Jason Landau Goodman: Building, leading the PA LGBT youth movement

Whitney Houston said it best: “I believe the children are our future.”

OK, she didn’t actually write those words — they were from the late great Philadelphia songwriter Linda Creed — and this week’s profile, Jason Landau Goodman, isn’t exactly a child, but he is the founding executive director of the Pennsylvania Youth Congress.

Landau Goodman has been a leader in the LGBTQ youth movement for more than four years as the first person to work directly and specifically with LGBTQ youth on the statewide level in Pennsylvania. A fifth-generation Pennsylvanian, Landau Goodman started and spearheaded the work for a local LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance in Lower Merion Township, a measure that unanimously passed the Lower Merion Board of Commissioners in December 2010, making the township the first municipality in Montgomery County to do so. Landau Goodman was a 2010 Jonathan Lax Scholar and has been named one of the top-12 LGBT youth leaders in the United States by Campus Pride.

This very publication named him 2010 runner-up for Person of the Year, and a 2013 Person to Watch, and our readers this summer selected him for the Best Youth award in the Best of LGBT Philly contest.

This has been quite a year for Landau Goodman, as he has marched from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.; journeyed to Salzburg, Austria; and will have traveled nearly 40,000 miles throughout Pennsylvania in the effort to create a better state for LGBTQ people.

PGN: I’m jealous, how did you come to participate in the recent March on Selma?

JLG: I was invited by the National Park Service to participate in the official reenactment as one of 70 youth from across the country. There were about 200 marchers total for the actual march, though of course many more at the start and finish. There were even some of the original marchers at the finish, including one of the leaders, Amelia Boynton. She just passed away last month at 104 so it was amazing to have had the honor of her presence. It was a transformative experience, to be out with so many youth advocates from around the country paying tribute to those who fought so fiercely for civil rights. We marched the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery and slept on the side of the road like the original marchers. It was interesting that we had Alabama state troopers alongside to protect us, much different than the scenario 50 years ago!

PGN: What were the troopers protecting you from?

JLG: Mostly traffic; we were on a state highway. But we were walking through rural Alabama, so who knew what could have happened? Even today.

PGN: I understand that you are one of the founders of the PA Youth Congress.

JLG: Yes, I was one of the original founders and I’m the founding executive director.

PGN: What made you decide to get involved with LGBT youth activism?

JLG: It was very incidental. I was just in the right place at the right time to help connect the dots across the state. I’d just started at Penn and they hired me to help advance policy efforts and community organizing within the school and city for LGBT youth. I was the vice chair for political affairs for the Lambda Alliance. I had the idea to bring collective youth groups together to have a voice in City Hall. I’d go to meetings at Drexel and Temple then Pittsburgh and Erie and it just kept spreading. We formed our independent organization in 2011 and became the first entirely youth-led, statewide LGBTQ organization in the United States. Often, young people are put into a box where the agenda is dictated to them instead of by them. This allowed us to be our own best advocates and address what we decided our needs were.

PGN: When did you come out?

JLG: It was summer of 2005, 10 years ago, and then my junior year when I came out to friends and family. My family was very supportive, though of course, it’s something that every family has to work through. I remember at first it was, “OK, we love you unconditionally and we just want you to be happy. We just want you to find someone to love who loves you back.” It was a beautiful statement of support. However, for the next two years, it was never mentioned again. I didn’t have the language to express myself and they didn’t know what questions to ask. After a while, I had to come out again, like “Uh, you know that thing that I shared? It’s still a thing.” After that, it clicked and we talk about everything now. At this point, they educate their friends and coworkers on LGBT issues. I also went to Friends Central, which was an incredibly supportive environment. I truly credit who I am and how I see the world in great part to the education I received there.

PGN: Where did you grow up?

JLG: I grew up in Lower Merion, which is a rather conservative area. I didn’t experience any hostility, it was just never spoken about so I didn’t know any gay people. I didn’t have any possible models to show the way, I didn’t have the language or words to figure things out until I got to Friends Central. It was an incredibly safe place to come out, with both out faculty members and out students. When I was starting at Penn, I learned that you could be fired simply for being LGBT in most parts of Pennsylvania, and I found that very frustrating because I wanted to be safe in the home community that I love. I happened to be connected with some of the people in Lower Merion government and found out that it was possible to enact an ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. As a citizen of the township, I asked for meetings with the commissioners and different civic groups and formed a campaign. Within two years, we got it passed unanimously. Soon we worked with over a dozen other suburban municipalities who also passed protective ordinances. I was 19 and had no formal training but with various community partners and allies, I learned by doing.

PGN: The power of one determined person! What was the hardest part of being an LGBT youth?

JLG: Oh my goodness, a lot, but I don’t like to let the bad outweigh the good. I think in general as a young person it’s incredibly hard to be taken seriously by the larger LGBT community, as an equal community partner at the table — to get them to realize that young people have opinions that matter, especially when it comes to issues that impact our lives. There are little micro-aggressions that happen every day as well as larger, institutionalized ones, everywhere from funding to just getting a seat at the table.

PGN: In this age of LGBT visibility, we tend to think that everything is fine, but as a youth advocate, I’m sure you’ve seen firsthand accounts that say otherwise.

