From: Maumelle, AR
Identifies as: Caucasian, Bisexual, Transwoman
Nominated by: Cynthia Martinez
Nominating Organization: The Center for Artistic Revolution
Earlier this year, Willow bravely testified before lawmakers as part of an effort to try to stop the passage of a proposed Arkansas law that would ban doctors from providing gender-affirming care (such as puberty blockers and hormone therapy) to youths under the age of 18. Although the Arkansas governor vetoed the law, the Republican legislation overrode the veto and it is now state law.
Willow Breshears was born and raised in rural, conservative Arkansas. Growing up and going to school in Batesville, Arkansas, and Sheridan, Arkansas (population 5,000) was extremely challenging for her. When Willow bravely began exploring her gender identity and outer expression, the school environment grew even more hostile. School administrators forced Willow to use the men’s restroom and refused to implement federal protections that ultimately promoted an unsafe environment for her and all the LGBTQ students. Willow was constantly ridiculed by students, teachers, and school officials.
In addition, the church her family attended also held discriminatory views. Willow was faced with rejection from her youth pastor who while misgendering her, kicked her out of a meeting and was told to never come back unless she dressed according to her gender assigned at birth. All of these experiences and gaps in support gave her the energy to inspire, motivate and learn how she can be part of the fight for a better Arkansas, not just for her but for all the queer, trans youth who need to see that there is hope and opportunity to survive and thrive.
After moving to Central Arkansas, Willow joined Center for Artistic Revolution’s (CAR) youth group at 13 years old. Willow has always shown so much enthusiasm and natural insight in doing community work. Willow quickly became a mentor to new members and later facilitated the youth group, organized the youth to do actions on social media and in person.
Over the years she became the statewide youth coordinator for GSA National helping countless students in starting up a GSA in their schools. Willow has informed and trained the largest medical providers in the state on trans competent practices and education in healthcare. An initiative she helped lead.
In 2016, Willow joined the TRUTH council led by GSA and Transgender Law Center. As a TRUTH council member Willow facilitated and organized national monthly planning meetings, led educational workshops for youth at leadership summits, and has recruited numerous trans youth to engage in local, regional, and national social justice work. Willow was also one of the co-authors of TRUTH’s 9 Point Manifesto. The manifesto is part of the radical tradition of creating manifestos in order to define our revolution and achieve liberation. Video is available here.
From: Brooklyn, NY
Identifies as: Caribbean/Black; Queer, Lesbian; Gender-fluid, Femme, Non-binary
Nominated by: Oskar Sinclair & Currie Blackwell
Organization Nominated by: Community Healthcare Network-Teens PACT
If queerness is the reclamation of a self-sovereignty lost by the harmful imposition of our society, then Jaz is a queer icon in their own right. A radical artist, educator and proponent of queer liberation, they arrived at Teens PACT effervescent and eager about comprehensive sexuality education. Already an advocate for the subject, they were seeking to deepen their knowledge in order to better impact change.
Fast forward three years and Jaz has grown into the quintessential queer protagonist of their own making. Having always grappled with gender, the solitude of 2020’s stay-at-home order propelled them to examine who they were when not performing womanhood and it was this reconciliation with performativity that they stepped into their fluidity. The importance of this was not lost of any of us here at Teens PACT because Jaz’s ability to step into their identity is a reminder that from moment-to-moment queer folks are owed the right to self-determination.
Jaz uses art as a means of manifesting a more equitable world for queer, trans and nonbinary folx of color. In spite of the negative social impact of covid-19 on LGBTQ+ folks, they reimagined, forged and fortified community virtually using their TikTok and Instagram presence. Additionally, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests this past summer, Jaz employed their artistic skills to garner funds for four Black Trans collectives. By means of a bartering system, they designed a piece of artwork for every individual donation to the organizations and raised over $1500 in a month.
As a queer nonbinary sexual health educator, they merge creativity and intersectionality with advocacy in a manner that truly embodies the next generation of leaders. Case in point, Jaz contributed to our curriculum revamping in order to ensure that the work Teens PACT does actively addresses the disparity in queer representation in sex ed. This resulted in the creation of a three-pronged workshop exploring queer identities and allyship as well addressing topics like the impact of cis and heteronormativity on sex and how to expansively imagine and redefine sex from a queer point of view.
Jaz is currently conceptualizing, scripting, and drawing a queer-centric animated series.
Sameer Hussain Jha
From: Fremont, CA
Identifies as: South-Asian American; Queer; Nonbinary
Pronouns: Any pronouns
Nominated by: Jane Clementi
Nominating Organization: Tyler Clementi Foundation
I believe Sameer to be an excellent candidate for working tirelessly at creating safe inclusive classrooms and schools so other LGBTQ+ students would not have to suffer the same pain and humiliation that they endured in middle school.
Although Sameer grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, a supposedly inclusive and LGBTQ+ friendly place, unfortunately that was not Sameer’s experience as they were continuously targeted throughout elementary and middle school, for being feminine–for liking the color pink and humming Hannah Montana songs in the hallways. They were called homophobic slurs and physically attacked, even by people considered their friends, and what was worse none of their teachers did anything to stop it. All that stopped when Sameer moved to a school that had a vibrant GSA club with proud, happy LGBTQ+ students and faculty. Once in a safe environment Sameer was able to accept themself and came out as queer and nonbinary at 14 years old.
After seeing how important it was to have a positive school environment Sameer went back to the middle school where they had been bullied and worked with the counselor and principal to start a GSA club and train students and teachers on how to effectively call out homophobic bullying.
Sameer continued to help get their school district to adopt LGBTQ+ inclusive sex education, has presented and continues to speak at schools as well as conferences for educators across the nation, and even helped their South Asian community see that homophobia and transphobia had not always been part of their culture. Sameer started the first pride parade in their home city of Fremont (the fourth largest city in the Bay Area) and worked with the Mayor of Oakland on LGBTQ+ initiatives. Sameer identified a need for current LGBTQ+ materials and information for educators, so to fill this void Sameer wrote a book called Read This, Save Lives: A Teacher’s Guide to Creating Safer Classrooms for LGBTQ+ Students to help supply teachers with the resources and tools needed to create safe and inclusive classrooms for today’s generation of queer youth.
Sameer’s efforts evolved into what is today called The Empathy Alliance. Sameer was able to engage the counselor, principal, and many of the teachers and student leaders in his vision to transform the school. Together, they created the first GSA club in school history, added safe space stickers to classrooms, stocked the library with queer friendly books, and encouraged all youth serving adults to take Gender Spectrum training. Sameer’s efforts soon expanded to include the entire school district serving over 42 schools & 35,000 students.
Sameer has added their voice and partnered with many change making organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign, GLSEN, GLAAD as well as they participated in the Tyler Clementi Foundation’s Youth Ambassador Program.
Sameer is currently attending Stanford University.
Meet Kendall (Preferred Pronouns: They/Them)
Kendall is 17 years old and is from Des Moines, WA. When Kendall was a baby, their mother passed away from complications related to cancer. Kendall grew up in a place that was not very accepting of their identity or of their activism.
Luckily, Kendall found a chosen family at their single-gender Catholic school where they had the courage to lead the Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) True Colors group since 2018. As a GSA leader, Kendall has brought community resources to school to help connect LGBTQ+ students with creative, supportive outlets and adult role models.
Based on the strength of their academic performance, Kendall has already been accepted into several four-year colleges and universities – many with honors. Kendall wants to turn their passion for activism into a lifelong career that would impact and inspire future queer student activists. Kendall also has a production company called Third Charm Films, and produced a miniseries called Hetero that they also wrote and directed.
Elias (Preferred Pronouns: They/Them, Xe/Xer)
Elias is a transgender organizer from North Florida. They struggled with their gender identity as a teen and their queerness was often met with harassment and discrimination at school and friction at home.
As an organizer, they have worked with the Genders and Sexualities Alliance (GSA) Network since 2015. Elias has assisted with social justice programming for queer and trans youth ages 14-24, they coordinated events and have worked their way up into the Board of Directors as Co-Chair. Plus, they have also held positions as lead organizer for both the Coalition for Consent and Jacksonville Palestine Solidarity Network where they have led actions and built relationships with their community using an intersectional lens towards a liberated future.
Elias is currently a college senior studying diverse human services and they hope to further their work for the trans community, especially trans communities of color.
Meet Michael Piña (Preferred Pronouns: He/Him or She/Her)
Michael is 20-years-old and was born and raised in the small, conservative, farming community of Kerman, CA. Growing up in a Latinx household in California’s conservative Central Valley, Michael experienced harassment, discrimination and was subjected to a lot of trauma. She even battled her own high school administration that was attempting to censor her quote that referenced her sexual orientation in her senior yearbook – a battle that she won.
Through it all, Michael still graduated high school as the valedictorian of her class and was accepted to UC Berkeley. As a first-generation college student, Michael was from a low-income household so needed help to pay for college. Applying for scholarships as a poor, Latinx, LGBTQ+ student, in a community in which few people went to college, inspired her to start her own non-profit organization called Central Valley Scholars. The non-profit organization specifically gives scholarships for LGBTQ+ students in the Central Valley.
As a queer, Latinx, and fem identifying person, Michael continues to persevere and hopes Central Valley Scholars creates an educational space in which all students are supported, celebrated and respected. Michael’s work is driven by love, community, friendship, family and a passion to make a positive change. Michael is currently a senior at UC Berkeley, majoring in sociology and is considering law school after she graduates in May 2021.
