Saturday afternoon was not the first time local LGBTQ+ youth and allies have marched in Jefferson City to raise awareness of their presence, but it was the first time the teens have also been a part of a public group that supports them.
"I felt happier because I knew I had more people like me," Raygen Fox said, mentioning the Sexuality and Gender Alliance teen group at the Missouri River Regional Library.
"I started (SAGA) because the teens wanted to start it," said Courtney Waters, MRRL's teen collection development and services coordinator.
"I want it to be their group and not mine," Waters said of SAGA, which is described online and on printed materials as "a dynamic teen-led group dedicated to discussing matters of importance to LGBTQ+ teens in a supportive, confidential environment," where allies are also welcome.
SAGA started last fall, and it meets on the first and third Wednesdays of each month at the library.
Waters said the group is open to teens in grades 6-12, no matter whether they are public, private, parochial or homeschool LGBTQ+ students or allies.
"I noticed there were not very many resources in this town" for LGBTQ+ teens, Waters said.
The only other closest such resource Waters could name was The Center Project in Columbia.
The Center Project nonprofit describes itself on its website as "Mid-Missouri's only community center focused on the needs of LGBTQ individuals and communities," supporting youth, families and people living in rural communities.
"Other kids will have a place to be themselves," Fox said.
Kyam Ispious, a Jefferson City High School student and straight ally who marched Saturday to support his friends, added: "I love the idea of everybody getting together and being OK with themselves."
The marches including Saturday's are older than SAGA, though; Saturday was the third in Jefferson City.
Ash Stickann, a JCHS student, and Fox — who will be attending Capital City High School — said they've marched all three times.
Stickann said the purpose of the annual march is "more about people being aware we exist."
The group included 16 teens, with about a half-dozen other people, including family such as Stickann's mom, Laura, walking with them.
Ground rules were announced in advance: no cursing, stay on the sidewalks, no music, and if anyone were to make an obscene gesture toward them — "which has happened before," Ash said — don't be confrontational and just make and send heart symbols with one's fingers.
The teen-led group of marchers then walked from the library down East Capitol Avenue to the monuments plaza on the north side of the Capitol, before taking a brief water and snack break and then walking to Broadway and back through downtown to the library on East High Street.
The teens carried or wore rainbow and other LGBTQ+ community flags, including symbols for people who are lesbians, pansexual or non-binary.
The teens had also painted their faces with rainbows or pronouns they prefer to identify themselves with, and they also carried signs: "We are all human;" "Love is love;" "Being gay is like glitter — it never goes away!" and one with unchecked boxes next to "boy" and "girl" and a checked box next to "I'm human."
The teens' chants included "Out of the closet, into the streets;" "hey hey, ho ho, those bathroom bills have got to go" and other variations that included "homophobia has got to go" and "Whose streets are these? Our streets."
Jade Westbrooks, a JCHS student, said after the march that, while tired, she was pumped. It was her first march, and while she was not part of SAGA, she said she was going to join.
Westbrooks said she hopes to raise public awareness and stop homophobia "one small street of Jeff City at a time."
"You have to stay strong and be who you are no matter what," Charlie Meyer said after the march, adding he felt "empowered."
"Even if you're alone, be yourself because it doesn't matter what other people think," said Meyer, a Lewis and Clark Middle School student.
"There are people out there who support you, whether your parents do or not," said Hailie Alden, who will be attending Lewis and Clark. Alden said it was their first time marching and first year in SAGA.
Fox had hopes Saturday for more inclusion of LGBTQ+ students with the planned opening of Capital City High School this fall.
She hoped in particular that transgender students would be able to be addressed the way they prefer, not have to travel a long distance in their building to use a bathroom and be able to compete on the sports team that matches their gender identity.
According to the 2018-19 JCHS student handbook, there were "a limited number of single stall restrooms available throughout the building which can be made available for students as needed and/or requested without regard to gender status," but generally, "Student restroom accommodations remain unchanged (as the school district) awaits direction from the U.S. Supreme Court on the specific issue of restroom availability as it relates to gender nonconforming and transgender students."
The Missouri State High School Activities Association's 2018-19 handbook states the organization's executive director can grant requests by schools for transgender students to be able to participate in interscholastic, sex-separated sports, but the exact details and potential outcomes depend on whether a student is a trans male or female and whether a student is receiving hormone treatment that increases or suppresses testosterone.
Last year, Jefferson City received a score of 20 out of 100 on a survey regarding protections for people in LGBT communities, including non-discrimination laws, municipal employment policies, inclusiveness in city services, law enforcement and municipal leadership on matters of equality.