If someone would have told Nora that she would be a CEO one day, there’s a strong likelihood that she would’ve thought they were lying to her.
“If you told me that I was going to be a CEO a few years ago, I wouldn’t have believed you. In the past, I doubted myself and what I could accomplish. Here N Queer has helped me realize that I can make a change that impacts the lives of other people.”
Nora VanRees, 15, and a sophomore in high school, is the Founder & CEO/President of Here N Queer, a non-profit dedicated to LGBTQIA+ advocacy by educating and providing resources to local and international communities.
After witnessing prejudice in her own community, Nora felt inspired to start something to help make the world a more accepting place for all LGBTQIA+ people, in hopes of bringing real change to her community and beyond.
“I have this distinct memory of when I went to a school dance, while I was still in the closet. I’m beyond lucky to attend an accepting school, which is something I always feel grateful for,” she said. “However, the school dance was for another high school in the district. I didn’t know a lot of the kids, and I felt pretty nervous. We went out for burgers, and the other kids made homophobic jokes about my school. They said that everyone at my school was ‘gay’ in a way that made it sound like a negative thing. Everyone looked at me and laughed.
One time, at track practice, a group of middle school boys yelled a homophobic slur at my school’s team. When I look back on these experiences, I feel sad for those kids, because they were uninformed. I built Here N Queer to help eradicate the stigma that sparks these small acts of queerphobia. In the past, I was scared to stand up for myself. But now, after a lot of personal growth, I am proud to stand up for myself. As an advocate, I hope to shape a community that doesn’t foster homophobic attitudes. I hope to ensure that LGBTQIA+ people are treated equally and are not seen as people to be made fun of.”
Nora said she ultimately chose to start Here N Queer because she wanted to help other LGBTQIA+ people. “I wanted to provide resources and to raise awareness about LGBTQIA+ issues. Unlike other topics, a lot of people haven’t been giving much attention to things that are happening to the LGBTQIA+ community. Here N Queer is there to be a source of information and support so that LGBTQIA+ people have a safe space dedicated to them. I want Here N Queer to benefit the LGBTQIA+ community by providing resources and support and to help spread awareness about LGBTQIA+ issues to straight/cisgender people.”
She admitted that the work behind creating Here N Queer has been a long process as there’s a lot of work into creating and maintaining a non-profit organization.
“The most pivotal moment was when Here N Queer obtained a fiscal sponsorship. With the ability to raise funds, we can accomplish so much more! Currently, we are raising money to create free LGBTQIA+ resource kits. The hardest thing has been finding a productivity rhythm. Sometimes I can’t stop working, which is counterproductive to my overall well-being. So, I’ve been working on balancing my time. It’s important to take care of yourself, too.”
Despite some of the difficulties, Nora knows that the work she is doing is beyond important, and by using the power of education and literature, Here N Queer aims to help others learn about LGBTQIA+ topics and relevant news.
“I view LGBTQIA+ advocacy as fighting for the equal treatment of all LGBTQIA+ people. No LGBTQIA+ person should be excluded from queer centered activism. Without this type of advocacy, LGBTQIA+ rights will not improve for future generations. It’s important to fight the stigma so that we can build a world that is more accepting of everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. LGBTQIA+ advocacy is standing up against queerphobia. Whether that be calling out someone who makes a joke about gay people, or fighting against homophobic laws.”
She continued, “When focusing on LGBTQIA+ education, I found that some people in the world are simply uneducated. Often, people are fearful of what they don’t know. This fear builds a stigma that hurts LGBTQIA+ people all around the world. If we provide education about LGBTQIA+ topics, we can begin to reduce the stigma that surrounds conversation about queer people. Additionally, Here N Queer works to inform others about LGBTQIA+ events and news. The general public must be knowledgeable about what’s happening to LGBTQIA+ rights. The more that people are informed, the more of a change we can make.”
Along with using the power of education to provide resources and raise awareness about LGBTQIA+ issues, a large part of Here N Queer’s mission is to distribute mental health resources that are catered to the LGBTQIA+ community.
“The LGBTQIA+ community is one that is underserved and underlooked, especially in the field of health care, which includes mental wellness,” Nora said. “LGBTQIA+ people face significant disparities when it comes to mental health when compared to their straight/cisgender counterparts. For example, LGBTQIA+ people are 4x as likely to attempt suicide than non LGBTQIA+ people. This negative impact on queer people’s mental health can be attributed to lack of access to care, discrimination, and more. To respond, we created an LGBTQIA+ mental health database.“
“When creating Here N Queer, I wanted mental health to be a core part of our mission,” Nora said. “It’s important to me that LGBTQIA+ people have equal access to inclusive resources. Even if one can find resources for mental health, they’re not catered to the LGBTQIA+ people. If making a resource database for LGBTQIA+ people can help just one person, it’s worth the work!”
She also hopes that Here N Queer leaves a positive impact on those who turn to the organization, much like it has had on herself.
“I hope that LGBTQIA+ people feel like they have a safe space to reach out for support. If Here N Queer has a positive impact on one person’s life, I will be happy. I hope that straight/cisgender individuals will feel more informed, and will have some tools to become more effective allies. Overall, I wish that Here N Queer can make a positive contribution to the LGBTQIA+ rights movement.”
Nora expressed that working as the founder and as the CEO/President of Here N Queer has made her feel empowered, and it has brought her an immeasurable amount of joy to help other LGBTQIA+ people from around the world. “This experience has taught me that every ounce of work you do matters,” she said.
Nora also applauded those willing to help advocate for social justice. “I would tell people who are looking to advocate for social justice to believe in themselves. You are truly limitless when you let go of negative expectations. It may sound cliche, but you can do anything you put your mind to. Don’t let the harmful views of others discourage you from fighting for something you believe in. Use it as fuel.”