Meet Daniel (Age 17)
Daniel, grew up in Oklahoma where he did not know the word or anyone that was transgender. So, when he explained his feelings to his siblings at age 11, they were the ones that supported him and helped him find the resources. He still wanted to follow in his older sister’s footsteps by attending Thunderbird Youth Academy, a prestigious military school. He was accepted at Thunderbird and Daniel quickly rose to a position of leadership. He was even formally recognized for his performance where he was in charge of a 35-person platoon. After graduating with several awards, Daniel was accepted to attend the U.S. Naval Academy.
Daniel is now grappling with an uncertain future with the current Trump Administration’s transgender military ban and a new Naval Academy admissions rule that bans trans applicants. Daniel’s hard-fought full ride to attend college is no longer an option and his story exemplifies how the Trump Administration’s transgender military ban is impacting real lives.
Meet Jayna (Age 19)
Jayna is a resolute 19-year-old transgender dancer who is redefining the modern-day ballerina by being the first transgender ballerina to ever compete in a national ballet competition (that took place in March 2019). Unwilling to exist solely within the confines of gender as a child, Jayna Ledford’s personal evolution as a transgender female has been a lifelong process. She describes herself as always being genderfluid and having strong family and community support. It wasn’t until age 18, last year, that she came out as a trans woman. Ballet has been her passion. As a child, whether identifying as male or female, Jayna was practicing ballet. She was recognized for her skill and ability early on and has been afforded a platform which she is now using to tell her story. Currently, she is making plans to pursue a degree in communications and continue her ballet training.
Meet Kristina (Age 16)
Kristina, transitioned at age 11 with a supportive single mother, but in an atmosphere where she experienced bullying and violence. Kristina has become an unrelenting advocate for trans youth in Nevada, where her activism is centered around education. She works alongside her mother at Gender Justice Nevada and leads peer support and community outreach. She recently was instrumental in Nevada in passing SB225 that ensures that all students are protected in school. She is currently continuing her activism in Nevada and pursuing her GED in the hopes of attending college and earning a degree in early education.
Meet Oliver (Age 18)
Oliver, has been a frequent visitor to doctors, specialists, and his local hospital due to several medical conditions. Because of Oliver’s health challenges, he has become uniquely exposed to the medical community. While navigating the healthcare system, he experienced a lot of pain and obstacles while trying to obtain the care he needed. He also became acutely aware of the discrimination that many of his friends faced while trying to obtain medical care. In response, he volunteers at the University of Pittsburgh addressing inequality in healthcare for the LGBTQ population, and specifically that of transgender patients. This involvement led him to develop a workshop designed to educate doctors and medical staff on transgender patient care. This workshop has been implemented to train all of the first-year residents at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. He does this while enrolled in college pursuing a double degree in physics and linguistics.
Meet Dwayne (Age 20)
Dwayne Cole Jr. knows what it’s like to go through hard times. He spent a large part of his life homeless. His family struggled to keep the family together as they faced eviction and poverty. He watched as his family worked though depression and financial instability and is now determined to uplift his family as well as his community.
It wasn’t until Dwayne came out and discovered the Ruth Ellis Center (REC) that he became happier and started doing more for his community. He has served as a member of their Youth Advisory Board and their Out in the System program, working to review and change policies in the child welfare system. After completing REC’s two-year leadership program Dwayne became one of the first young people to be hired on to their professional staff, serving as a Development Associate and as the lead facilitator of the Youth Advisory Board, collaborating and uplifting young people to bring out their own leadership potential.
He also produced videos highlighting the legacy of LGBTQ activist Ruth Ellis and the experience of LGBTQ youth within his community. He lives by this bit of wisdom, “your current struggles are only a story for you to tell during your future success.”
Meet Grace (Age 17)
Growing up between Maryland and Washington DC, Grace navigated the challenges of having divorced parents, coupled with confronting harmful gender norms. As Grace says, she always knew she was a girl. Her social transition started early, between the ages of 11 and 13.
Her work now focuses on education and safety for trans girls and women of color. She has worked to inform policies that protect and ensure the safety of trans kids in schools. During the Obama administration, she was an Ambassador to the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans.
She brings light to issue of the unjust criminalization of black trans girls and women and the disproportionate violence against them. Grace considers herself a citizen artist because she does her activism and education through her art. “This is not ‘the trans story’ but this is my story, this is our story, this is the story of my sisters, of my brothers, and it is for us and us only to really tell. So, just really centralizing the trans identity and all things trans.”
Meet Mahad (Age 20)
Mahad is from a tight-knit Somali community in Minnesota. His family was very conservative, religious and insular. In middle school, he began to come to terms with his sexuality, but kept it hidden from his family. He established the first GSA chapter at his high school where he engaged with the community. He had to keep all his activity secret from his parents because they were intolerant of LGBTQ people.
He was able to piece together a financial aid package to Ithaca College on his own and went off to school where he began to write for his college newspaper. At the end of his Freshman year, he wrote an article about his sexuality and religious beliefs. This eventually reached his parents, but they did not confront him about it. Instead, they took him to Kenya under the pretense of a vacation. There, they told him he would not return to college and they were placing him in conversion therapy. His mother told him the program would physically punish him to make him stop being gay.
Through his friends and connections back in the U.S., he was able to escape in the middle of the night to the U.S Embassy. He went back to college but is now completely cut off from his family. He wants to become a lawyer and help LGBTQ asylum seekers. “I want to help make it easier for other people who have been in my situation to speak out for the US government to step in and do something about this.”
Meet Moises (Age 20)
Moises was 5 when he came to the United States with his family. As a Mexican family in a predominately white town in the south, Moises was bullied early on for both his ethnic identity and for his effeminate demeanor. Despite these obstacles, Moises excelled at school.
Due to his undocumented status, several of his teachers and counselors asked him why he worked so hard because his home state does not have in-state tuition. Still, he discovered a program called Quest Bridge and was awarded a four-year scholarship to University of Chicago. There he works as a community organizer with United We Dream and his own organization, Fuego, where he fights for the rights of undocumented young people with a clear eye on intersectionality.
Despite his vulnerable position, he still fights for what he believes is right. “Even though I am fighting for a Dream Act right now, I’m not just fighting for immigrants’ rights. I’m fighting for LGBTQ rights. I’m fighting for the people who can’t go back to Mexico for the fear of being killed.”
Daniel Garcia (Age 18)
Daniel’s life involved many kinds of storms, including one that destroyed his home at a young age – Hurricane Katrina. By the time he was 7, he had lost both parents and found himself moving across the country several times amid a custody battle. Abuse and neglect, including starvation, plagued his young life. In 2015, his life made a turn for the best and his friend’s family became foster parents to him in Gulfport, MS. That experience gave him a new perspective on life. His friend’s family gave him the love and light he needed during his darker times.
Daniel faced years of harassment and bullying. He used that experience to help others faced with similar situations. As an officer of several high school clubs, he makes sure that other LGBTQ people feel comfortable so all students can give back to the community together.
“I make it a point that everyone knows the boundaries of speech and the boundaries of inclusivity in these clubs.” One of Daniel’s missions is to expand services and resources for LGBTQ youth living in the deep south.
Daniel spends time volunteering in the library, making sure that LGBTQ youth is represented in the books and no the display shelves. “We’ve been fought by older, conservative members in the community that we’re ‘exposing children to LGBT life’, but I think it’s important to expose children and everyone as a whole.” Daniel is a member of the Debate Club, Youth Legislature and Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America.
He was accepted into several top schools including Stanford and Princeton, and has decided to attend Pomona College in the Fall. He hopes to give back to the South and make sure that LGBTQ youth have access to resources like the Rainbow Project.
Dafahlia Mosley (Age 21)
Dafahlia, now 21 years old, comes from a background of inequity and oppression that she continues to navigate actively fighting against it to progress her and her community forward. Having been raised in a single father household, she experienced physical and emotional abuse by family members in attempts to expel any displays of outward femininity. Raised in Stockton, she felt isolated in school as well as in her family and in her black community for not fitting into a gender binary. Having already experienced oppression on an intersectional level, it wasn’t until having navigated homelessness that she was forced recognize her personal reliance.
As a young, black, woman of a trans experience she’s had multiple interactions with the police that continued to invalidate her femininity as well as recognizing her legal gender and name change. These interactions prompted her involvement with the #NoNewJail collation. In her time working at LYRIC, a non-profit in the Castro, she assisted in creating a framework for SWAG (Sex Worker Advocacy Group) which she facilitated.
She currently works with the Young Women’s Freedom Center where she facilitates focus groups at the juvenile hall in San Francisco. While the organization is not specifically LGBTQ focused, she serves young women and girls who have been marginalized by society and have been systematically oppressed. She often finds LGBTQ youth don’t have the language to articulate or contextualize who they are. “Oftentimes, our voices- our narratives- are written for us. I don’t like to say that I’m their voice, but I like to help them exercise their personal power.”
She hopes to purchase a car with the grant money so she can continue her work and travel safely without relying on public transportation. She wants to create spaces for trans and gender non-conforming youth to come together and connect in the Central Valley region of California.
Julieta Ramirez-Solis (Age 18)
Julieta is an undocumented immigrant, queer leader born in Oaxaca, Mexico. Her parents moved to the United States 6 months after she was born, leaving her behind in the care of her grandparents. Julieta was reunited with her parents when she was 5 and they brought her to the United States. It was difficult for her to connect to other people at first because she did not understand English. She applied for DACA status a few years ago, even though it was a difficult process and her parents feared that the government would deport her back to Mexico if they knew her status.
