Call to Serve
Jacob Kniep loves to connect with people. As a former hairstylist, Jacob’s favorite part of their job was getting to know the people in his chair. Once, while working at a private salon in rural Illinois, they got to talking with a teenage client. The client came out to them as nonbinary and told them a bit about their dating life. They begged Jacob not to tell their mother, but as a gay person themself, the kid’s pleas weren’t necessary—Jacob gets the closet. Instead, Jacob wanted to make sure that the kid knew about contraception and STI prevention. When it became clear that they weren’t practicing safe sex, Jacob knew they had to do something. They decided to start a LGBTQ youth program right in that rural town in Illinois.
Nobody thought it would work. Jacob’s town is ultra-conservative, and the thought that someone could forge a safe space for LGBTQ youth within that bubble sounded impossible. Nevertheless, Jacob had a vision. As a young gay kid in Arizona, their mom connected them to an organization called one•n•ten. One of the services one•n•ten offers is a local, weekly support group for LGBTQ youth. Jacob knew they wanted to offer the same service in Wheaton, as well as other community-building programs that help youth in the area feel connected and empowered. With this goal in mind, Jacob started OUTspoken Leaders in 2019.
Fruits of the Labor
OUTspoken Leaders helps children and their support systems feel comfortable and confident in LGBTQ spaces. Jacob’s favorite success story is that of a young trans boy named Eric and his conservative mother. Eric’s mom used to call him by the name she gave him at birth (his “deadname”) and use “she” pronouns when referring to him (an act called misgendering). In the time Jacob’s worked with them, Eric and his mom have blossomed. Eric’s become more confident, and his mom hasn’t deadnamed or misgendered him in over a year. It’s important to Jacob that those who are ill-informed or afraid of the LGBTQ community have a safe, patient space to grow into thoughtful, socially-conscious beings. Jacob calls this practice “intentional compassion.”
When the pandemic hit and meeting in-person became an impossibility, Jacob took the OUTspoken Leaders community online. They continued to provide weekly meetings on Zoom and offered a place for the kids to chat on Discord. OUTspoken Leaders continued to grow in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd prompted Jacob to develop solidarity relationships with other LGBTQ organizations and businesses.
It’s important to Jacob that OUTspoken Leaders doesn’t fall victim to Founder’s Syndrome. This means that they don’t want to hold disproportionate power and influence in the organization. “It’s not the Jacob Show,” they joke. Jacob’s more interested in offering leadership roles within the organization for the kids to grow into. Their dream is to offer someone a living wage to give back to their community. Right now, though, their big project is starting the first Pride event in Wheaton. It’s a “hybrid pride” where you can come in person or virtually through an app called Welcome Home, available for free on iOS and Google.
The work feels brave, vulnerable, and terrifying. Jacob likes to celebrate by spending time with the community he built.