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When Cameron Samuels was a freshman at Seven Lakes High School in Katy, Texas, they tried to visit the website for The Advocate, the oldest LGBTQ publication in the United States.
But Samuels, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, said the page was blocked by their school district.
“I received a page that said that website was blocked because it was under the category of ‘alternative sexual lifestyles, GLBT,’” said Samuels, now 18 and about to graduate.
Samuels was troubled by the block, but at the time said they didn’t have the leadership skills to fight it.
About two years later, when Samuels returned to the school for in-person instruction, they began to organize students against what they described as the “discriminatory internet filter.”
In November, Samuels spoke about the issue at a school board meeting.
“I was the only student and received no applause,” Samuels said in a recent video interview. “That was really frightening as I walked back to my seat after speaking and just saw people staring at me, but I realized that those stares were stairs to climb on.”
After Samuels organized more students, they said the district removed its block on the website for the Montrose Center, a local LGBTQ group in the state, in December. In January, it removed restrictions on websites for three national organizations: Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBTQ advocacy group in the country; GLSEN, which fights for the rights of LGBTQ students; and PFLAG, which supports LGBTQ people and their families, among other sites.
But Samuels said the district continues to block The Trevor Project, an LGBTQ youth suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization, because of a chat feature that connects young people with trained counselors.
“They’re claiming it’s because of a chat feature, but really the category that it’s blocked under had been ‘alternative sexual lifestyles,’” Samuels told NBC News in February.
Students will have to continue to challenge the block after Samuels graduates in June, which Samuels said they’re well-equipped to do. Samuels said one of their proudest moments has been mobilizing students from all nine of the high schools in the district — a total student body population of 90,000 — to fight not just the internet filter but also book bans.
Their district, the Katy Independent School District, has been one of many where school board meetings have turned into heated debates over books and instruction on topics related to race. The district pulled nine books off shelves earlier this year, NBC News reported in February. All of the titles are related to LGBTQ issues or race.
Students, including Samuels, responded by organizing book drives at schools across the district and at several public spaces. In late February, Samuels said more than 80 people showed up to a book distribution event at Jordan High School.
“The librarian said that was the most people that had ever been in the library, which is where the event took place,” Samuels told NBC in February. “It was like a record for the school. … They distributed 70 books, so more people showed up than could get a book. But we have hundreds more that we’re hoping to continue distributing.”
They said some of the students who attended the book distributions were not out as LGBTQ, because they feared their parents or friends wouldn’t support them. They’ve taken books that affirm who they are, and “they have told me with such great appreciation that these books have helped them, that these books will help them, and that is why it’s so important that students have access to literature that affirms their identity,” Samuels said, recalling the events.
At a school board meeting, also in February, Samuels said students packed the room and so many of them spoke against the book bans that they outnumbered the opposition.
“There were Pride flags and stickers across the room, and almost every seat was filled, which was such an empowering moment to see that I, as a single student with no applause, have now built this movement where students are coming to school board meetings, outnumbering the opposition in February, in March, in May and hopefully in the future,” they said.
Samuels said the movement they started is sustainable, and it will be something they leave behind after they leave to go to Brandeis, a private research university outside Boston, to study computer science and politics, “and maybe legal studies and journalism,” they said.
They said their advice to younger LGBTQ students who want to oppose book bans or other anti-LGBTQ efforts is to seek support where you can find it.
“Seek friends who will accept you for who you are, and don’t try to fit someone else’s expectations,” they said. “You are you. There’s nobody else that is you.”