Due to her immigrant status, Julieta has always empathized with those finding themselves marginalized by society. She is the President of the Gender Sexuality Alliance at her school. She helped change the name of the club from the Gay-Straight Alliance so more gender identities and sexualities were included. She is working with her school to get gender neutral bathrooms and lockers and has had meetings with the architect who is designing the school’s reconstruction. “I think it takes a lot of courage doing activist work,” Julieta said. “With the gender-neutral bathrooms, we’ve had a lot of people go against our club and tear down our posters, but we keep on doing what we’re doing because we think it’s important.”
She also spearheaded a project called “A Night of Unity in the Community” which had a big turnout and all the proceeds went to a Portland non-profit called IRCO (Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization), which assists immigrants and refugees.
She hopes to use the grant money to help finance her college education. Due to her undocumented status, she is unable to apply for FAFSA which limits her abilities to finance a college education. She has gotten into some great liberal arts schools across the country, and the Youth Courage Award funds will assist her in pursuing her dreams of a higher education. Julieta hopes to become a teacher so she can influence others and open their minds.
Andrew O’Donnell (Age 18)
Raised in a Catholic household in rural Omaha, Andrew, came out as queer to their family at a very young age. Andrew took on the responsibilities to sustain themself and even experienced homelessness. This unstable environment led Andrew to a devastating eating disorder that took them away from their supportive school community for almost two months. Even through all their struggles, they were still able to overcome the hurdles and manage a full load of schoolwork including AP courses, write their first book, lead a support group for other queer youth, and organizing a counter protest against the Westboro Baptist Church.
Facing harassment, denial, and disapproval, Andrew stood their ground and stepped out on the other side as a stronger advocate, demanding visibility. Andrew encountered their first “run-in” with a high-ranking figure at the all-boys Catholic high school they attended their freshman and sophomore year. Their idea to start a GSA at the high school was rejected, but that didn’t stop their motivation to create a safe space for other queer students who were attending a private or religious school.
Andrew’s leadership skills have blossomed from their early days of founding the Coffee Talk Program for queer youth attending schools, serving as the Events Coordinator for the Queer Nebraska Youth Network, and now working as a fellow for the Hillary Clinton Campaign.
Andrew wrote a book featuring a collection of their poetry and a short story, entitled Nicoteane and Other Foolish Mistakes, detailing their childhood and experiences as a queer youth. They have also worked as an editor for the High School Democrats of America. In that work, Andrew takes pride in exposing youth to the larger trans movement. “I take it on as a responsibility to be as outspoken as I can be. The act of being yourself is just as much a proclamation of activism as going to work every day at the Hillary for America Campaign.”
“I would say the two most important [issues] are queer homelessness and also queer death. I think it’s terrifyingly astounding to me how bad the rates are when it comes to queer youth,” Andrew said. Andrew also stresses the importance of intersectionality. “You can’t sit silent and idle and watch others being discriminated against and then ask for your own oppression to be lifted because that’s not actual justice, that’s just asking for privilege.”
Landyn Pan (Age 20)
Landyn has been a trailblazer from a young age, using his talent in media and fine arts to provide a voice for the trans community that crosses the boarders of race, gender, sexual orientation, ability and class. He uses his “artivism” as a way to represent the queer and trans movement and other marginalized groups.
Landyn’s family relocated from China to the Seattle, WA when he was just six years old. Coming to terms with his gender and sexuality in the context of a conservative family was very challenging for Landyn. He assumed a co-“head of household” role, helping his mother manage their home and autistic brother, while also going to school and being involved in various extracurricular activities. That’s where he tapped into his own artistic talents of photography, graphic design, filmmaking, and screenwriting. He began to channel his energy into his “artivism”. As one of the earliest out students at his high school, Landyn began his outspoken LGBTQ activism in the greater Seattle area before moving to Orange County to attend Chapman University. No matter what life threw at him, he pushed through and became stronger because of his struggles.
By reclaiming space around the Asian/Pacific Islander and queer movement through his art and public speaking, he has attempted to fill a gap where there is heavy underrepresentation. He currently serves as the development and creative director for Trans Student Educational Resources (TSER), an organization dedicated to transforming the kindergarten through college environment for transgender and gender nonconforming students. He started out at as a graphic designer for the organization at the age of 16, inventing “The Gender Unicorn” and designing many other LGBTQ-themed infographics that have been published by major media outlets such as Huffington Post and Buzzfeed, translated into multiple languages, and distributed in print internationally. His viral infographics propelled the early organization into national prominence. In his current roles, he recruits other young trans leaders as board members, trained hundreds of activists on youth-led transformative justice activism through presentations at conferences, and oversees the production of all creative material. He is also on the planning committee for TSER’s inaugural Trans Youth Leadership Summit, the only national activist development program run by and for trans youth.
He has continued to take the initiative to connect with the media to create larger, wide-ranging LGBTQ representation by interning with NBCUniversal. He will be interning with ABC Television Network in the summer and plans to continue interning at major media companies for the rest of his college career.
Landyn hopes to continue his work with the media, broadening the very definition of representation. “When you feature only one trans narrative and one type of trans person, usually white, cis-passing, straight, and financially well-off, it creates a further gap between those people and other trans people who are of color, who are poor, who are disabled, homeless, in foster care, or in prison. It makes them seem less deserving of acceptance, love, and justice. That’s what I want to change.”
Pablo Rodriguez (Age 20)
Pablo is an undocumented, unafraid, queer leader born from Guatemalan Mayan ancestry. His mother moved to the United States when he was six years old, leaving him behind in the care of his aunt. Pablo began to feel isolated when he started to experience his queerness. At the age of 14, Pablo moved to San Francisco to be reunited with his mother. He came out two years later about his sexual orientation and gender– “Two spirit” a modern umbrella term used by some indigenous North Americans to describe gender-variant individuals in their communities, and that left Pablo in an unstable and unsafe situation. Although homeless, he continued to go to school and eventually found the GSA club and LYRIC (Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center), a local non-profit that serves queer youth.
He has helped set up a program at Communities in Harmony Advocating for Learning and Kids (CHALK) to do an UndocuQueer drop-in where youths can get resources like screenings for Visas for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and other services.
At LYRIC, he is in charge of the UndocuWorkforce program and he gets to build and facilitate curriculum and events. He enjoys the opportunity to work with community partners as he creates events and classes all over San Francisco.
Pablo is most interested in focusing on intersectionality between gender, sex, race and class and created workshops for teachers on how to address these issues in the classroom. “For me it was not just an act of awareness, but an act of survival,” Pablo has said of his volunteer work. “[It is] an act of keeping this knowledge alive, keeping the LGBT2S people alive, keeping the queer people of color alive.”
Alex Bergeron (Age 20, San Francisco, CA)
A queer transgender man who fled an intolerant household, Alex has endured homelessness, drug addiction and bullying, as well as challenges reconciling his identity with his conservative Muslim upbringing. What keeps Alex strong and sober is his community and his drive to help those facing adversity like he has. He dreams of creating a safe space for LGBTQ youth to seek counseling and to express themselves using art and music therapy.
Already, Alex has demonstrated great commitment to the LGBTQ community. He works with the Queer Resource Center at City College of San Francisco, where he is a student, and he volunteers with the city’s LGBT center and the Asian & Pacific Islander Wellness Center. Alex also served on the board for the 2014 TransMarch in San Francisco.
“I was really given opportunities where I could jump in and be useful,” Alex said of his volunteer work. “The more useful I feel, the more my stability and everything continues.”
Anthony James (Age 20, Columbus, GA)
A bisexual man raised in a poor black Southern neighborhood, AJ has a keen sense of intersectional awareness. He not only fights for LGBTQ rights, he also is a staunch advocate for workers’ rights, including his support of getting the minimum wage increased.
Even as he works three part-time jobs to help support his parents and attends the University of Alabama, AJ devotes himself not only to the LGBTQ movement but also to amplifying the voices of women, immigrants, people of color, and people living with disabilities. Bringing humor and a positive spirit to his work has made AJ a respected, beloved organizer on campus. Among his accomplishments: playing a part in the successful effort to expand the university’s non-discrimination policy to cover gender identity and expression. Studious from an early age—when he turned to school as an escape from troubles at home—AJ aspires to be a doctor, organize health care workers, and advocate for LGBTQ health care.
“My motivation really comes from taking a step back and realizing that in order to achieve my own sense of liberation as a queer person, as a black person, as a working class/working poor person, in order to achieve my liberation in those identities then it’s necessary for me to fight for the liberation of others,” AJ said. “My motivation is centered around this idea, to paraphrase Fannie Lou Hamer, ‘No one is free until we’re all free.’ ”
Victoria Villalba (Age 19, Phoenix, AZ)
An undocumented immigrant, Victoria first came to the U.S. at age 3. When her father was deported, the family returned to Mexico. It was there that Victoria, at age 15, came out to her parents. When they rejected her, this put Victoria in an unstable and dangerous situation. For three years, she lived on her own, and as a queer transgender woman she encountered physical, emotional and verbal abuse while seeking employment and housing. She then sought political asylum at the U.S. border. However, her request was denied, and she was held in a detention center. The situation drew more dire still after Victoria reported the injustices taking place in the detention center. Victoria was then put in solitary confinement for three and a half months; a community outcry led to her release.
Shortly after being released, Victoria joined United We Dream’s Queer Undocumented Immigrant Rights Project (QUIP) chapter in Arizona, and she has focused on fighting for the liberation of transgender and queer people in U.S. detention centers. Her activism has included launching hunger strikes, organizing informational conferences for undocumented transgender people, and spearheading success efforts to have three transgender women released from detention. Living with the constant threat of homelessness, as well as food insecurity and the risk of deportation, Victoria plans to use her grant to secure housing, complete her GED, and then pursue a college education.
