When he was 16, Giovanni McKenzie arrived in the United States: “It was a weird transition,” he remembers. “I moved from a country that does not protect its LGBT citizens to a country that doesn’t necessarily protect its citizens of color.” Born in Kingston, Jamaica, McKenzie emigrated to Portland to live with his grandparents. “I was pretty lucky,” he says. “I could never pass as straight, no matter how hard I tried—and in Jamaica, being out just really isn’t something that’s safe. But living in Jamaica, I never really knew what it was like to be black.”
McKenzie had participated in the Kiwanis-sponsored youth organization Key Club International in Jamaica, and picked up right where he’d left off. He founded Grant High School’s first Key Club, and within a year he was the Portland Key Club’s lieutenant governor. The year after, he became the group’s governor for the Pacific Northwest—the first person of color and the first openly gay person to hold that position.
In 2013, McKenzie started his own nonprofit, Queer Intersections Force, to help others cope with challenges similar to what he faced as a young, black, LGBT immigrant. “The barriers in front of young people like myself are just so complex,” he says. “I want to see a city where queer and trans youth of color can thrive.”
This year, the Human Rights Campaign appointed McKenzie as a National Youth Ambassador, and in February he delivered a rousing, personal keynote address at the HRC’s Time to Thrive conference in Portland. Despite his precocious success, McKenzie’s ambitions remain high. “My life goal is to bring this work to Jamaica,” the 21-year-old says. “I could leave this earth happily knowing that I was able to do that.”