ equality and acceptance.

HOUGHTON — A Houghton High School student joined 99 other teenagers from around the country in a national forum where they discussed issues important to them, and also met with national legislators to advocate for them.

Ian Evans, a junior at Houghton, attended the Mikva Challenge’s first National Youth Summit, held in Washington D.C., where he spoke about the need for LGBTQ+ equality and acceptance. He was also one of a dozen students selected for the Soapbox Nation event at Ford’s Theatre.

“It was really nice because you could tell that everyone there really wanted to be there and wanted to make a difference and wanted to make a change in our government,” he said. “And it was amazing. I wish I could go again.”

The Chicago-based Mikva Challenge is a group aimed at engaging youth through participation in democracy.

Evans advanced from the Tom Baldini Soapbox Challenge, which Mikva has hosted in Marquette for the past five years. His speech originated as a school assignment for his AP Language and composition class, where students were asked to speak about an issue they were passionate about, and present a call for action on how to solve it.

His teacher helped them focus by asking a question: “If you had all the bravery in the world right now, what would you talk about?”

For Evans, it was the lack of equality and acceptance for LGBTQ+ people in the community and around the country. He recounted an incident last fall where he was walking down the hallway where he stopped to avoid running into a student who had cut in front of him. One of the students stuck behind him then called Evans a homophobic slur.

“I wish I could say the ideas behind that language are few and far between, but they’re not,” he said in his speech. “These bigoted and hateful opinions exist nationwide, and stem from the same lack of education, awareness and understanding, all while hurting, and even killing, real people.”

He compared the taboo around the word “gay” to those surrounding serious crimes such as murder, where they’re not meant to be discussed around children. That treatment then teaches children there’s something wrong with being gay or trans, Evans said — including his 10-year-old cousin, who admonished Evans for being “bad and evil.”

Evans tied that taboo to legislation being advanced at state levels and nationally, such as a Louisiana Congressman’s bill in the U.S. House of Representatives that would have banned books and the teaching of curriculum of “sexually oriented material” to students under 10, including discussion of gender identity, transgenderism or sexual orientation.

Those bills, some of which extend throughout the K-12 levels, “strengthen the taboo surrounding the LBGT community, ultimately causing more homophobia and transphobia to develop within our country,” Evans said. They contribute to an atmosphere that has made LBGTQ+ people aged 10 to 24, four times as likely to attempt suicide as their peers, Evans said, citing statistics from the CDC and The Trevor Project.

“I have friends who have gotten death threats,” he said in an interview after returning to Houghton. “I shouldn’t have to worry about my friends potentially committing suicide because of the way they’re treated. It’s just not something anyone should have to deal with.”

There’s no easy solution, Evans said. He called for a cultural shift “where everyone can feel safe and accepted in society, and these ill-informed opinions disappear.”

While in Washington, Evans and students from Marquette met with U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman and a staffer from U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s office.

Each spoke on behalf of their issues. Lily Dixon, a Marquette student who also spoke at Soapbox Nation, advocated for gun control legislation. Evans suggested a bill modeled on the Let Doctors Provide Reproductive Health Care Act, which Stabenow co-sponsored, that would protect doctors providing gender-affirming care and those seeking it out. The students also asked Stabenow to encourage the state to develop comprehensive sexual education rather than “abstinence only.”

“She listened very attentively,” he said. “At the end she concluded saying ‘Your vices matter, thank you for taking the time to come talk to us … the senator does stand with you, and I’ll make sure the issues you advocated for get to the right staffers and even the senator.'”

In addition to those issues, they asked Bergman to help close the “dark store” tax loophole, which has pitted Houghton and other municipalities against big-box retailers looking to lower their property taxes.

“That conversation, it wasn’t as productive, but we were still really grateful to have the chance to speak with him,” Evans said.

The previously shy Evans described the summit as a life-changing event.

“Through the soapbox speech and through having to do all these things where we’re advocating with actual politicians, I’ve become a lot more confident in my public speaking abilities and it doesn’t make me as nervous anymore,” he said.

The week before his trip, Evans attended a school board meeting where he recounted some incidents, as well as saying a racial slur had been written on a stall in the freshman boys’ bathroom.

His appearance had at least one immediate result. The next, administrators got Evans out of class so he could show them where the slur was.

Evans said he planned to follow up with the board about other steps, such as in-service training for teachers. He may also look to meet with Houghton’s city council.

“This is something that I think I want to do in the future,” he said. “I want to be somewhat involved in government policymaking, and so I just want to do anything I can to help promote change for the better.”

Evans’ speech and those of other Soapbox Challenge participants can be seen at vimeo.com/830294314. Evans delivers his talk an hour and 5 minutes into the event.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $2.99/week.

Subscribe Today