“I feel like someone who was formally detained, and undocumented and trans, it’s something powerful that motivates me to keep fighting every day,” Victoria said. “I know I’m not the first one, and I know I won’t be the last. That’s why I’m standing up against this, so hopefully the system stops discriminating against us and treats us as humans. There’s no border that separates us because we’re all human, and as humans we have rights because no one is more or less than another person.”
Jacques Agbobly (Age 16, Chicago, IL)
Jacques was born in Togo, Africa and came to the U.S. when he was nine years old. He moved to the Chicago with his family to seek treatment for a family member with HIV/AIDS and better educational opportunities for his siblings and himself. The transition was very difficult for Jacques and he suffered from frequent bullying; he was ostracized not only because of his skin color and accent, but for his sexual orientation as well.
Rather than focus on the prevalent hardships or dwell on the traumas of his past, Jacques chooses to look at the bright side of his story. In the eighth grade, Jacques (who now identifies as gay) produced an anti-bullying PSA which was featured in Time Out Chicago and was asked by the organization “Facing History and Ourselves” to speak at their national convention. At the assembly, he spoke to more than 700 people in hopes of de-stigmatizing the LGBTQ identity.
He currently attends high school on full scholarship at the Chicago Academy for the Arts. He is also an ambassador for National Youth HIV and AIDS Awareness Day, where he volunteers as a fundraiser and speaker on behalf of people living with HIV/AIDS.
Ashton Lee (Age 17, Manteca,CA)
Ashton recently celebrated his 17th birthday, but before that he helped change California law. Governor Jerry Brown signed the historic transgender students bill “The School Success and Opportunity Act,” also known as Assembly Bill 1266, that went into effect on January 1, 2014. The law is the first of its kind in the country, and ensures students K-12 can fully participate in all school activities, sports teams, programs, and facilities that match their gender identity. It could not have happened without Ashton’s tireless advocacy and petitioning.
Ashton grew up in rural Mount Shasta which is located in Northern California. At a very young age, he noticed he was different than his peers. When his family later moved to Manteca, California he began understanding first his sexual orientation as lesbian and then, feeling that wasn’t quite right, his gender identity as transgender. Ashton quickly began to advocate for himself and others and it is then that he truly began to flourish and be recognized as an activist for transgender rights.
Edidiong “Didi” Adiakpan (Age 19, San Antonio, TX)
Edidiong, who goes by the nickname “Didi,” is a Nigerian immigrant, who is currently a student at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA). She immigrated to Texas as a young adult with her fervently Evangelical parents. She struggled with deep-rooted belief systems that condemned her newfound bisexual identity that made her feel that she had to choose between being loyal to her family or being true to herself.
Didi eventually was able to break out and find her voice through writing and through being involved in the LGBTQ community. In high school, she was vice president of the Gay Straight Alliance, where she helped begin a tradition of charity benefit concerts for LGBT organizations.
She is a fierce advocate for women and queer people of color. As a volunteer, she played a part in helping pass the Employee Non-Discrimination Act in the city of San Antonio. She continues to work to help de-stigmatize LGBTQ people by building bridges to other groups, including her African immigrant community or with the fraternity and sorority groups on campus. Her writing has helped her establish a large online following, where she adds a much needed point of view to discussions around LGBT issues. She currently writes for the Paisano Independent Student Newspaper at UTSA, The Rainbow Hub (an online LGBT media site) and also runs her own blog on Tumblr called Qualar for LGBT people and women in hip-hop and rap.
Isaias Vazquez Martinez (Age 21, Denver, CO)
Isaias was born in Zacatecas Mexico to a family of farmers. When the NAFTA agreement was passed, Isaias’ family could no longer get by in agriculture and they immigrated to Colorado in search of a better future. Isaias always dreamed of becoming “legal” by the time he graduated high school. Frustrated by the lack of resources and counseling available to him when he was looking into college options, Isaias learned that half the population of his high school were also undocumented. They banded together and with Isaias’ leadership, created an outreach guide which is now in place with Denver’s guiding counselors. Showing gratitude to his parents’ sacrifice, Isaias believes that to educate himself is to help his community and fulfill just one of his parents’ dreams. Isaias has had to overcome the dual stigma of being both undocumented and queer, but states that he is now unafraid and will no longer “live in the shadows”. He is a charismatic story teller who is passionate about immigrant rights and LGBTQ justice.
Mateo (Katherine) Tabares (Age 18, Corona, NY)
Originally from Colombia, Katherine came to the US with her parents three years ago. Never wasting time, Katherine is the example of someone who takes advantage of every possible resource to empower herself. Katherine’s accomplishments are striking: within a summer, Katherine taught herself English, graduated with a 3.9 GPA, worked many jobs and all the while poured her passion into the organization Make The Road NY, working around the clock to support immigration reform on local and national levels. Unafraid, Katherine propels forward using her own story, as well as her mother’s growing voice and sense of power, as the inspiration to be a fierce advocate. Katherine greatly values family and she emphasizes her gratitude and acknowledges the generations before that have sacrificed to provide more opportunity for their children. Katherine believes that “it is not so different being undocumented and being queer” and she is finding unique ways to represent the crossover of these two communities by tirelessly building upon the momentum from both movements to empower each other. Katherine is “undocumented and unafraid, queer and unashamed.”
Alan Pelaez (Age 20, Waltham, MA)
Originally from Oaxaca Mexico, Alan endured a childhood of poverty, domestic abuse and familial, racial and class discrimination. After his sister’s death, Alan and his mother escaped to the U.S., but as many others, they arrived undocumented. Alan had to grow up fast in the U.S., and overcame a great deal of self-harm, coming to embrace his identity and empower his newfound home and community. Alan’s courage is immense in his decision to not only be out as gay, but to “go public” with his story as undocumented, with one goal in mind: LGBTQ-inclusive immigration reform. Alan has slept in the streets protesting; he’s held roundtable events with U.S. Senators, and presented at Capitol Hill. The number of deportation threats and verbal abuse Alan has endured seem only to give him further motivation to be a voice for the movement. Alan’s passion is in building bridges between immigrant communities across the United States. By sharing his story, he provides support and resources for those oppressed by discrimination based on their identities as undocumented, queer, indigenous, or all.
JEREMIAH BEAVERLY, 19
Originally from Chicago, Jeremiah grew up in an adoptive family who cast him out once he identified as gay at age 18. He has since spent most of his life as technically “homeless” and has bounced around shelters and temporary housing situations. When Jeremiah came to New York, he became involved with the Ali-Forney center where he has completed many terms as a lead peer outreach educator focusing on homeless youth on the streets of New York. For young people to see Jeremiah as a peer having gone through similar struggles, it empowers them in ways that no adult or trained professional may be able to do. Jeremiah has facilitated workshops in high school and middle schools to combat homophobia and transphobia, has gone to Albany to lobby for appropriate funding and legislative support, and has spoken on many panels representing LGBT youth. With a reservoir of humility and charisma, Jeremiah provides critical mentorship to young people who are at a crossroads.
TEMPEST CARTWRIGHT, 17
Coming from a long line of rural Oklahoma natives, Tempest is a voice for the voiceless in a less visible and conservative part of the country where being LGBT is especially discriminated against. With her military father as a source of steady support, Tempest has reached local, regional and national audiences with her thoughtful disposition, leadership and support for other young people. Tempest was asked to represent her area by GLSEN at a White House event for youth. She has been a volunteer with the Open Arms Youth Project in Tulsa, one of the only LGBT youth clubs in Oklahoma. When she realized how little resources were available to LGBT youth, Tempest became the co- founder and president of her own school’s GSA. Her main goal in all of her leadership work is to give kids somewhere they can go to “feel safe”. As an avid artist, Tempest seeks to eventually connect her passion for the LGBT movement to the arts.
Since receiving the Collin Higgins Youth Courage Award, I have done much traveling and had many amazing opportunities come my way. I was able to attend the Santa Fe University of art and design and study graphic design until I decided Santa Fe wasn’t the place for me. Thanks to the Collin Higgins Foundation I was able to attend the Creating Change Conference in Atlanta where I got to hang out with Jazz and Jeanette and also run into some friends from back home. I later received the Carolyn Youth Leadership Award at the Equality Gala in Tulsa and it was such an honor to be recognized at home by family and friends who have all been there by my side since the beginning. I believe the greatest thing that has happened for me since winning the Colin Higgins Youth Courage Award was being chosen to be on the Youth Advisory Council for the Trevor Project. Now I’m pulling from what I learned during my time in LA with them, and everything else before, and taking my self-care to a whole new level by getting on what I believe is the path that will really get the ball rolling towards the future that I want. I’m getting healthy, starting school in January, working on my art, and getting back into my music. Things are truly looking up for me, and I owe a great deal of it to the Collin Higgins foundation for all of the opportunities they have given me to exceed and move forward.
Jazz is a transgender girl who was born a boy and insisted from age two that she was really a girl. Jazz is credited in starting the “Transkids’ Movement”. Her website, www.transkidspurplerainbow.org, has given many transkids and their parents identifiable individuals who can answer many of the challenging questions related to gender variance. She is an advocate and voice for transyouth and continues to consistently appear in the media in order to spread her message. Jazz has already inspired thousands of young people and adults the world over and has set a positive example for many young transgender kids. She has over a million hits on YouTube and appears on panels at local universities in her hometown to answer questions from psychology and medical students. With unwavering support from her family, Jazz fought the U.S. Soccer Federation for not allowing her to play girls soccer and successfully changed the law because of her persistence, fair mindedness, and her determination.
