OutCasting' LGBTQ Youth Radio Program Founder Receives AARP Purpose Prize

AARP's Purpose Prize is designed to honor extraordinary individuals who use their life experience to make a better future, each year selecting winners who have gone above and beyond to achieve that goal. In the case of one of this year's winners, Marc Sophos, his focus has been on LGBTQ youth. The New York-based journalist is the founder and executive director of Media for the Public Good — a nonprofit that focuses on creating media from underrepresented points of view. Putting his nearly two decades of radio experience to use, Sophos created "OutCasting" a youth LGBTQ public radio program, and the accompanying podcast "OutCasting Overtime." Each episode is created by LGBTQ teens.
"'OutCasting' is public radio's LGBT youth program," Sophos said. "It's heard on more than 50 public radio stations affiliated with the Pacifica Radio Network. It's monthly and 29 minutes long. We also produce 'OutCasting Overtime,' a series of shorter pieces. It's also monthly and is regularly featured in the excellent LGBT program 'This Way Out,' which is carried on about 200 stations."
"OutCasting" has even collaborated with Michigan State University to branch out into other national offices. The mission of the shows, Sophos said, is twofold.
"Externally, we're working to give LGBT youth and straight allies a national voice and contribute to our national discussion, such as it is, on LGBT issues through thoughtful, thorough coverage as seen from a youth point of view," he said. "Internally, we provide training and experience to our youth participants that people of their age don't often get. I train our youth participants, OutCasters, in research, interviewing and production, and they apply those skills working substantively on a nationally distributed program — which is rare for people of their age and helps set them apart with college and job applications."
As someone who struggled with his sexual orientation and did not come out until age 39, Sophos said he enjoys seeing teenagers accepting their sexual orientations at such a young age.
"I'm amazed at how young our OutCasters are when they come out," Sophos said. "We all know that it's not an easy thing to do, and for some of our youth, involvement with OutCasting can be transformational."
Sophos underscored his point through one OutCaster in particular, David, who joined as a high school senior.
"He was out only to a couple of people and didn't want to talk about himself at all. Kids these days sometimes don't know how to make business phone calls, so we train them to do that, too, but David was so self-conscious that he'd go and hide on the other side of the room so he didn't have to participate," Sophos said.
Over the course of the year that he was involved, Sophos said he saw a huge transformation in both David's demeanor and confidence. Eventually, he and another OutCaster interviewed Bishop Gene Robinson on the air.
"It was amazing to see him emerge as a confident young man, publicly out of the closet, by the time he left for college," he said.
Sophos said that both through transformational experiences like that and through working on "Outcasting," he has developed passion for promoting young LGBT voices to the greater public.
"Young people are smart and articulate, but we don't hear very much from their point of view," he said. "This is particularly true for LGBT youth and their straight allies. I think that this is at least partly because some people continue to believe that being LGBT is a choice and that kids won't 'turn gay' if they don't hear about it. You see that attitude in the opposition to even mentioning LGBT people, issues, history or identities in schools. So, I think it's important that the authentic voices of LGBT youth and allies be heard so that a truer understanding can take the place of misconceptions."
Sophos will be honored at the AARP Purpose Prize ceremony in December and will receive $5,000, as well as access to AARP support and technical assistance.
"It's a great honor, of course," said Sophos of receiving the prize. "There were about 1,000 people at the beginning of the process, and at the end, five winners and 10 fellows, so I find myself in pretty rarified company. I had been looking through a database of grants, and when I read about the AARP Purpose Prize, it seemed like a great match. But this kind of thing is never a given, and I was thrilled when I got the word."