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Stories from the Heartland

Photographer Maxwell Poth’s new book highlights queer youth in rural America.

Maxwell Poth, author and photographer of Young Queer America: The Real Stories and Faces of LGBTQ+ Youth. (Photo by Luke Fontana)

Recent efforts have been made in pop culture to depict the LGBTQ community’s increasing visibility and acceptance. While the wheels of progress are certainly turning, photographer Maxwell Poth understands firsthand that the safe spaces for queer youth depicted on television and in film are often missing in the more conservative pockets of rural America.

Poth is a gay Utah native who has made a name for himself as a top photographer in Los Angeles. His talents and devotion to advocating for queer youth recently led him on a nationwide tour that has culminated in the publication of Young Queer America: Real Stories and Faces of LGBTQ+ Youth, a collection of interviews and stunning photography that reveals the true face of queer youth in America.

“I traveled to 16 states and documented a total of 73 young queer Americans, mainly throughout rural America but with some bigger cities included, as well,” Poth explains. “I met with them, got to know their personal stories, and interviewed them on what it’s like to be queer where they’re from. At the end of their stories in the book, they give advice to other young queer kids.”

Poth’s journalism project, which took roughly two years to complete, was partially self-funded, with additional financial aid from Project Contrast, the nonprofit organization Poth founded to amplify voices of LGBTQ youth through the power of storytelling. While he was first outlining the project in 2020, Poth knew he needed to tap into the American heartland.

“I think it’s really important to highlight these kids [in rural America] and paint a picture of what it’s really like in this country. I decided to choose rural America to travel to and meet these kids because their stories deserve to be highlighted. Even though you’ll read some pretty sad, moving stories, you’ll also read a lot of positive ones. They’re the true America—the people fighting just to live another day.”

The book project was also Poth’s way of honoring a gay Utah teen who tragically took his own life. “The book is dedicated to a boy named Stockton Powers,” Poth explains. “He’s a boy from my hometown who took his life because he was gay. We went to the same high school, had the same teachers, and he really made an impact in the state of Utah. Even though he lost his life, Utah really started to listen.”

Poth’s search for young participants willing to be interviewed was easier said than done. His online searches—everything from hashtags to TikToks—eventually paid off, and even led Poth to Houston for two interviews.

“Texas is a giant state filled with so many different types of people,” he says. “I wanted to find interesting youth in Houston to really highlight a specific demographic. I worked with a trans boy named Hayden who is really amazing. Hayden is a born advocate who takes life by the horns. They wanted to see change, so they created change. They wanted to see community, so they created community. Hayden grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family and was not afraid to be themselves—not only [as a queer teen], but also as a confident individual in their Jewish community.

(L-R) Trevor, Hayden, and Nathaniel

“I also worked with a Houston kid who was kicked out of their home. They had to figure things out on their own and they found safety in Houston before moving to Austin.”

Reflecting on the potential impact of his project, Poth hopes his book is read by those who need it most. “My number-one goal is to make sure every queer youth in America has this book. It can also help a struggling parent accept their child, or bring an ally to understanding who these children are and what their lives are like,” he says.

“I thought my life was going in one direction. Choosing the path of becoming a photographer in Los Angeles by following my heart ultimately led me to this project. I hope I can keep doing this kind of work, and I plan to.”

As Poth’s years-long project is finally being released to the masses, he looks back on his travels with pride. “I have traveled all over the country. Even though geographically and demographically it’s so different, you’d be surprised how similar all of the youth are. When the featured youth read these stories, even though they’re all different, they will hopefully see that they’re not so dissimilar, and how beautiful that is. The point of this book is to help queer youth find community and realize that it exists all over the country—even in their own neighborhoods. That’s something really beautiful that I got out of all of this. There is literally a beautiful queer community anywhere you go. You just have to find them.”

Maxwell Poth’s Young Queer America: Real Stories and Faces of LGBTQ+ Youth is available wherever books are sold.

Keep up with Maxwell Poth on Instagram @Maxwell Poth.


Zach McKenzie

Zachary McKenzie is a marketing professional and freelance writer in Houston, TX. He received his bachelor's degree from The University of Texas at Austin in 2014 and has lived in Houston since. Zachary is a volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters and enjoys spending his free time with friends, exploring the richness and diversity of Houston.
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