13 year old Jazz, transitioned from male to female at age of 5. She has been an advocate for transkids since age 6, when she first appeared on 20/20 with Barbara Walters. Since then she has been featured on 60 Minutes, Oprah Winfrey’s Network’s documentary “I am Jazz: A Family In Transition”, “The Rosie Show”, “Dr. Drew”, “Huffington Post Live” and a 2013 Barbara Walters update. She’s also been in several magazines, such as The New Yorker, Huffington Post, The Village Voice Sports Illustrated and many more. Jazz speaks at universities, conferences, symposiums, workshops and medical schools all over the country, and she was recently recognized in NYC and LA at the 24th Annual GLAAD Awards, where she met President Bill Clinton, and her favorite actress Jennifer Lawrence. Jazz is the youngest recipient of the Colin Higgins Youth Courage Award, and youngest person featured in The Advocate Magazine’s, “Top Forty Under 40” annual list. Along with her parents, Jazz is the co-founder of the Transkids Purple Rainbow Foundation. Jazz has faced terrible discrimination. For almost 2 1/2 years Jazz was banned from girls’ soccer, and fought this discrimination. As a result, the United States Soccer Federation created a trans inclusive policy for all athletes in the USA.
Cyrus is from Santa Clara, California. Cyrus comes from an Iranian immigrant family and was actively attending the Mormon Church as a young person. Cyrus describes the battle over his sexuality as a young person and the countless hours spent trying to “pray the gay away.” As with many young people in such painful times, Cyrus was convinced his homosexuality was a disease and considered suicide. Cyrus eventually left the Mormon Church and took a life-changing trip to West Africa when he was 16 – finally coming out to his family, friends and school. Under Cyrus’s leadership as the GSA President in his school, the membership more than tripled in size and has become one of the most prominent clubs on his high school campus. Cyrus’s activist work continues to focus on education and cross-cultural dialogue on LGBT issues. Cyrus states that “if every person in the world walked a day in the shoes of an LGBT person, the issue of gay rights would not even be an issue.”
Current location: Los Angeles, CA
PHUONG TSENG, 19
Phuong was born and grew up in a biracial and bicultural family in Vietnam. Phuong came to San Francisco, CA when she was nine years old – questioning and exploring her sexual orientation and gender identity in middle school. Phuong experienced isolation, discrimination, and prejudice because her peers could not tolerate or accept her. Phuong went on to intern at Oasis for Girls as a RISE intern in 2008 when she heard about lavender youth Recreation and Information Center (LYRIC) and outLoud Radio. Phuong proceeded to lead in her role as President of her school’s GSA – striving to create a safe campus for LGBTQ students. Phuong has continued her activism with the Student Diversity Programs as a freshman at Mills College – serving as a peer educator and supporting students and club activities on campus. Phuong credits her young brother’s life challenging battle with leukemia as a turning point when she realized that she could not “sit around and do nothing.”
Current Location: San Francisco, CA
DAUNASIA YANCEY, 19
Daunasia is self-described as an “African-American, Aggressive-Femme, Lesbian open to other possibilities, peer sexual health educator, public speaker, poet and activist.” Daunasia was born to a sex worker and an incarcerated man in Boston, MA and at the age of four, lost her mother to AIDS. She came out in 8th grade and mobilized support for a GSA in her school – the first GSA in a public middle school in Massachusetts. Daunasia was sexually assaulted by a family member when she was 15 and was kicked out of her house shortly following reporting the incident. Despite the lack of support both at home and at school, Daunasia’s community activism continued when she became a safe sex educator with Boston Gay & Lesbian Adolescent Social Services, a volunteer with the Sex Workers Outreach Project and a facilitator at BAGLY (Boston Alliance of LGBT Youth). She is now the coordinator of BAGLY’s Health Education & Risk Reduction Team, the co-chair of their Youth Leadership committee and a member of their Board of Directors.
Current location: Boston, MA
Daunasia Yancey is an African-American, aggressive-femme lesbian, sexual health educator, poet and activist who was born and raised in Boston, MA. She has worked for several Boston-area community based organizations and served on the Boards of Directors of the Boston Alliance of GLBT Youth and the National Youth Advocacy Coalition. In 2011, Daunasia was honored for her work by the Colin Higgins Foundation, as a recipient of their National Youth Courage Award. Receiving the Colin Higgins Youth Courage Award allowed Daunasia to take a break from working to begin her undergraduate studies. She is currently taking time off from pursuing an (expensive) degree in Public Health while continuing to change the world. Daunasia is currently the Assistant to the Executive Artistic Director at The Theater Offensive, an organization whose philosophy of OUTness as a tool to create safer more vibrant neighborhoods resonates with Daunasia’s commitment to the vitality of her community. She is also the Coordinator of Fenway Health’s Connect to Protect Evaulation Component. Connect to Protect’s focus on mitigating the root causes of HIV prevalence amongst young people through structural changes ties in perfectly with Daunasia’s passions for HIV prevention and social justice. You can also find Daunasia featured in the documentary, ‘Secret Survivors,’ produced in 2012 by Ping Chong & Company and the Ms. Foundation for Women.
[D’ ANGELO] D’ ONTACE KEYES, 20.
Born into an African American family in Chicago, D’ Angelo learned the sting of the slurs “faggot” and “gay” coming from his classmates and his mother beginning at age 6. At age 12, D’ Angelo escaped his abusive home only to encounter even more homophobia within the foster care system. Struggling with his identity, D’ Angelo fought back against harassment and violence by proudly embracing his gay identity and re-naming himself D’ Ontace. He pursued his passion for the performing arts and community activism, studying at the Chicago Academy for the Arts and working as the Fundraiser/Special Events Coordinator for Chicago’s Youth Pride Center. At age 17, D’ Ontace learned he was HIV-positive. Relocating to a new city to attend the University of the Arts, D’ Ontace had to overcome homelessness and discrimination due to his HIV status, while learning to live on his own for the first time. Today, D’ Ontace is a tireless activist leader in Philadelphia dedicated to providing education and working to break down stigma with LGBTQ youth, with a focus on HIV-positive young men of color. D’ Ontace is a Program Assistant at Youth Health Empowerment Project, a program of Philadelphia FIGHT
Current Location: Philadelphia, PA
In 2010, shortly after receiving the award, D’Ontace established Peer Support Peer Education[ PSPE] at the University of the Arts [UArts], a student group dedicated to educating and providing Health and Wellness resources to students, partially in Sexual Health. Over the past three year, PSPE was instrumental in the implementation weekly free HIV and STI Screening in the University’s Health Center, launched, “Sex in the Box”, a school wide condom distribution initiative and “Shades of Awareness” PSPE’s annual charity benefit that has raised over $3,000 for local HIV/AIDS service organization including Philadelphia’s AIDS FUND and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s: Connect to Protect. Last May, D’Ontace completed his bachelors in Jazz Vocal Studies at The University of the Arts and is currently enrolled in Grad School. D’ Ontace has been arranging his own jazz vocal music and looking forward to releasing an EP in June. “Receiving the Collin Higgins Award meant that my heart is ever too big to help someone in need. Receiving the award was not only a vital instrument in me furthering my studies, but encouraged me to create an organization that’s instrumental to thousands of students yearly. This award encouraged me to work harder in my mission to advocate for better education and resource systems for young adults-a mission that will never die.”
SEAN MINTEH, 20.
Growing up outside Baltimore in a multicultural family and strict Baptist community, Sean fought to come to terms with their* gender and sexual identity. At 16, after coming out as Queer, Sean experienced widespread rejection, and was subsequently kicked out of the Baptist school they had attended since kindergarten. Undaunted, Sean enrolled in a public high school and pursued the right to safe space by organizing the school’s first Gay/Straight Alliance. arning a scholarship to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Sean led the LGBTQ student group and worked to implement diversity trainings around LGBTQ issues. As Sean’s activist work gained momentum, financial circumstances took a turn for the worse, and returning home was not a safe option. Sean struggled with homelessness for six months, attempting to continue school without a safe place to live. Sean eventually dropped out of school and decided to pursue activism full-time, realizing that the experience of being homeless and Queer was reflective of a national epidemic facing LGBTQ youth. Sean is currently working with Equality Maryland and the Baltimore Homeless Youth Initiative to create a youth-run drop-in center for homeless LGBTQ youth. (*they/their are Sean’s preferred pronouns).
Current Location: Baltimore, MD
VERONICA TIRADO, 18.
Due to financial hardships experienced by their mother, Veronica’s family became homeless when Veronica was 13 – a critical time in her life when she was struggling to define herself and take pride in her identity as a Queer-Fem. In spite of the pain and uncertainty she was undergoing, Veronica found a community to give her support, love and guidance at the Safe OUTside the System (SOS) Collective, a program of the Audre Lorde Project. Having experienced violence herself, Veronica was able to begin healing in a positive way through her work with the SOS Collective, which uses community accountability as a strategy to prevent violence directed at LGBTQ and gender non-conforming people of color in central Brooklyn. Shifting her work in a more youth-specific direction, Veronica recently transitioned her activist work to FIERCE, an organization for LGBTQ youth of color in New York. As one of FIERCE’s most active members, Veronica is a graduate of the Education for Liberation Project, an educational internship program for empowerment and leadership development. She has excelled in her contributions to FIERCE’s Youth Development program and played a key leadership role with other FIERCE members in organizing the first LGBTQ Youth of Color Institute at Creating Change.
FRANCISCO “FRANK” ARMENTA, Jr, 21.
