Hon. Eric-John Szczepaniak, 21, attended the 35th annual LGBTQ+ Leaders Conference hosted by the Victory Institute in Washington, DC. Over the course of the four days (November 13-16, 2019), more than 500 LGBTQ+ leaders, including many elected officials from the United States and abroad, attended sessions on a host of intersectional issues that range from community preparedness for dangerous weather situations to homelessness and immigration.
The Victory Institute recruits, trains, and empowers LGBTQ+ leaders to be changemakers in their community by running and serving in elected office.
Szczepaniak serves concurrently as student body president at Grand Valley State University and as a school board trustee for Kenowa Hills Public Schools. In expressing his heartfelt gratitude for Victory and the LGBTQ+ leaders before him, he says that he, like many others in attendance, has chosen to be militantly out so that others may be able to live into their truth one day. He recognizes that not all are able to come out entirely and strives to create a world where LGBTQ+ young people are heard and valued for all parts of their identity.
LGBTQ+ elders shared their experiences of not having many role models as youth and young LGBTQ+ leaders shared their newfound courage that has empowered others in their area to step up and lead.
Virginia Delegate Danica Roem, who became the first transgender person elected to a state legislature in the United States in 2017, stresses the vulnerability that comes with serving as an out LGBTQ+ official. She says others must “Be vulnerable enough to be visible” in order for the collective voices of LGBTQ+ elected officials and community leaders to be the most impactful. She also notes that equity and justice are indeed constituent service issues and that it is a farce to say that LGBTQ+ elected officials only focus on these issues in their community. Her campaign was based on transportation as well as gender equity and she sees this as the way forward. LGBTQ+ elected officials must continue to advocate for their entire constituency and do so in a way that encourages and empowers those that will come after them.
Szczepaniak’s legislative agenda includes creating a board-appointed community task force focused on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion within Kenowa Hills Public Schools. LGBTQ+ leaders are stepping up across the country and world and uplifting all members of their communities in the process. Minneapolis City Councilwoman Andrea Jenkins remarks that, “When we lift up the most vulnerable in our community, everybody benefits.”
Eric-John Szczepaniak serves as a trustee for the Kenowa Hills school board and the President of the Michigan Center for Civic Education.