She's made her mark on Hollywood as an actress, but Octavia Spencer is stepping behind the camera this week to help shine the spotlight on a young, mixed-race lesbian sharing her story as part of GLSEN’s new celebration.
The Oscar winner, 50, is among a group of stars taking part in GLSEN’s Respect Everywhere celebration, which showcases stories of LGBTQ+ students across the country, PEOPLE exclusively announced last week.
Spencer worked with a young Dartmouth student named Jessica Chiriboga, a Latina, mixed-race lesbian forced to establish a balance between her strong Christian faith and her sexuality.
In the clip, Chiriboga talks of how she felt a sense of “shame” growing up in a religious community while struggling with her sexuality.
“I just always sort of felt this sense of shame and this sense of tension of not being able to live my truth, and it was difficult to sort of decide, ‘What part of me do I want to be true to?’” she says. “I didn’t really believe I could do both.”
Her first two years of high school were difficult as she strived to strike a balance — but things changed for the better when she was accepted into the GLSEN student council junior year.
Mike Coppola/Getty; Neilson Barnard/Getty; John Lamparski/Getty Octavia Spencer, Antoni Porowski, Matt Bomer
Chiriboga says joining the organization, which works to ensure safe and inclusive schools for LGBTQ students, provided her with an immediate group of friends and a safe, welcoming community where she felt she could finally be herself.
“I’m really grateful for where I am now, of being proud of myself and just being as complex and nuanced of a person as I am,” she says in the video. “I just want us to live in a world where people can be all sorts of things that make them wonderfully unique. And we all together as people support each other and love each other for the differences that make us beautiful.”
She adds: “I’m not what most people expect... I’m a proud Christian, mixed-race Latina lesbian. But by sharing my story, I hope that I can be the representation for others out there that I really needed when I was younger.”
For Spencer, the chance to meet Chiriboga and share her story with the world was a true learning experience.
"I was honored to meet Jessica Chiriboga and tell her story for GLSEN Respect Everywhere," says the Hidden Figures star. "Jessica is an exceptional young woman who struggled to reconcile her Christian faith with her sexual orientation, but in the process she became a leader and activist making a difference in so many people's lives."
In addition to Spencer and Chiriboga’s collaboration, other stories include a trans football player navigating the sport and his identity, as well as an immigrant student acclimating to a new country while embarking on a journey of self-acceptance.