Battling homophobia on a daily basis in East Los Angeles, Frank was routinely harassed and called a “faggot” throughout high school. After being kicked out of class by a teacher for “gay” artwork on his binder, Frank called a parent-teacher meeting, only to learn that his Mexican-Catholic family would not stand up for him due to their embarrassment that he was gay. This experience fueled him to become an activist, spanning from collaborating with the GSA to design a new web-based “Be An Ally” campaign to support LGBT youth at his predominantly Latino high school, to becoming the youngest certified HIV Counselor and Tester in LA county. Through his activism to increase youth HIV testing, Frank has been able to provide invaluable recommendations to key policy makers on best practices for treating queer youth of color during the testing process. Currently, Frank works at REACH LA as a Social Enterprise Assistant and Peer Health Counselor, and continues to fuse his passion for art and graphic design with his activism by creating all the electronic and print media for the Ovahness program serving queer young men of color. He also volunteers his graphic design skills to many other community groups serving LGBT youth.
Current Location: Los Angeles, CA
TERRA TEMPEST MOORE, 22.
Terra grew up in a large multiracial family in Maryland and DC, the middle son of five children. Labeled gay at 14 – an identity forced upon her – Terra began to feel disconnected from her family, and faced abuse from her older brother. Feeling suicidal, Terra pretended to be someone she was not in order to survive. Her life changed when a friend led her to the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League (SMYAL), the only organization solely dedicated to supporting LGBTQ youth in the Metro DC area. With a safe space to explore who she was, Terra stopped hiding and bravely stepped into the world as a transwoman in 2005. Coming out as transgender was difficult for Terra’s family to accept – they view her transition as the loss of a family member. These experiences moved Terra to become an activist with numerous social justice organizations including SMYAL, Different Avenues, DC Trans Coalition, and Advocates for Youth, to name a few. An all-around leader amongst LGBTQ youth in DC, Terra currently serves as a Peer Educator and Co-Chair of STIGMA (Spreading Truth Is Gaining Mass Appeal), a program housed at Metro Teen AIDS established to reduce HIV/AIDS amongst LGBTQ youth of color.
Current Location: Upper Marlboro, MD
LANCE HICKS, 19.
Born female in the Metro Detroit area to a white mother from the suburbs and a Black father from the city, Lance moved back and forth between communities divided along race and class lines, struggling intensely to come to grips with being biracial and questioning his gender identity. At age 15, Lance came out as transgender and began transitioning at his high school in a predominantly white suburban town where he was still trying to find his place. Lance organized his high school’s first Transgender Day of Remembrance, which opened him up to bullying and harassment by other students. In search of a community, he began attending the youth group at Affirmations, the LGBT center serving southeast Michigan. Lance founded the center’s first Trans Youth Group, and organized with staff to make the center’s space and services more inclusive of trans and gender non-conforming people. Currently, Lance is one of the organizers of the Midwest Trans Youth Conference, and is working to get GenderSpark, a collectively organized, youth-run nonprofit organization, up and running. GenderSpark, the only organization dedicated to serving trans youth in southeast Michigan, provides resources and education around the acceptance, safety, and rights of transgender and gender-variant people.
Current Location: Southfield, MI
Since being presented with the Youth Courage Award in 2009, Lance has gained focus and insight to guide his ongoing community organizing work. Currently, Lance is working to support the transformation of GenderSpark (formed in 2008) into Detroit REPRESENT! an organization born out of a desire to make GenderSpark’s work more intentionally political, and more relevant. It’s a collective of LGBTQ youth activists of color from the city of Detroit, who create media to incite local, grassroots transformation. This summer, Lance is in the midst of leading the collective’s first ever summer fellowship, where a small group of LGBTQ youth activists of color will develop tight bonds, exploring ideas of social justice, grassroots community organizing, and radical DIY media. The fellows will develop a range of skills, from group facilitation, to digital media production, to conflict resolution. They’re spending their summer networking with organizations and activists on a local and national level, and these fellows will be encouraged to take on additional leadership roles as the summer comes to an end.
“Transforming GenderSpark into Detroit REPRESENT! was a process that came, in large part, though a number of community educational opportunities I’ve participated in, over the past few years. Some of the most substantial were the KICK L.E.A.D. (Learn, Educate, Advocate, and Drive) academy for young LGBTQ African Americans in Detroit, and the 2013 Detroit Future Media Workshops, where I spent several months of intensive study, learning about graphic design, video production, and transformative educational practices. Using the skills gained in the workshops, I was able to support the work of the up-and-coming community school, the Boggs Educational Center, learning about the deep and personal relationship between neighborhood and education, within oppressed communities.
At present, I serve on the board of directors for Detroit Latin@z, an organization dedicated to support and advocacy for LGBTQ Latin@ Detroiters, where I’m committed to supporting their work to provide more youth-friendly programming and to building efforts in the city for interracial solidarity in our LGBTQ communities. During the day, I work at Alternatives for Girls: a nonprofit agency in Southwest Detroit, answering our crisis hotline, offering case management, and providing street outreach to commercial sex workers. I attend Wayne State University, and hope to earn a Bachelor of Social Work within two years. I currently live on the west side of Detroit, in a rented house with my Canadian partner, and another family member. We spend our days gardening, hanging at the local women/queer/trans* bike co-op, and walking other people’s dogs.”
KYLE RAPINAN, 17.
Raised in Seattle Washington, Kyle ran away from home his freshman year of high school to escape his older brother, whose beatings were so severe that Kyle – whom he called “little faggot” – was hospitalized several times each year. While homeless and fighting in the courts to gain protection from his brother and an agreement from his mother to allow him to transfer into foster care, Kyle began working for the rights of LGBT youth. During this time, school was a safer haven for Kyle and he began working to ensure that all LGBT students could enjoy a safe school and learning environment. Kyle leads his high school’s Gay Straight Alliance, which provides training for teachers and administrators, organizes dances and safe spaces for LGBT youth. He is the Washington state representative for GLSEN National and a member of Safe Schools Coalition with American Friends Service Committee. He has advocated for LGBT youth in his home state and in others, such as Florida, where he collected signatures for a commitment for safer schools. Kyle says it has been important for him to bring his full experience as someone who grew up poor and as a person of color, into discussions of LGBT rights. Kyle is exploring a career in politics to advance social justice.
Current Location: Boston, MA
Kyle Rapiñan is multi-racial law student currently attending Northeastern University in Boston. Since receiving a Colin Higgins Youth Courage Award, Kyle has blossomed into a fierce community activist for human rights, youth self determination, and re-imagining allyship as an action instead of as an identity. Kyle is best known in the queer community for designing and shepherding a new constituency based queer youth arts center in Seattle, Queer Youth Space. He has a strong and demonstrated commitment to ending economic violence, inequity, and youth homelessness. In his free time, he enjoys cuddling up with his kitten and avoiding his heavy backpack.
DEVON BEARDEN, 16.
Devon has spent her life living for extended periods of time with her nana when her chronically ill mother was unable to care for her. While living with her nana, an out lesbian and activist who is the co-founder and current director of the Center for Artistic Revolution, CAR, in Little Rock , Arkansas , Devon searched in vain for resources for LGBTQ youth. While CAR serves the LGBTQ community, its youth program was very small. When Devon asked her nana about National Day of Silence, her nana told her, “Our resources are very limited, if you want to make this happen, then you have to step up.” Devon then organized the school’s first “Day of Silence,” and mobilized a youth contingent to oppose a law that would have barred LGBTQ people from becoming adoptive or foster parents. She then started a GSA at Central High School. She participated in the ACLU’s Freedom Files documentary about the fight for LGBTQ equality and was recently awarded the Arkansas ACLU’s Champion of Liberty Award for her advocacy. Devon is also one of the founding members of CAR’s youth and young adult program DYSC, Diverse Youth for Social Change. The program now boasts over 70 members, most of whom are LGBTQ youth. Recently Devon moved to Greensville , South Carolina to be with her mother and started the first GSA at her new high school there. Devon wants to “live to see the day when people realize how backwards it was to treat queers the way they do now.” In all her work, Devon is purposeful about making the connections between racism, classism and gender identity and in stressing the importance of reaching youth of color.
“After the incredible honor of winning the Colin Higgins Youth Courage Award I moved back to Little Rock, Arkansas to live with my Nana. I realized that I wanted very much to continue being involved with the GSA that I founded at Little Rock Central High as well as being a part of DYSC, the program for LGBTQ youth that I helped start at the Center for Artistic Revolution, CAR. As an intern I helped CAR renovate a space in the basement of the church where we have been housed for the past 7 years. I helped open The Centers at CAR, this consists of two very large spaces that are divided by a wall. On one side we have the CAR staff and intern offices and we also house Little Rock PFLAG. This space also houses an adult community center/meeting space. On the other side we opened the very first and to date, only drop-in center for LGBTQ and ally youth in Arkansas, The Lucille Marie Hamilton Youth Center. This space also serves as the home base for the DYSC program and its weekly Friday night meeting. I’m proud to see how DYSC has grown. We have over 350 members now and a second chapter has opened in Conway, AR and we will soon be opening two others. It turns out that I am on the autism spectrum and I have Aspergers Syndrome, so that has presented its own set of challenges, but I continue learning ways to better live with it. I went to Job Corp for a year and got my certification in network cabling. Today I am still involved with CAR and I work as a secretary for the church that houses us.”
