Growing up in the “Anxious Generation”

June End OSEAC Blog Post - Photo Credit Sean McCoy

A conversation with Leah Juliett, written by Lennon Torres

This article reflects viewpoints and experience of the contributing individuals and/or organizations.
Content Warning(s): Sexual assault, Child abuse, Self-harm and suicide, Transphobia, Heterosexism

Leah Juliett (they/them), a survivor advocate and expert on Image Based Sexual Violence (IBSV), grew up in a small town in Connecticut. While social media sites were instrumental to Leah’s navigation of their identity during adolescence, it quickly turned dark when they were exploited online. Predators in Leah’s hometown spread their abuse images far and wide, leaving Leah clinging to their dignity and will to live. What once was a medium for connection and community, was now the very thing that led Leah to believe a world of isolation and loneliness was the only path forward. 

Over 2,000 miles away, I was gaining national attention for my dance career as the first male-born contestant to compete on a kids reality dance competition show. This led me to a recurring role on Dance Moms. I struggled with my sexuality and gender identity as a young child growing up in the public eye and turned to private online communities, similar to Omegle, to seek answers for questions about identity and belonging. On these sites, I found myself in many scary situations where adults would entice me to move to more private environments, such as iMessage and Skype, so they could manipulate and groom me into producing child sexual abuse material.

Leah and I are among the generation of queer kids that grew up on social media. Both of us are grateful for social media while simultaneously fearing that other vulnerable kids, like us, will find themselves in unsafe interactions online. We feel strongly that there is a world where technology innovates while also creating safe online communities. 

It’s easy for LGBTQ+ youth to feel alone 

These experiences are sadly not uncommon for LGBTQ+ youth nationwide, and this was only emphasized when I came across new research from the nonprofit Thorn. The research reveals that LGBTQ+ minors perceive the likelihood of online harm as occurring more often than their non-LGBTQ+ peers. They also indicated that they are two to three times more likely to experience unwanted or risky interactions online. This can include receiving unsolicited nudes, getting blackmailed, or having an adult attempt to befriend and/or manipulate them online. 

So often LGBTQ+ youth are left to seek community online rather than in person because of the overwhelming amount of anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric taking place in schools across the United States. Just this year a nonbinary teen, Nex Benedict, died by suicide after a physical altercation at their high school. These tragic and nauseating stories paired with the 522 anti-LGBTQ+ bills currently moving through state legislatures, leave young queer kids feeling helpless and isolated. When mentioning this to Leah, they said, “I don’t blame them,” and I agree.       

Building a better future 

As queer and trans folks, the safety and livelihood of LGBTQ+ young people is a top priority for Leah and me. I joined the Heat Initiative team and raised some honest questions about whether the current suite of online child safety bills had implications on LGBTQ+ kids in mind. I had real concerns that these bills could be used to censor queer communities, especially given the history of LGBTQ+ attacks by some of the legislators authoring these bills. After embarking on what felt like a “listening tour” on the Hill with policy experts working on the legislation, my worries about the bills were alleviated.

Soon after my listening tour, I met Leah for the first time and we instantly connected over a mutual desire to keep kids safe online — while protecting and preserving vital queer online spaces. Our joint advocacy journey began with Heat Initiative’s laser focus on holding Apple accountable for the role they play in the child sexual abuse happening on their devices and platforms. While this focus has not swayed, Leah and I have also been excited to hold social media companies accountable too. Social media companies are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to addressing online harms.  

In January, we traveled together to Capitol Hill to watch the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Big Tech. We brought our identities, and our childhood selves, alongside us. Our work navigating the politics of internet regulation while maintaining our fight for LGBTQ+ liberation has never been at odds. Together, we are committed to building a world where queer and trans kids can thrive — online and offline. 

What became apparent while sitting in the room with Big Tech CEOs and legislators on both sides of the political aisle, was that there is a bipartisan goal of keeping kids safe online. Although many come to the table with a variety of interests, there are real and effective pieces of legislation that will require companies to do right by kids. Leah and I want these to be brought to the Senate floor for a vote.  

That’s why we must all join together to pass the Kids Online Safety Act. Our lived experiences navigating an unsafe internet make us certain that tech regulation and accountability are the only ethical way forward. Yet, too often the legislation that will make tech and social media safer is weaponized by politicians seeking to erase and minimize our community. We won’t back down from fighting to make sure that child safety and LGBTQ+ rights are synonymous. Our first step: passing the Kids Online Safety Act. Because all kids deserve safe childhoods. 

In the meantime, you can find us continuing to call on Apple to build a future without child abuse by implementing reporting in iMessage and stopping the spread of known child sexual abuse material on their platforms. 

About the Authors: 

Lennon Torres (she/her) joined the Heat Initiative with a passion for developing and executing high-level strategic communications plans and campaigns. Her experience at the National Democratic Redistricting Committee supporting and working directly with the 82nd U.S. Attorney General, Eric H. Holder Jr. and leading on the execution of high-level public affairs campaigns positions her to view campaigning through a political, non-profit, and social impact lens. Prior to her political and communications career, Lennon gained national recognition as a dancer and LGBTQ+ advocate, using her voice to shape the narrative around what it means to be a young transgender woman. Lennon documents her transition in major entertainment outlets to inspire greater understanding and compassion for the LGBTQ+ community and champions transgender representation by working with major brands, like Marc Jacobs, Nike, and Hollister for global print and social media campaigns.

Leah Juliett (they/them) is an award-winning activist, writer, and community organizer from Connecticut. Leah is a survivor of image based sexual abuse and child sexual exploitation, and a lived experience expert on technology-facilitated gender-based violence. In 2016, Leah founded and led The March Against Revenge Porn across the Brooklyn Bridge, which moved the needle on cultural conversations around internet abuse. Leah has spoken at The White House and the United States Senate about recommendations to support survivors of image-based sexual abuse, which helped lead to the federal funding of a national hotline for victims. For Leah’s work, they have been named a L’Oreal Paris Woman of Worth, Glamour College Woman of the Year, Advocate Champion of Pride, George H.W. Bush Point of Light, and GLAAD Rising Star. Leah’s social justice advocacy has been featured globally on CNN, BBC, NBC, TED, Teen Vogue, Bloomberg, MSNBC, and Pink News. @leahjuliett 

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