When SFGN teased the Person of the Year for 2022 on Instagram, it appears we should have blurred his face and his signature rainbow plaid button-up shirt.
A score from Out of the Closet, Maxx Fenning, 20, says it’s become his go-to outfit this year; he wore it when visiting the Florida Capitol to testify against the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, speaking at a March for Our Lives rally, attending a Protect the Children counterprotest, doing a photoshoot for i-D magazine, and filming videos for his TikTok account, which has more than 50,000 followers.
With LGBT people — including community youth — under attack this year, Fenning and other Gen Zers have been handed the reins from their predecessors to fight for equality. And like those before him, they’ve found their own way to do it.
“We had already seen the power of organizing — with March For Our Lives, in particular, is what really inspired a lot of Gen Z and political activism and organizing it in a digital space,” Fenning said. “I say that nobody knows how young people are engaging with social media better than young people themselves.”
Fenning grew up moving around the country for his father’s job but has always felt at home in South Florida for its queer-friendly space. He started the youth advocacy group, Prism, while attending Boca Raton Community High School when he and some other students wanted to tackle more activism and education than the current LGBT club.
During his senior year, he was also a full-time college freshman at Florida Atlantic University. Wanting to keep the momentum of Prism going, he and his fellow founders incorporated as a nonprofit in April 2020 — just as COVID-19 was forcing the nation into lockdown. He has since transferred to the University of Florida, where he is earning his degree in business administration remotely.
Prism had originally dreamed of opening a community center much like Compass Community Center in Lake Worth Beach, but the pandemic and the reality of how much it would cost to make it happen made the group pivot into the digital space.
Knowing that Gen Z responds well to bite-sized content, the group turned to social media to create videos surrounding LGBT history and current events, sexual health, gender and sexuality, and BIPOC-related topics.
“You just need an internet connection and then a phone or a laptop, and you can access all of this information,” Fenning said. “That's so, so powerful."
And the Prism team was getting an education of their own, going down research rabbit holes on the internet to learn about people like Harvey Milk, Alan Turing and Marsha P. Johnson, names that never come up during history class. As their videos spread through the internet, Fenning saw that not only was it a source of education for LGBT youth, but also their allies.
“I think it's been a big relief to a lot of queer youth who really want to be able to explain their community in a very, very succinct way to family members to friends without having to have really, really sometimes traumatic conversations repeatedly,” he said.
The platform also helped Fenning learn about how history was repeating itself. Conservative groups rally to “protect the children” from “groomers” and gender-affirming care much like Anita Bryant did in her quest to “save the children” from gay school teachers in the 1970s. Then came the passage of the Parental Rights in Education Bill, colloquially known as “Don’t Say Gay” in progressive circles, an extension of the “no promo homo” laws that swept the ‘90s.
This year, Fenning said his “bubble popped” as he saw the realities of what it meant to be LGBT in Florida. While Prism never intended to get into legislation, Fenning and his colleagues could no longer sit back when laws were being passed that directly affected LGBT youth.
“Our focus is LGBT-inclusive education and this sort of was right in our wheelhouse and it necessitated us getting into policy work,” he said. “There was no way around getting into policy work at this point.”
In February, Safe Schools South Florida invited Fenning to join them on a bus ride to Tallahassee to testify against the Parental Rights in Education bill during Equality Florida’s Lobby days. He remembers being in awe of the grandeur of the Capitol — its ornate rotunda and the bee hive of activity in the building.
Florida Sen. Shevrin Jones gave the group a tour of the Senate chambers. Fenning finally got to meet fellow youth advocates Will Larkins, who went viral for their history presentation on Stonewall after the passage of “Don’t Say Gay” as well as being suspended for handing out Pride flags at their Winter Park school, and Javier Gomez, who organized a walk-out at his Miami school.
While in Tallahassee, Fenning was photographed by the Tallahassee Democrat down a hallway, flanked by LGBT supporters holding up posters and flags.
On the other side of the coin, he said that while standing in an elevator, he heard Republican lawmakers whisper about “those people” being there.
“To be called that is so othering and nauseating,” he remembers. “I realized that the Florida that I lived in doesn’t really mesh well with the Florida that’s up in Tallahassee and the rest of our state government, and I think that’s something that I really had to come to terms with this year, especially.”
In March, “Don’t Say Gay” was signed into law, and Fenning kept looking forward. In June, he spoke at the March for Our Lives rally in Coral Gables and reminded the crowd of the 49 lives lost at Pulse.
“We know they don’t care about the lives of people like me,” he said at the dais of politicians. “They don’t care that gay men like me are twice as likely to be a victim of violence by a straight man. That trans women of color fall victim to their inaction every single day. They don’t care.”
A month later, he was a part of a die-in in front of the Florida Board of Medicine meeting in Dania Beach to discuss transgender care for youth. Draped in the transgender flag, they held up cardboard gravestones that read messages such as “denied care,” “overdose” and “substance abuse.”
As the school year started, Prism fought to have Miami-Dade County recognize October as LGBTQ History Month — the motion failed with only Lucia Baez-Geller, who wrote the proclamation, voting in favor of it. It was a complete reversal from last year when the motion passed 7-1. While it was a disappointing loss, Fenning says they managed to win the next fight in December when the same school board relented that federally protected flags could be displayed in classrooms, which would include the Pride flag.
Looking back at 2022, Fenning and other youth advocates have proven that they are not silent, that they vote, that they care, and that they are a force to be reckoned with.
While not all the battles were won, the war still rages on — with Fenning’s armor of rainbow plaid, of course.
“I'm not gonna say that it was like this magical, spectacular time because it was an extremely hard year,” he said. “We saw an insurmountable number of setbacks, but it's like I say, insurmountable means knowing that it is something that we will surmount, right? I know that it is such a tall mountain, but it is a mountain that is going to feel so good when we get to the peak of it.”
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