March 2, 2018

If you ask Phoebe Hooper to pinpoint when his life took off on a new trajectory — when he gained independence, developed a passion for travel, and, most importantly, discovered his own capacity to accomplish amazing things — he would say it was the three weeks he spent in the United States as part of an international youth exchange program.

In 2014, the 15-year-old Hooper traveled to the U.S. for the State Department-funded Youth Leadership Program (YLP) On Demand with Australia and New Zealand. The program, implemented by World Learning, brings together teens from various countries and regions to foster cross-cultural relationships and encourage them to become responsible citizens and community leaders.

Hooper and other teens from Australia and New Zealand traveled to Lake Tahoe for their Youth Leadership Program (YLP) On Demand exchange in 2014.

Hooper didn’t really think of himself as a leader when he first applied to YLP On Demand. As a high school freshman in Katherine, a rural town in Australia, Hooper was quiet and didn’t much like being in the spotlight. But during YLP On Demand’s team-building activities and leadership workshops in Lake Tahoe, California; Portland, Oregon; and Washington, DC, Hooper began to see everything differently. “I learned that you didn’t have to be at the forefront of the idea [to be a leader],” he says. “You could be the one behind the scenes making the change.”

In the years since, Hooper founded a nonprofit called Keep Talking NT, which advocates for the LGBT community in Australia’s Northern Territory. Keep Talking NT organized its community’s first Pride celebration and developed a series of workshops designed to cultivate mutual understanding among local high school students.

A youth leadership exercise inspires an idea

The first seed was planted for what would eventually become Keep Talking NT toward the end of YLP On Demand. When they arrived in Washington, DC, the students were assigned to write speeches to present on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial — the very same steps where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had delivered his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech.

At the time, the U.S. Supreme Court was just months away from legalizing same-sex marriage, and marriage equality was major topic of conversation across America. But in Australia, the movement had stalled. Hooper’s own community wasn’t particularly accepting or aware of its LGBT population. So, in a spoken word poem, Hooper articulated the struggles LGBT teens face, and issued a call to action, saying:

“My tears flow for those who know,

How it feels to fear opinions,

Of people unknowing,

Being afraid of showing,

Scared of exile,

Terrified of rejection,

Your vote is the next direction.”

Hooper understood those feelings well. Assigned female cisgender at birth, Hooper — who is now transitioning from female to male — knew he belonged in the LGBT community though he didn’t yet know that he was transgender as he delivered the speech. “I didn’t even know what the word meant at the time,” he says. “I was very confused about who I was.” So, most of the time, he just didn’t talk about it with people back home. But that would soon change. 

Hooper delivering his speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC in 2014.

Newly passionate about travel thanks to YLP On Demand, Hooper spent the intervening years traveling, including a five-month youth exchange to Canada. During that time, he began to accept himself and came out as transgender to friends and family. Elsewhere, he noticed, gender identity was something people could talk about in school without being mocked or bullied. “It made me wonder why we couldn’t have the same thing in Katherine,” he says.

In early 2017, he returned to Australia, then applied for and earned a position on the Northern Territory Youth Roundtable, whose members advise the regional government on youth issues and launch community service projects. Searching for inspiration for his own project, Hooper thought back to that speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Keep Talking NT launches

In the spring of that year, Hooper launched Keep Talking NT in hopes to promote conversations about gender identity in his community. As its first project, the nonprofit developed a series of Connectedness Workshops — held at Hooper’s high school — designed to help students discover their commonalities, learn about the LGBT community, and become allies. It was a success. In a post-workshop survey, the feeling of safety among students rose by 20 percent while the feeling of connectedness jumped by 40 percent. 

Keep Talking NT hosted a color run among other Rural Pride festivities.

Pride was the next big event. Even though communities all over the world now celebrate the LGBT community with gay pride events, Katherine had never hosted one before. In fall 2017, Keep Talking NT organized a Rural Pride festival that included a color run, a market stall for LGBT awareness, and an outdoor film screening.

Katherine responded even better than Hooper had expected. Both his school leadership and local organizations supported Rural Pride with donations of venues and supplies, while dozens of people attended each of the events. Altogether, they raised more than $1,000 for Headspace, an organization that provides mental health support for Australian youth.

Nationwide, Australia has made progress on LGBT rights as well, legalizing same-sex marriage in December 2017. “It was a momentous day,” Hooper says. “Now we can stop asking the question, ‘Why not Australia?’ We can just say, ‘Hooray, we’ve done it.’” 

Hooper with a friend after the Rural Pride color run.

Hooper still has plenty to do, though. For this year’s Rural Pride, he’s planning a masquerade ball and a candlelight concert to memorialize the losses from HIV and AIDS. He’s also working on an online animated series telling the stories of the LGBT community. And the Northern Territory government is rolling out the Connectedness Workshops at high schools across the region later this year. Hooper also needs to finish his final year of high school — and has plans to enroll at a university in Melbourne this fall. “My motto is ‘Why not?’” he says. “Why not do everything you can?”

Hooper traces the origins of that philosophy to World Learning and YLP On Demand. “Without the YLP program I would have never had the confidence or drive to push the envelope and start something from the ground up in a town where it isn’t very accepted,” he recently wrote in an email to World Learning. “I wouldn’t be able to think about myself objectively as a leader and I would never have had the desire to go on and continue to explore the world and learn things that have pushed me to change what I think is wrong about my community.”