On May 5, Miley Cyrus' Happy Hippie foundation exploded into our lives with a burst of acoustic joy. Alongside Joan Jett, Cyrus sang the foundation to life with a cover of "Different," a song about being proud of one's differences in the face of antagonism. It would be difficult to find a song more representative of the foundation's mission to raise awareness and support for homeless and LGBT youth. Nearly three months later, we're starting to see the foundation's real impact on the communities it's intended to serve. Cyrus has built a truly unique resource for young people struggling with identity issues.
And this is only the beginning.
The opening run: Cyrus built a ton of buzz around the campaign with those inaugural Backyard Sessions. She used Facebook to share a link to the foundation with each of her covers, which featured Jett, Against Me!'s transgender frontwoman Laura Jane Grace, Ariana Grande and Melanie Safka. Fans from across the world shared her videos, and each one, save her cover of Paul Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover," received over 1 million views, according to Facebook's view counter. Her collaboration with Grande, a cover of "Don't Dream It's Over," got more than 13 million views.
The Happy Hippie Foundation declined to comment on how much money they've raised or what campaigns it plans to fund. But part of its funding seems to have gone in part toward the creation of a series of online support groups for LGBT and gender-expansive youth, such as Gender Spectrum, which the foundation promoted on its Facebook page on July 27.
"[The support groups] will be a place for young people to get information and help, reaching people who don't have access to physical support groups (whether it's because support groups are not available in their geographic area or because of other barriers, like stigma or fear)," according to the Happy Hippie website.
"Why digital support groups?" the foundation asks. "Because Happy Hippies are committed to helping youth achieve positive outcomes in life and acceptance helps promote self-esteem, well-being, and overall general health for LGBT young people! Experts explain that support groups promote resilience and enable LGBT youth to connect to peers, which counters the stigma they experience on a daily basis." The groups will help connect young people with direct referrals for legal and medical resources, and also provide an open and safe space for youth to share their experiences navigating gender and identity issues.
Outside of the digital realm: Happy Hippies have also been working at a policy level to support homeless shelters for LGBT people across the nation. In March, Cyrus drafted a letter to the New York State legislature encouraging legislators to allocate funding to organizations that support homeless youth. Hundreds of Happy Hippie supporters signed a petition, and when New York state its finalized budget shortly after, it included $4.5 million in funding for homeless youth shelters.
Happy Hippie has also helped support Los Angeles's My Friend's Place with goods to distribute more than 15,000 meals and snacks and over 10,000 pairs of socks and pairs of underwear among homeless youth. It helped fund the My Friend's Place's Transformative Education Program, which teaches life skills and offers arts programming and employment services for the LGBT youth community.
The missions align. According to a study out of the Winston Institute, as much as 40% of homeless youth identifies as LGBT. Family rejection of their sexual or gender identity was the leading cause of homelessness for those LGBT youth surveyed — 46% of those individuals ran away because their families were not accepting, and a full 43% had been kicked out because of their identities. By both providing resources to homeless youth and helping educate others about the LGBT issues, Cyrus and the Happy Hippies Foundation are serving a singular goal of improving the world for LGBT youth.
Both the foundation and Cyrus herself have used their Facebook pages and Instagram accounts share others' personal stories in order to help people understand the struggles and lives of transgender individuals. For a little over two weeks starting June 15, the organization ran an #Instapride campaign on Instagram highlighting transgender activists, YouTube celebrities, writers and students, offering them a platform on which to share their experiences.
"What Miley has that we don't is that we post something and it's mostly people from the trans community who are going to read it and listen to us," Nina Chaubal, co-founder and director of operations of Trans Lifeline, "a hotline staffed by transgender people for transgender people," told Mic. "But when Miley says something, she has her entire fanbase of millions and millions of people who are listening to her. For her to essentially lend her visibility to trans issues is a really big deal."
Everyone profiled attended a massive photo shoot, where Cyrus met them and spoke about why she started the foundation. Precious Davis — "assistant director of diversity recruitment initiatives at Columbia College Chicago, proud trans woman, fiance of Myles Brady, activist, lover, healer and performance artist," as she described herself to Mic — said that Cyrus had been really moved by the death of Leelah Alcorn, a young transgender girl who died by suicide in December 2014 after publicly posting a note asking that someone "Fix society. Please."
"It really touched [Cyrus]," Davis told Mic. "This [shoot] was supposed to be giving light to celebrate the pride of gender-expansive individuals."
Davis described the environment as "charged."
"She talked about how everyone there represented something different. She had really done her research on everyone ... and each person she referenced, like: 'I really like this quality about you and this part of your social media.' The research came from her. She knew all the people there. It was so warm."
Trans Lifeline president and executive director Greta Martela, who appeared in the #InstaPride campaign with her wife, Nina Chaubal, agreed with Davis's estimation, though she was initially a bit skeptical. "The trans community is a community that takes a lot of abuse. And so we're not the most trusting and open community initially," she told Mic. "My initial thought was, 'Yes, we would love help,' but then also: 'Is this something I'm going to feel okay about?'" In the end, however, "I was pleasantly surprised," she said.
She had an in-depth talk with Cyrus about the artist's own perceptions of gender and her discomfort with gender roles, "which to my mind definitely does make her part of the community," Martela said. "I don't know if she sees it that way herself. But everything she was saying felt relatable from the context of being a trans person."
Just like the connections she made with participants at the photo shoot, Cyrus' activism through her Happy Hippie Foundation seems personal and sincere, focusing on effective action for a diverse set of initiatives. In that way, it may be setting a new standard for celebrity activism.