Ashton Mota ’23 Speaks on Behalf of Transgender Rights at the White House
When Ashton Mota ’23 had the honor of introducing President Joe Biden in June 2021 at a Pride Month ceremony at the White House, he shared something powerful: his own story. Speaking in the East Room as part of a celebration of LGBTQ+ protections championed by the Biden administration, Ashton introduced himself by saying, “I’m a 16-year-old, Black, Afro Latino high school student from Lowell, Massachusetts. I also happen to be transgender.”
In his remarks that day, Ashton recounted his nervousness about coming out to his family on his 12th birthday, and how his parents, especially his mother, affirmed his identity. “She told me that she loved me, that I was her child, and that she would support me so I could be the person I was meant to be,” he said. Many transgender youth aren’t as fortunate, Ashton acknowledged, noting the difference that love and affirmation have made in the lives of two of his siblings, young transgender women of color who are part of the foster care system and, now, part of his family. “It’s simple,” he said. “When children are loved, we thrive.”
In his address, Ashton emphasized how demoralizing to transgender youth a slew of proposed bills have been that would, he said, “prevent us from joining a sports team, receiving health care, or even just using the bathroom.” And he advocated for passing the Equality Act. As he said, it “will give LGBTQ+ people like me the opportunity to walk into the world as our true, authentic selves without having to worry about discrimination just because of who we are or who we love.”
As his poise on the national stage might suggest, Ashton is not new to advocacy. He has been involved in promoting transgender rights since he came out in 2016, among other ways as a Human Rights Campaign Foundation youth ambassador. In 2018, at 14 years old, he became politically active in the “Yes on 3” campaign, which resulted in Massachusetts becoming the first state in the U.S. to uphold legal transgender protections, first enacted in the commonwealth in 2016, after opponents mounted a ballot challenge. “The thought of that bill not being upheld was very scary for me,” Ashton says. “It’s what makes me so passionate about the Equality Act. Knowing that there are young people who have to worry every single day because they’re in a state that doesn’t provide those protections—that’s what motivates me.”
Ashton Mota ’23 gives A Kids Book About Being Inclusive to President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden.
Ashton Mota ’23 with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and husband and LGBTQ+ advocate Chasten Buttigieg.
A little over two years ago, Ashton joined the GenderCool Project, a storytelling campaign led by transgender and nonbinary youth. “We share our stories to help replace negative opinions with positive experiences,” he says. “A lot of people may think, mistakenly, that they don’t know a transgender or nonbinary person. You might not understand until you meet us that we’re just like everyone else.”
Through the GenderCool Project, in 2021, Ashton co-authored a children’s book called A Kids Book About Being Inclusive. It is one in a three-book series, the GenderCool Collection, intended to bring clarity and positivity to the national conversation about difference and belonging.
It was Ashton’s work with the GenderCool Project that resulted in the opportunity to speak at the White House. Just days before he introduced President Biden, Ashton was one of four transgender youth from across America who took part in a virtual conference with Ambassador Susan Rice. “As a person of color, I’m already a member of a marginalized group,” Ashton says, describing the conversation he had in that forum. “I talked about the intersectionality of being transgender on top of that, and how very important it is for me to be a representative for my multiple communities.”
With Ambassador Rice, Ashton shared that it hadn’t taken long for him and his family to realize the extent of the difficulties, including hate and homelessness, that many transgender and nonbinary youth of color, in particular, face. He credits the support of his family with allowing him to use his voice so prominently. “There’s a lot of fear that comes along with being that vulnerable,” he says, “but I know my family will always have my back.”
Little did Ashton know at the time of that conference that within three days he would be in Washington, meeting Ambassador Rice in person and preparing to address the nation. After a whirlwind of travel arrangements and speech-writing and editing, he had a chance to attend a press hearing with Press Secretary Jen Psaki and connect with young aides working for senators and state representatives in the White House.
“It’s simple. When children are loved, we thrive.”– Ashton Mota P’23
On the day of the speaking program, the moment Ashton met the president unfolded unlike anything he had imagined. Just before the event, he found himself unexpectedly alone in a room with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who was also preparing to speak, and his husband, Chasten, who had just celebrated a birthday. Without any ceremony, President Biden entered from behind Ashton with a tray of cupcakes in hand. “It made it easy to connect with him,” Ashton says. “And I will never forget being part of that moment, being able to sing happy birthday with them.”
He was also able to present the president and First Lady Jill Biden with a set of the GenderCool Collection books and explain why they are so important to him. “When I was navigating my gender identity, I didn’t have these resources to know what it meant to be transgender or nonbinary,” Ashton says. “I didn’t have someone to look up to. When I started my activism, I wanted to be a role model for younger kids—people like me, and especially transgender youth of color. Being able to share that with them, and see that they were interested and cared, meant a lot to me.”
And knowing that the book he helped write is somewhere in the White House? Ashton says, “It’s mind-blowing.”