JLG: Yes, so many kids are isolated, with few resources, especially in some of the rural areas we work in. We do everything to show them they’re loved and respected and get them the resources and help they need. We worked with Issak Wolfe to allow him to participate in prom and have his name read at graduation. We actually brought a whole team to his graduation with a card signed by thousands of people and flowers. When the schools make terrible decisions, we help guide them to better ones. Later that year, Kasey Caron ran for homecoming king and was told he would be listed on the male side of the ballot but at the last minute the school put him on the female side. We intervened in that case too.

PGN: Tell me about your White House trips.

JLG: Sure! In June 2011, I was invited by the White House as one of five college youth in the nation to go to President Obama’s LGBT Pride Month Reception. In the fall of 2012, I was humbled to be selected by the White House to participate in the first LGBT Emerging Leaders program. I’ve been honored to go to several briefings and even had dinner at the vice president’s house. Those national and international kinds of events really help validate and celebrate the work we’re doing.

PGN: Barbara Walters was notorious for taking things with the White House logo — matches, etc. Did you cop anything?

JLG: [Laughs] I do have some napkins from the vice president’s house!

PGN: What did the Lax scholarship mean to you?

JLG: It was the first recognition that I was given by the community that I serve, so it meant a lot to me.

PGN: Tell me about some of the work you did at Penn.

JLG: I was very involved in the Jewish LGBT community at Penn. I was the chair of J-Bagel — it once stood for Jewish Bisexuals, Gays & Lesbians, but I changed that because it wasn’t inclusive enough. Through that group, I’ve been able to travel all over the country and internationally, as far away as Austria last month to join other LGBT Jewish leaders from all over the world — from Russia to South Africa to Australia — to help create safe environments. Of course, one of the best parts is that I was able to go to the actual hill where the Sound of Music was shot and dance and sing nearby.

PGN: You’ve put in some miles!

JLG: Yes, I’ve traveled all over Pennsylvania and the country, as well as overseas.

PGN: Tell me an interesting fact about someone else in the family.

JLG: Oh boy, I can’t think of anything and that’s crazy because I was the kid in the family who, at 11, would go down to the National Archives and going through old microfilm to find out family history. I’d interview people and compile all the information. Let’s see … We have five generations of family here in Philadelphia. And my great-grandfather was a painter. He was discovered as a child by a U.S. senator in Michigan who sent him to Europe to study.

PGN: Two books I’d find on your nightstand.

JLG: Well, I’m in law school right now so currently you’ll find casebooks. Usually you’d find a lot of civil-rights history books. Right now, I’m reading a book on Bayard Rustin. Ooh, I’m looking at the stand right now, I also have my Yiddish books.

PGN: You’re in law school right now?

JLG: [Laughs] I know, I didn’t already have enough to do!

PGN: What advice would you give someone who is questioning or considering coming out as LGBTQ?

JLG: Be true to yourself but be safe. I would encourage anyone who can be affirming to who they are, to come out, in whatever way that they’re comfortable. But to also remember that not everyone can be at the same level; there are different degrees within that comfort zone. But when it’s safe, come out. Be true to yourself!

PGN: What are some of the challenges young people are facing today?

JLG: We’re still facing a lot of the same LGBT discrimination that we’ve always faced, in schools or in our communities, but I think we’re now becoming more aware of the intersectional work that has to be done with poverty and racism and how those types of things intersect with LGBT issues — issues like street harassment or foster care and how they overlap with LGBT concerns. Certainly, bullying is still a big problem and students in Pennsylvania don’t have much recourse. There are no statewide laws to protect them. There’s so much to do but we can do it, as we learn not to just say, “Yeah, there’s a big problem with LGBT homelessness,” and letting it go at that. There are people starting to work in concert with young people who have unstable housing concerns; working within the communities is what specifically is going to work to solve the problem. There’s no magic wand, one-size-fits-all solution. We need to talk about #Blacklivesmatter and #Translivesmatter and truly recognize what has to be done. Is it within the justice system? Can it be addressed through community development? What are the things that LGBT youth can do to best address the problems?

PGN: You mentioned that when you came out there were no gay role models. It seems like social media is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you have access to information and content that would have been impossible before, but on the other hand you have cyber bullying and religious backlash.

JLG: Things have changed dramatically just in the last few decades. Hearing the stories from elders about how in the ’60s and ’70s they had gay switchboards and chat rooms … now we have so much at our fingertips that it’s easy to get complacent and think that, Yeah, everything is fine, but not everyone is fine. There are things going on in the real world that affect LGBT youth every day. These are things that need to be addressed in person, in the communities, boots on the ground. Visibility is important, but so are the things that happen in real life right in front of us. Be one of the voices that supports those who aren’t being heard. Social media is fine, but it’s not the end.

PGN: Anything that I didn’t cover?

JLG: Just that I’m so incredibly grateful for the advocates who came before me and those around me today who are doing the work and supporting young people. I’m lucky and humbled to be a part of the long line of people who have built our community.

For more information about Pennsylvania Youth Congress, visit www.payouthcongress.com.

To suggest a community member for Family Portrait, email [email protected].