Inspired by his dads, an emerging young activist stands up for marriage in the south

On May 8, 2012, Justin Maxwell was celebrating his 15th birthday, sitting in his room in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and scrolling down his Facebook feed when he saw the news: Amendment One, the proposed constitutional amendment that restricted the freedom to marry in North Carolina to different-sex couples and outlawed all other forms of family status - including civil union and domestic partnership - had been approved at the ballot box.

As an openly gay teenager living in North Carolina, Justin was crushed. "It really frustrated me and made me so upset," Justin said. "I went to bed soon after hearing the news because I just didn't feel good. It was definitely a birthday crasher, to say the least."

Just over a year after the passage of Amendment One, in his home state, Justin is truly a budding young advocate for the freedom to marry for same-sex couples - in North Carolina, and across the country.

"We've done a lot of work since Amendment One," Justin said, referencing not just the huge strides that the marriage movement has made in the year since May 2012 - winning marriage in 7 states, championing a huge blow to federal marriage discrimination, and seeing record high support for the freedom to marry - but also the ways that he has personally contributed. He has stood up for the freedom to marry in his home state of North Carolina and other southern states, including Mississippi. He has written about the struggles LGBT people face in the south. And he has urged young people like him to fight for what they believe in.

Justin has two strong role models in his life to look up to as examples of why speaking up for what you believe in is so important - his two fathers, Mark Maxwell and Timothy Young. The men, who have been together for over 20 years, have instilled in Justin a strong commitment to activism and standing up for what's right.

In January 2013, Justin watched as his fathers were denied a marriage license at the county clerk's office in their home state of North Carolina. Immediately after, he joined them - and dozens of other marriage supporters - in a march from Arlington, VA to Washington, D.C. The march culminated in a legal wedding ceremony between Mark and Tim - a demonstration of how much better life is when jurisdictions in the United States extend the freedom to marry to loving, committed same-sex couples.

Mark and Tim's ceremony was part of Stage 4 of the Campaign for Southern Equality's "We Do" campaign, where same-sex couples in southern states request marriage licenses and provoke denials to show the damage caused by excluding same-sex couples from marriage.

Six months later, inspired by his fathers' activism and motivated by the June 2013 Supreme Court victory that ruled the central part of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, Justin hopped in a car, trekked down to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and stood alongside other same-sex couples in the south as they led Stage 5 of CSE's "We Do" project.

"I watched Mark and Tim marry this year in Washington, D.C., and that was really nice and pretty and empowering to see that they could get married," Justin said. "But watching the couples in Mississippi denied made me feel sad and not empowered. I knew I had to do something to help these couples and stimulate some hope."

To lift everyone's spirits in Mississippi, Justin read a poem that he wrote about gay and lesbian people and the importance of equality for all people in the United States. With a loud, firm voice and everyone from the Campaign for Southern Equality gathered around him, Justin read his poem, "America's Vision," and called for a future where equality is the reigning power.

"When I was reading my piece, I didn't feel like I was just this kid who got into a car to Mississippi," Justin said. "I felt like a person who used what I do - my poetry - to help these people and spread this message. I read that poem with such a passion - yelling out to all of the queer folk in the south so that they knew they couldn't just give up on what they believe in. That they had to work forward on what they love."

Justin has been writing for many years, most actively working through Authoring Action, an intensive writing program that helps teenagers and young people find their voices in their community and amplify them through the creative process.

"Just because I'm 16 doesn't mean that this isn't going to matter in the long run," Justin said. "I can do some work now so we can get there faster. We're not just sitting back and watching things happen - we're doing it. Rights are rights - and I think everyone should have them in general - no matter your age, it's about rights"

Justin's dad Mark explained that he is proud of his son for lending his talent to a cause he has such great passion for. "Justin brings such a clarity of understanding to the importance of having a voice and sharing that voice and surrounding himself with people who are going to affirm that voice," Mark explained. "He knows how important it is to guide his way through his own education and to understand his history and the psychology behind that."

Now, Justin is continuing to speak up for the LGBT community in the South and encouraging young people like him to stand up for what they believe in. "I want to tell other young people that they need to keep trying," Justin said. "When you give up, everything can fall down, so you need to keep going. You need to find something you're good at and use that to work toward what you want. If you focus on what you like to do and not all of the people around you who don't like you, you're going to be stronger. No matter what."