FeaturesPride 2023

Trailblazing Teenager

Student activist Cameron Samuels makes a stand by fighting for a seat at the table.

Cameron Samuels (Photography by Alex Rosa for OutSmart)

The LGBTQ community is well acquainted with facing discrimination in many forms, but, to borrow a phrase from Martin Luther King Jr., “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

For Cameron Samuels, the courageous teen who battled Katy Independent School District in a 2021 dispute involving the district’s homophobic internet search filters and book bans, being recognized with the Human Rights Campaign’s Trailblazer Award in April was a moment of resolution.

“It was such an honor to receive this award. I made so many connections, and loved having a voice in this program. I hope that my words during the [acceptance speech] inspire more students to act,” says the Seven Lakes High School graduate who uses they/them pronouns.

“It’s not an easy job, and I know that I alone cannot make a substantial change that will finish this work. But I know that I am inspiring others and working with others who will continue and finish this work,” they add. “It means a lot to be recognized for these tireless efforts that can become exhausting. I know there’s so much more to be done, but the recognition, support, and involvement of organizations like the Human Rights Campaign are so appreciated.”

HRC’s Chris Barry (l) with Samuels at this year’s HRC awards dinner

To fully appreciate what that HRC award meant to Samuels, one must understand the origin of their frustration with the suburban Houston school district.

“Katy ISD implemented an internet filter that prohibited students from accessing LGBTQ websites and resources in our schools. Other students and I wanted to find a way to make a change on this policy. We came together and spoke at school board meetings,” they recall. “Then we started seeing that books were being banned as well, so we organized to collect books from publishers and nonprofits, distributed them at after-school clubs, and got a lot of momentum rolling [that demonstrated] the power that students can have in school districts and school-board policy.”

The Katy Independent School District finally restored access to LGBTQ-affirming websites at its nine high schools after a complaint filed in 2022 by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas and Lambda Legal on behalf of Samuels.

Samuels’ narrative extends beyond these initial wins, though, and they used that success as a catalyst for change on a larger scale.

“Along with several other students, I co-founded Students Engaged in Advancing Texas (SEAT). We’re demanding a seat at the table [so we can have a voice in] decisions directly affecting us. We’ve been at the Capitol every week since March, and have been introducing bills and resolutions to support student [participation] in policy decision-making,” they explain.

The group introduced a bill that would prohibit school districts from having internet filters like the one in Katy, and it is pushing legislation that would include students by requiring a student board-member position in Texas school districts. Ultimately, the organization hopes to spread this model of sustainable organizing across Texas.

“When students are directly affected by policy, but decision-makers are making policy about us without us, we cannot have our needs met and our voices heard. [Giving] students a seat at the table with school boards—or being involved in policy decision making with state legislators—gives students the confidence and the pride to be the best they can,” Samuels says. “[When our] voices are not only heard as consultants, but are involved in the process, then policymakers can reflect our values more directly. [But] when we’re left out, it only reinforces the status quo created by the traditionally adult-dominated field of politics.”

Since graduating from high school, Samuels is now studying at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, majoring in politics with a journalism minor. And they show no signs of slowing down in Texas politics, despite the geographic distance.

“It has played out very well so far. Even though I’m out of the state at Brandeis, we continue to organize digitally. Studying politics and journalism has been really influential for me with regard to building movements in our Texas community,” they say. “I’ve certainly had my eyes on Texas this entire year, so it seems like the Texas can’t be taken out of me. They’re not done with me yet!”

As Samuels contemplates the future, one thing seems certain: they will be involved with change making.

“I am going to see where the opportunity to make change will take me. I’m not entirely sure where it will end up, but politics happens whether or not we are at the table,” they conclude. “I definitely want a seat at the table—for myself, and for other young people, too. Wherever there’s a need to utilize our voices, I hope that I and other young people will be filling that gap.”

Follow SEAT on Instagram @StudentsEngagedTX.

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Sam Byrd

Sam Byrd is a freelance contributor to Outsmart who loves to take in all of Houston’s sights, sounds, food and fun. He also loves helping others to discover Houston’s rich culture. Speaking of Houston, he's never heard a Whitney Houston song he didn't like.
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