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The 16-year-old CEO: how high school student Valerie Weisler stood up to bullies and changed the world.

At sweet 16, New York native Valerie Weisler is not waiting for it to get better. She serves as the CEO of the Validation Project, a global movement she founded in January 2013 that unites teenagers to channel their energies into positive action through social justice campaigns, connecting with mentors, and volunteering at one of 900 Validation Project Chapters around the world. Since its launch, the Validation Project has raised more than $25,000 in goods and services for people in need, and works with more than 5,500 teenagers and 2,000 mentors. If that's not enough of an achievement for a teen who decided she wouldn't take being bullied any more, Weisler also serves as a student ambassador for the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and the Human Rights Campaign. You can see her on screen starting this year as a cast member of Magic Makers, a reality TV show by former CNN producer Melissa Rowley that will go behind the scenes to show the world how teenagers are making an impact.

When did you realize you were a lesbian?

When I was in preschool, my mom says I asked her if there was a country where I could marry my best friend, Rachel. But the first time the word "lesbian" really clicked with me was in seventh grade, when I had a big crush on one of my friends. I freaked out and "forgot" that I ever thought I was a lesbian for two years.

How did your family, friends, and fellow students react?

"Gay" has never been a hush-hush word in my family. My mom's birth mother, whom she found in 2006, is gay and married, and my oldest brother, Alex, came out to us three years ago. But even though I'm a 30-minute car ride from New York City, I was the first person in my high school to come out publicly. No one saw it coming. I could barely answer a math question without stuttering, let alone tell the whole world that I'm a lesbian. Once I came out, I quickly went from the Shy Girl to the Gay Girl, and bullies had a lot more ammunition with my new title. The first few weeks after I came out, I couldn't take one step without people I didn't even know whispering "faggot" to me on the way to class every day, and the Populars giving me burning stares when I changed for gym, as if / was checking them out. But then something changed. A cheerleader confessed she had two moms, and a teacher told me her son had a boyfriend. Some of my friends pulled me over in class and came out to me. My story gave people a reason to speak up, and the bullying I faced turned into a domino effect of pride and acceptance in my school. One day after school, I got a phone call from a boy in Uganda who was hiding his sexual orientation to stay alive, begging for me to help him stop hating himself. I knew I had to do something--the problem was a lot bigger than me when I was scared to walk down my school hallway. It's my generation's civil rights movement.

Your actual coming out moment(s)?

The first person I came out to, without saying "This might be a thing," was my school's Gay Straight Alliance advisor. She's also a lesbian and has a wife and kids. After that, it was a trail of random coming outs: to my teacher after I did a project on Stonewall, to my best friend at an event for my youth group, United Synagogue Youth (USY), to my mom when she found me crying in the bathroom, slapping myself in the face because I wanted to be straight, and finally to the world, when I was honored as a Youth Leader for my organization, the Validation Project, by GLSEN in May 2014 and shared the video of my speech on Facebook. But that wasn't the last time I came out. I come out every day. I come out when my camp counselor asks me which boy I like, I come out when the cashier at the grocery store wants to know what the rainbow on my shirt means, I come out when someone says "That's so gay," and I pull them over and say, "Hey, I'm so gay, so knock it off." Coming out never ends, but I've realized that my identity isn't something to be ashamed of, and that's made all the difference.

When was your light bulb moment for the Validation Project?

I've always noticed that my friends and my generation as a whole have incredible, raw dreams. But as soon as we begin to reach for them, people put us down. One weekend at a leadership event for USY, I watched this video by Kurt Kuenne called Validation. It's about this parking attendant who not only validates people's parking tickets, but also themselves. The 15-minute video proves the positive transformation that validation causes. Before I watched it, I never had a name for what my passion is. Afterward, I started thinking about how validation could get people to hold on to their dreams and pursue them. I went home one day after school and Googled how to make a website. Six hours later, the Validation Project was launched.

How has it changed your life?

I am living the dream. Leading more than 5,000 young people across the globe in pursuing their passions and finding their pride has taught me how to find my own, and hang on to it. Traveling around and telling people to go out there and take risks is what gave me the courage to come out.

You're young, so in five years' time where do you see yourself?

I hope I've broken the LGBT coming out barrier by igniting a fire in my generation to see identity as a celebration, not a confession. I also hope the Validation Project has a real office, instead of my kitchen table, even though working from home is a pretty sweet gig!

Do you have time for a girlfriend?

I have a girlfriend and she lives in Chicago. So far, we're proving the long-distance relationship reputation wrong--besides every social media platform possible, we also write to each other nonstop through snail mail.

Advice for young lesbians struggling with coming out?

Do it! Come out. The first step is coming out to yourself and realizing that your identity is something to be proud of. Next, start with the safe people. They'll be your backup when you face the not-so-safe ones. When you start coming out to other people, make sure you don't act like it's something negative. For everyone you come out to, don't sit them down and hold their hand--just tell it like it is. People will mirror whatever your emotions are when you come out, so you have to be strong. There is no perfect time to come out. You'll know in your gut when you're ready. If you need some more advice, chat me up! We lesbians gotta stick together!

Name two inspirational figures.

I bow down to Ellen DeGeneres, and if you play "Can't Hold Us" by Macklemore I will hardcore jam.

GET INVOLVED WITH THE VALIDATION PROJECT!

18 or under: Apply to be a Validator. You'll get partnered with a mentor according to what your passion is, and find incredible volunteering opportunities. You can join a Validation Project chapter--or even start one.

Over 18: Be a mentor. All skills are needed.

Follow the Validation Project on Twitter @TheValidate, on Facebook, and on Instagram @TheValidationProject, thevalidationproject.tumblr.com. (thevalidationproject.com)

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Title Annotation:OUT PROFILES
Author:Johns, Merryn
Publication:Curve
Date:Oct 1, 2014
Words:1293
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