LGBTQ Activist Becomes Leader in Student Gun Control Movement

LGBTQ Activist Becomes Leader in Student Gun Control Movement

Rutgers-Camden student A.J. Arnold, a member of the transgender community, was the voice of South Jersey March for Our Lives

A.J. Arnold speaking at the South Jersey March for Our Lives, which he helped organize.
Photo: Steve Stern

"As one of the survivors of the Parkland shooting said, 'It’s not an issue of gayness or whiteness or whatever. ALL young people are at risk.''' 
– A.J. Arnold

Media Contact
Lisa Intrabartola

When an area pastor asked first-year Rutgers-Camden student A.J. Arnold to serve as the student coordinator and official voice of the South Jersey March for Our Lives, he didn’t hesitate for even a second.

This was personal.

“As one of the survivors of the Parkland shooting said, it’s not an issue of gayness or whiteness or whatever. ALL young people are at risk,” says Arnold, a sociology major at the university and a 2017 graduate of Collingswood High School.

But some are more at risk than others, he concedes, including himself in that category as a recently outed transgender man.

The march from Audubon to Haddon Heights in Camden County in March was one of hundreds taking place simultaneously across the nation – and the world.

The student-led protests came one month after a young man armed with an AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Fla., energizing a new generation of activists to protest what they see as the nation’s lax gun-safety laws.

Although the gunman did not target members of the transgender community, the nonprofit Human Rights Campaign reported at least 28 deaths last year of transgender individuals at the hands of acquaintances, partners and strangers.

At the age of 18, Arnold is already a seasoned activist. As president of his high school’s gay/straight alliance, he helped convince school board members to designate gender-neutral bathrooms and to establish safe zones in classrooms for LGBTQ students.

“We encouraged teachers to ask people their pronouns, and to change the dress codes to allow masculine people to wear skirts to the prom if they want to,” he recalls.

Every day, Rutgers prepares students, contributes to communities, cares for patients, stimulates the economy, and delivers results for New Jersey.
At Rutgers-Camden, Arnold has found an environment that is “incredibly inclusive and aware of the queer community.”

In addition to serving as secretary of Club 26, a social/activist organization providing educational support to LGBTQ students, he also works 10 hours a week as an assistant with the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, an arm of the university designed to assure inclusiveness and equity to all members of the Rutgers-Camden community.

His duties include arranging the annual high school summit for gay-straight alliances in the region, which last year drew more than 100 participants. This year’s event, open to more than 40 area schools, is expected to feature speakers on such topics as career development and safety for transgender youths.

When Gen Bishop, pastor at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Haddon Heights, reached out to Arnold to play a key role in the gun-safety rally in his community, signing on wasn’t a large leap of faith.

The horror of the Valentine’s Day massacre at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School was still reverberating through schools nationwide, he remembers.

“The first day after the news, everyone was somber – no jokes. People were not so much scared as silently outraged: How can this be happening AGAIN?” Arnold says.

With the majority of school-related shootings in recent years involving heavily armed straight, young white males, it was all too easy for him to imagine members of his LGBTQ community being targeted, he adds.

The march was still four weeks down the road when Arnold began holding weekly meetings at the church, enlisting a growing squad of volunteers, including other Rutgers students, to secure donations, create signs and posters, and network via social media.

He also lined up a roster of speakers that would ultimately include U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross (D-1st District), as well as several state legislators, a Camden County freeholder – and, of course, other students.

On the day of the rally, Arnold reminded the 1,000-plus participants about the 2016 massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., a popular gathering place for gay and lesbian customers. Forty-nine people died and another 58 were injured – people, he said, who were just out for the evening to have fun.

“That was a really, really hard weekend,” the Rutgers activist said.

Without reforms, he added, students of color, students with disabilities, and students with mental illnesses will remain at risk.

“People ask me, why do you want to take away our guns,” Arnold said in an interview after the event. “We don’t want to take away people’s guns. We want to change the discussion. We don’t want fear mongering; we do want sensible gun laws.”

His advocacy did not end that day. Next up: throwing his efforts into registration drives to get out the vote come November.

Media Contact
Lisa Intrabartola