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Advocating for full inclusion and support for our LGBTQ+ Youth is pivotal

By Edith Villanueva, Consumer Engagement Manager

Edith Villanueva advocating for full inclusion and support for our LGBTQ+ Youth is pivotal thumbnail - picture of two young girls on a playground black and white

This blog is being shared as part of a three-part series during Pride Month to celebrate and honor a diversity of voices representing Impossible’s LGBTQ+ and Ally experiences. At Impossible, we strive to foster an environment of inclusion for all people and voices that encourage collaboration and innovation to help us achieve our mission.

I realized I was attracted to girls when I was a Junior in high school. I think for a long time before that, I knew I was “different” but like many other queer people, I didn’t know how to contextualize what that meant. Looking back now, I would have saved myself a lot of time and energy had I realized it sooner, but coming out is a different journey for everyone and being 17 is pretty young to come to a realization about your identity. I mean, come on. High School was dramatic enough.  

I was never “boy crazy” like a lot of the girls at my school but I also didn’t think about it much. I really didn’t know what gay even meant until I was in middle school. At that time, I didn’t know any gay peers, friends, or family members. I ended up meeting my first gay friend in high school but even at that time, there were only a handful of queer students who were out.  I did date boys in middle school and high school but it never felt right, I mostly did it because I felt it was what I needed to do, and what I should be doing -- I mean, every other girl was. The boys I dated were great friends, but there was never a connection bigger than that.

One of the first memories I have of questioning my sexuality was when Britney Spears and Madonna kissed at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards.. The VMA’s were a big deal back then and I watched them every year with my older sister, Laura. They opened the show with that performance and like many people watching, I was shocked when they kissed-- but I remember thinking it was so cool and awesome, among other things. When I was around 14 or 15, I remember watching shows like South of Nowhere and The L word, and although I didn’t really know I was gay, I was attracted to these shows and their characters, I connected with them. I remember those shows were the first time I had seen girls/women who were more feminine presenting and queer, I think prior to that a “lesbian” as I understood it, was the stereotypical masculine presenting women with short hair. This was new for me. The L word also portrayed characters in a world in which queer women existed and were living amazing lives as adults, with jobs and families. That is huge for young queer people to see, that type of representation portrayed on television and film. It was for me. It allowed me to see a world filled with successful queer women. 

Although I don’t remember my parents ever saying anything homophobic growing up or making any comments about gay people in general, I knew they would question me if they saw what I was watching, so I would watch those shows downstairs in our garage, where we would keep our family computer. As one might imagine, being queer wasn’t something I envisioned on the “how to make your parents proud” list, particularly coming from a Mexican-American household and having a very religious and traditional mother. I had my first girlfriend a few months after I turned 17. I stayed in the closet for months after she and I got together, I didn’t tell a single person during that time. My biggest fear was my family finding out and kicking me out of the house because of their strong religious views, mostly my mom. I felt my dad would understand and support me because he is such a kind, empathetic person and was never judgemental about other people. But you never really know, and really it’s the unknown that messes with your psyche. The thought of getting kicked out as a 17-year-old terrified me, particularly because I also didn’t have a job and no means to support myself. This is something queer youth face every day (according to a recent study(opens in a new tab) from Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, LGBTQ youth are 120% more likely to experience homelessness than non-LGBTQ youth and make up an estimated 40% of the homeless youth population) and I knew that could potentially become a reality for me as well. That wasn’t a risk I was willing to take, not then. I was still in high school and had no back up plan. I did end up moving out when I was still a senior in high school but that was never part of the plan, just sort of happened. I came out to my friends later that year and I ended up coming out to my parents the summer after I graduated high school, when I was 18 and “no longer living under their roof,” as parents love to say. 

One of the saddest memories I have about the timeframe in which I was still in the closet, was when my girlfriend and I went to the movies and because I was terrified of anyone finding out about me (and us), we put a hoodie over our hands so we could hold hands throughout the movie, but no one would be able to see. Living two different lives was exhausting and terrifying.  I remember the fear and anxiety that I felt throughout the film, but with that also came happiness because although I was clearly not ready to let anyone know who I was, I also knew that I was happy to finally get to know who I was and why many things didn’t make sense up until that point. Everything began to make sense once I realized my queerness. Everything. 

I survived my last two years of high school, as challenging as they were. I vividly remember my English teacher coming up to me in class one day and asked if we can chat. She asked if I was doing okay because she noticed I had been missing class and hadn’t been turning in assignments recently. I immediately began to cry and told her I wasn’t okay and that I thought I needed to speak to someone. I can’t begin to express the importance of someone noticing I wasn’t okay, especially coming from someone with authority, like a teacher. That interaction led me to Jim Caffiero. Jim Caffeiro was a guidance counselor at my high school. All the queer students saw him. When I went into the counseling office that day, I specifically requested to talk to him, although I was technically supposed to see someone else, based on my last name. Jim was referred to by all his students as “Mr. C”. Mr. C impacted my life in so many ways -- he always made me feel safe, understood, and made me feel like my experiences and everything I was going through were valid. He asked questions. He cared about me and my life. He was the first adult I came out to and he made me feel like he was always in my corner rooting for me, always. He made sure to remind me of that every time we met, which at this point was a few times a week because I was dealing with really severe depression and anxiety. I had a lot going on at home, school, and in my personal life. Mr. C was an amazing mentor, he truly saved my life and I’m sure many other queer students (Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth and LGB youth who come from highly rejecting families are 8.4 times as likely to have attempted suicide as LGB peers who reported no or low levels of family rejection). Mr. C worked at my high school for 27 years before retiring(opens in a new tab) in 2013, leaving behind a tremendous impact. As a teenager, having someone like Mr. C in my life was crucial to my mental health and well being, I knew that anytime I was in his office-- I was safe, I was validated, I was supported, and I was loved. 

To me, pride month represents many things-- strength, love, activism, courage, showing up for your friends and loved ones. Pride is standing tall in your identity with no conviction and being able to be unapologetically yourself. Every queer person deserves to feel that. My journey is my journey only -- everyone has their own story and this is only a portion of mine. Like many of us, I still deal with multitudes of personal challenges that are tied to my identity but I love who I am and I’m very confident and proud of who I’ve become. I love being queer and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Many queer people have paved the way for us to be where we are today and although our fight isn’t over, this month is about celebrating who we are and I’m a proud, queer, woman. Happy Pride Month everyone! 🌈

Edith Villanueva (she/her) is based in Chicago, IL (proudly born and raised in California). She has worked for Impossible Foods since 2019  as the Consumer Engagement Manager and is a member of Impossible’s Pride ERG, as well as Co-chair of Los Imposibles (Impossible Foods Latinx ERG). She loves to shoot film + digital photography, discover new places to eat in Chicago (particularly loves Sushi, Mexican Food and yummy sandwiches-any recommendations are welcome!), is a huge film buff, music lover (she will challenge anyone to a karaoke battle), loves dancing, and spends her free time with her friends and her one-year-old Frenchie, Winnie. 

Selfie of Edith Villanueva and her French bulldog, Winnie and image of Edith and friends

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