As a transgender person growing up in the rural South, Benjamin Harris did not feel comfortable opening up about his identity with friends or family.
"It was not easy as a young person," Harris said. "Even teachers who seemed like they may be accepting, they wouldn't offer any explicit support."
Now, as a senior in Old Dominion University's English program, he wants to give LGBTQ+ teens the space he never had.
For his undergraduate research project, Harris organized a summer workshop series designed to be a safe and empowering place for students to explore self-expression, mental health and identity through creative writing.
"Zines for Teens" is open to queer and LGBTQ+ teens and allies ages 13 to 18. The series runs from Aug. 15 to 19, and each workshop will be hosted from 5 to 7 p.m. in ODU's Darden College of Education and Professional Studies (Room 3148).
On the first day, Dr. Cory Gerwe, the former clinical director of mental health for Norfolk's LGBT Life Center, will share mental health tools and resources with students. He will also be available virtually for the rest of the series to any students who want to talk.
"I wanted to provide a way to help kids and give them tools to survive ... because stuff is really rough right now," said Harris, who hopes to become a teacher. "I also wanted to show them that writing doesn't have to be a painful experience."
The research project's goal is to see whether students' relationship with writing changes when queer identities are affirmed. Students will be asked to answer a survey at the beginning and end of the series, but they don't have to participate.
Each student will contribute a page or two to the zine - a self-published work of original or appropriated texts and images. At the end of the project, Eleanor's Feminist Bookstore in Norfolk plans to publish their work.
Harris said he chose zines because they have close ties to the queer community. In the 1980s and '90s, they were a popular form of grassroots activism because they were easy to print and distribute.
Harris said he hopes students will use the zine as an opportunity to share their experiences as queer youth, but the direction and style are up to them.
"When you're 12, you may not know whether you're queer or not yet," he said. "And if you are someone who is just an ally, learning about and exploring queer history is good for you and the queer community."
To sign up for the workshop, visit this link.