PERRE SHELTON, 20
Hailing from Calumet City, Illinois, Perre was a three sport athlete his freshman year of high school when he became the target of a group of ten boys, who began regularly “bashing” him on his way home from school, leaving him bruised and bloodied. Not ready to be out to his family, Perre hid his injuries, telling his mother they were from sports. Chicago became Perre’s home as an activist and artist, and has deeply informed his growth in both areas. At 15 Perre came out and began entering slam poetry competitions. He quickly rose to the top of the local slam scene, winning Chicago’s citywide “Louder than Bomb” competition and becoming the youngest Def Jam poet featured on HBO’s “Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry”. Today Perre works with the Youth Pride Center, chairing the youth council that shapes programs, leads writing workshops, and mentors young poets. He is supporting YPC’s move to Chicago’s South Side, where there are few resources for African American LGBT youth. Perre is a student at Harold Washington College and plans to teach high school English after graduating and to someday operate his own youth center. He also currently works with Taproots Inc., traveling to colleges, high schools and churches spreading HIV/AIDS awareness through poetry and interactive conversation with young people.
ALI ABBAS, 19,
Born and raised in rural Illinois, the son of Muslim, Lebanese parents. Ali experienced anti-Arab harassment throughout his childhood, which intensified after 9/11. When Ali came out during his senior year in high school, he was rejected by his friends and came under the scrutiny of his parents. He quickly forgave all for hurting him, even his parents, knowing their backgrounds of having suffered prejudice first hand. Ali now works to put himself through DePaul University, where he is involved in Students for Justice in Palestine, in coalition with Students of Islam, Feminists in Action and the campus LGBT organization. His goal is to increase acceptance of LGBTQ youth of color and Middle Eastern descent in the mainstream community, as well as to carry a gay liberation movement to the Middle East, so that all communities “are accepting of racial and gender diversity.”
Current location: New York, NY
Ali Abbas is a writer living in New York. Ali graduated DePaul University and went on to get his Master’s at NYU. He worked as a journalist for a few different outlets including the BBC/PRI and Makeshift magazine. Though not a photojournalist by training, one of his favorite and most memorable works is his photo series on 2012 Noble Peace Prize winner and Yemeni revolutionary, Tawakul Karman. It’s been republished by the BBC/PRI’s World Service a few times. Another memorable publication is Why are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots- the 2013 recipient of the Stonewall Book award.
Last year Ali was picked as one of 12 computer programmers from around the world to attend IGN’s Code-Foo, a two month coding-intensive program. He was flown out to San Francisco to design tools for users to better interact with IGN’s news content. His application video for the program became so popular it was profiled in Laptop Magazine’s series on “how to get hired.” Ali also published in Mattilda Bernstein’s latest anthology, which has received the Stonewall book award and is currently up for a Lambda Literary award in non-fiction. Ali just finished his first fully produced sketch-comedy show at the Upright Citizens Brigade.
RYAN BOWKER, 20,
Ryan grew up on a Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe reservation in South Dakota and was raised by his grandfather. At age nine, Ryan came out to his sisters and to his homophobic community at age twelve. His grandfather shunned him and put him into counseling “to make him straight.” At the age of 15, Ryan began being shuttled between foster and group homes. Determined to persevere, he graduated a year and a half early from high school and moved to Rapid City, where he obtained a nursing certificate. But even at the nursing home where he works, he still experiences homophobia, mainly because of his appearance. He volunteers at the local LGBTQ center and conducts outreach to Native American reservations and schools in an effort to educate youth about the traditional cultural ways, which accepted and honored “Two Spirit” people. His goal is to become a Registered Nurse and return to his reservation to help do HIV prevention and counseling, hoping this program will be replicated in reservations across the country.
KIYA (Mack) MORTON, 20,
Kiya was born a biological male child to teenage parents in urban Philadelphia, was beaten and emotionally abused by older relatives throughout her childhood. Her mother found out she was gay and sent Kiya to a mental institution, which drugged her to make her straight. After several attempts to escape, she ran away for good and at the age of 15 began life as a sex worker, while transitioning to become a girl. Arrested for prostitution, she was placed in a series of group homes, forced back to being a boy, and finally sent to a juvenile detention center, where she was physically and sexually assaulted by the prison staff. She finally escaped the system by claiming she was suicidal. Once out, she protested to the state’s Commissioner of Juvenal Justice about the treatment of transgender people in the state foster care and prisons. Due in part to her efforts, that specific juvenile detention center was shut down and the state incorporated new guidelines for the treatment of all LGBT youth in state care. Kiya continues to be a tireless advocate for these rights and hopes through study to become a professional photographer.
RAQUEL EVITA SARASWATI
Raquel Evita Saraswati, once named on Syria’s hit list of “Woman who Shame Islam,” has always defied expectations and challenged assumptions. At 15, she stood up for and defended her openly lesbian teacher who was being harassed by fellow students – despite the fact that she hadn’t yet realized that she, too, was a lesbian. She overcame a childhood of hardship to excel in both high school and college. And as a Muslim lesbian, she has emerged as a leading voice to reform Islam.
CHRISTOPHER (Cree) GORDON
Born to a white mother and black father into a homophobic and racially divided community in rural Louisiana, Cree struggled to be black enough for black people and white enough for white people. Coming out to his parents at 14, his mother tried to accept him, but his stepfather eventually threw him out of the house at 19, following his first semester of college. He lived on the streets of New Orleans, hustling his body to survive. He met a man from Eugene, Oregon who took him West before becoming abusive. On the streets again in Eugene, he took an HIV test to get the $10.00 a local clinic was offering and it came back positive. Within weeks of his diagnosis, Cree began volunteering and speaking out at local high schools and colleges. He shared his experiences about being HIV positive and queer through the Youth Education Program and Men Who Have Sex With Men (MSM) for The HIV Alliance and the Bridges program at University of Oregon. Cree says, “If in all the speaking I do (on HIV) I can save the life of one person, that would be worthwhile.” He became a leader in both his College LGBTQA and Black Student Union, working to bridge the two communities. A charismatic and energetic public speaker, Cree has a knack for opening eyes and hearts, his motto – “You gotta make them uncomfortable to make em comfortable.” Cree’s Youth Courage Award will enable him to complete his next semester of college.
Ana endured a lonely and isolated childhood in East Los Angeles when she was outed at 14. Rejected by her family and friends because of their strong Catholic beliefs and disregarded by her teachers, Ana remembers, “I had no one.” Kicked out of the house at 17 by a father convinced her “bad” example was turning her younger sister gay, Ana coped by “cutting” or self-mutilating herself to “feel pain to numb the other pain I felt.” She attempted suicide at 14 and 16. She turned her life around through filmmaking and self-expression, following a classroom presentation by Reach LA, a youth media organization. She wrote an article on being queer and attempting suicide that was featured on NPR and has made five documentaries on life in East LA, which have been screened nationally and internationally. Her film interviewing 12 queer students is now being used to train teachers throughout the LA Unified School District. She founded three programs at Reach LA including: “Queer Youth Nation,” a nationwide survey of LGBT youth which has been screened at LA’s Outfest for the past three years; the “Be an Ally” program, which works in schools to educate teachers and students about queer issues through film “Reel Ghetto Queer,” a workshop to mentor queer youth in filmmaking. Ana is committed to using her creative skills to build bridges with the straight and queer Latino community and immigrant and non-immigrant communities. Helping to financially support her family, for whom she feels a great deal of responsibility, Ana works full-time doing graphic design for a community health center. Her 21st birthday present to herself was a pillow, a luxury her family could never afford. Her dream is to go to college and to pursue a career in filmmaking and communications.
Growing up the eldest of ten children to a drug-addicted mother and a father in jail, Captain Young of Sacramento never experienced a true childhood. Raised in poverty by his grandmother, by the age of 14, Captain had already served six months in a juvenile detention facility before being released into a series of foster homes. At home and in foster care, Captain was questioned about why he wore men’s clothes. Tolerated as a lesbian, he was ostracized as a transgender by one of the few aunts with whom he was close. She cut him off completely, telling the 14-year old he was going to hell. Displaying uncommon courage for a high school student, Captain joined the boy’s football team and fought for accommodations under Title 9. Facing ridicule, he suffered daily pranks and blind-side tackles from his own teammates. Emboldened by his Title 9 success and dedicated to improving the lives of LGBT youth in foster care, Captain is a dedicated advocate. His work ranges from passing legislation to protect the civil rights of LGBT youth in foster care with the California Youth Connection to serving as a youth trainer in the foster care system for the National Center for Lesbian Rights to coaching youth, lawyers, judges, social workers and other service providers on LGBT sensitivity as a member of the Out of Home Youth Advocacy Coalition. He is a key member of the Karen Bass Committee on Foster Care Reform and is active with the San Francisco Children with Incarcerated Parents Partnership. A dedicated older brother, he is committed to making the world a better place for his nine siblings. Captain would like to become a writer, exposing the challenges and solutions for African-American youth in poverty, he “wants to be remembered not for who I am, but for the work I do that others can continue.”
A twenty-year old transgender Korean adoptee, responded to the conservatism of her adoptive family and the town in which she was raised by becoming a leading voice for transgender rights in New York and across the country. As a high school student Andy organized a statewide summit with the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA). The goal was to build support for the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA), a statewide “safer schools” bill that will hopefully pass into law for public schools in the state of New York. In New York City, she was a part of the successful organizing efforts to pass a similar bill into law. Now a full time college student at Pace University, Andy has a fellowship at the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), serves as the president of her university’s LGBT student organization, sits as the youngest board member of several statewide transgender and LGBT organizations, and serves as the board chair for the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE). Andy is also committed to linking work in the transgender community with work in communities of color and to increasing youth leadership in the LGBT movement.
Current location: New York, NY
In 2005, Andy Marra won the Colin Higgins Foundation Courage Award allowing her to further her work in the LGBT movement. Today, Andy is the Public Relations Manager for the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN). Previously, Andy served as Co-Director for Nodutdol for Korean Community Development and Senior Media Strategist for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). Andy has also served on boards for the Human Rights Campaign, the National Center for Transgender Equality, the Funding Exchange, Chinese for Affirmative Action, the National Campaign to End the Korean War and the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy.
Andy’s work and her commentary have been featured on programs including Access Hollywood, The Ellen Show, Oprah and The Rachel Maddow Show to outlets including the Associated Press, Reuters, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, Politico, The Korea Times, KoreAm Journal, Salon.com, FOX, MTV, MSNBC, ABC and NPR.
Andy has been honored by the White House for her contributions to the LGBT community and was profiled in The Advocate’s “Forty Under 40.” She is the past recipient of the GLSEN Pathfinder Award, the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force Creating Change Award and was honored by the City of New York for her work in the community. You can follow Andy on Twitter at @Andy_Marra.
Born and raised in South Africa, Eva Georgia saw many of her friends shot to death or “necklaced” (burned alive in a ring of tires) for being gay. Neither these horrific sights, the severe beatings she received from her family or the violence of vigilante groups, stopped her from speaking out as a lesbian and supporting other queer youth and their families. Working under both Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, she helped broker a truce between youth gangs and establish the nation’s first post-apartheid radio network. Increasing attacks from vigilante groups later forced her to seek asylum in the United States. Currently the General Manager for Pacifica Radio station KPFK in Los Angeles, Eva has worked tirelessly to integrate LGBT issues into every area of the station’s programming and community outreach.
Coming out of the closet in the rural town of Sandy Springs, Oklahoma, was more than difficult for Michael Shackelford. Not only was he sent to a camp in order to “make him straight,” his home and school were picketed by followers of homophobic Baptist pastor Fred Phelps. Leaflets were distributed across his town denouncing Shackelford by name. After a year of bullying and harassment that left him too afraid to even use the restroom at his high school, he dropped out. It was then that he met the Washington Post reporter whose interest in Shackelford’s life story inspired a series articles that eventually became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Michael went on to get his GED and has resolved to stay in his home town, stay religious, and stay out-of-the-closet. He says he feels it is God’s calling that he work for LGBT rights in his hometown. He is currently active with the Openarms Youth Project and strives to ensure that national LGBT organizations do not forget how difficult it is to be an LGBT youth in the rural bible belt of the United States.
Knowing the backlash he would have to face, Stephen stood up for his beliefs and now tells his story to empower others. Not willing to die for something he did not believe in, Funk took a stand. He defended personal attacks last year to become the first conscientious objector to the war in Iraq. Facing harsh criticism for both his opposition to the war and his sexual orientation, he did not back down. Instead, he rose to the challenge and began educating others and speaking about his decision at many anti-war protests in the Bay Area. Stephen’s courage to voice his beliefs about the war and come out on a national level has made him a hero for many gays in the military. At home in San Francisco he continues to advocate for peace and LGBTQQ issues.
Current location: San Francisco, CA
Sylvia has endured unthinkable tragedy, yet still finds the strength to make a difference in the lives of others through her advocacy work. For Guerrero, her 17-year-old transgender daughter, Gwen Araujo, was murdered just a few houses away from her home in Newark, CA. The first trial ended in a mistrial, and she now awaits a new one in May. Finding strength in the memory of her daughter, she continues to live each day honoring Gwen’s life and spirit. “It’s heart-breaking to see how ignorant, uneducated, inhumane, and judgmental this world is. We’re all human, everyone deserves equality,” says Guerrero. Her hope is that others can learn through her tragedy; that one person’s life may be saved because of her loss. “If I can save one transgender life, it’s worth everything. I promised Gwen until my last breath that I would be her voice.” Guerrero is a mentor to transgender youth and travels around the country to educate communities about transgender issues and advocate change.
Current location: Tracey, CA
At a time when it is crucial that all voices be heard, LaJoya Johnson, an African-American lesbian has risen above the adversity around her to advocate for change. Through her influential voice, she’s working to bridge the gap between people of color and the LGBTQQ community at MSU. “I’m glad I can be a voice for both,” said Johnson. Johnson has put a personal face on students of color at a predominantly white school and continues to advocate for education and equality for sexual orientation. Intolerance in her life was felt early on when she was disowned by her father because of her sexuality. Unashamed of who she was, LaJoya made a personal commitment to advocate equal rights for communities traditionally underserved. She organized the first-ever candlelight vigil on the MSU campus and spearheaded an online petition gathering 3,000 signatures for a moment of silence in New Jersey public schools, all to honor the life of Sakia Gunn, an African-American lesbian from New Jersey who was the victim of a hate crime.
Current Location: Atlanta, GA
LaJoya Johnson is an alumna of Michigan State University, degreed in Interdisciplinary Studies. She has used the training, opportunity and advocacy skills learned there to continue living in her passion for advocacy and activism.
Since receiving the Colin Higgins Courage Award in 2004, LaJoya has used this courage to become a fervent advocate for any and all disenfranchised persons, with special emphasis on the homeless, women and the LGBTQ communities. Her dedication and contributions have earned several accolades from other organizations such as the MSU Office of Affirmative Action, the City of Lansing, MI Association of Human Rights and the Lansing Area AIDS network.
LaJoya continues advocacy by engaging in volunteerism and professional work with the Georgia State Dept. of Family Services, Cobb County, GA Foster Care and similarly affiliated organizations. With many years of professional work in women’s and homeless shelters/ residency programs, LaJoya has seen firsthand the necessity of trained clinical staff, and the devastating effects when professional services are lacking. Seeking to provide the maximum impact of her advocacy, LaJoya has currently committed to becoming a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, pursuing graduate study in fall 2013.
LaJoya’s other endeavors include the establishment of her own non-profit org, Sistahs United for Change, geared to professional lesbians of color for networking, support and activism. In addition, LaJoya continues to develop the self-founded MSU LGBT Students of Color Scholarship, one of her the most personal and significant accomplishments to date. “I sincerely appreciate the Colin Higgins organization for acknowledging the work I have committed to in the LGBT community. My greatest joy is helping other’s obtain self-sufficiency despite inequality.”
Miami High School Student Overcomes Adversity.
At a time when it is crucial that all voices be heard, Steven Alicea has risen above the adversity around him to educate and promote equality. As a gay foster child, many families tried to “cure” his homosexuality. In his 17 years, Steven’s inability to be “cured” has led to 17 different foster homes. Since he was adopted by a lesbian couple in 2003, he has been educating foster parents about gay youth and has helped place many kids in loving and accepting homes. He knows what it feels like to be misunderstood, when asked why he became an advocate he says, “Being a foster child is difficult enough, being gay makes it even harder.” He hopes to make things easier for others and works to educate his peers about issues the LGBTQQ community faces through his involvement as a youth representative of the Florida State Commissions, board member of Pridelines Youth Services and founder of Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) in his high school.
Lebanese Student Educates Peers at the University of Utah
At a time when it is crucial that all voices be heard, Louay Ghonaym has risen above the adversity and hostility around him to educate and promote equality. Being gay is illegal in Lebanon, so when Ghonaym came out to his parents, he feared someone would kill him, even his father. He fled to the U.S. and applied for political asylum. Ghonaym is now a powerful gay student activist on a predominantly Mormon campus in Salt Lake City. He is teaching others about the similarities and differences between the Muslim and Mormon religions and educating his fellow students on LGBTQQ issues at the University of Utah’s LGBT Resource Center. Ghonaym’s vision for the future is to give confidence to other oppressed individuals with the hope of making the gay lifestyle legal and accepted in Lebanon. He wants equality across the world and is working to make a difference one day at a time. “I am a strong man, I have hope,” said Ghonaym.
Arkansas Eighth Grader Teaches His School a Lesson in Courage and Constitutional Law
When a classmate asked 14-year-old Thomas McLaughlin if he had a crush on a particular girl who rode the same bus to Jacksonville Junior High, Thomas answered “No.”
“Well, I know why you don’t,” the classmate baited Thomas. “It’s because you’re gay.” “Maybe I am, and maybe I’m not,” Thomas responded. That was the genesis of the highly publicized two year long court battle that pitted Thomas’s First Amendment rights against Pulaski County Special School District outside of Little Rock, Arkansas.
Thomas’s science teacher overheard the exchange between the boys and informed the assistant principal – not that Thomas was being harassed, but that Thomas himself was at fault for discussing his sexual orientation at school.
Thomas’s day at school went sharply downhill from there. The principal called Thomas into his office and asked whether or not his parents knew he was gay. They didn’t, Thomas confessed. The principal demanded that the 14-year-old tell his parents about his sexual orientation and gave Thomas until 3:40pm – the end of the school day – to decide if he was going to make the phone call to his mother or if the principal would do it for him. In the end, the school counselor called his mom at work and outed the eighth grader without his permission.
Administrators and teachers at Jacksonville Junior High began preaching to Thomas about the sin of homosexuality. The principal made him read passages from the Bible. His choir teacher even told Thomas that if he kept talking openly about being gay, he would end up like Matthew Shepard, a gay college student who was beaten to death in Laramie, Wyoming.
Refusing to take the school’s harassment lying down, Thomas and his mother contacted the Arkansas American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). When the district refused to meet their demands to resolve the conflict, the McLaughlin’s and the ACLU took the school district to court.
The ACLU sued citing Thomas’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech to be openly gay at school as well as a privacy rights argument, asserting that youth should have the ultimate decision on how, when, and to whom they come out. The legal team also asserted that school officials violated the separation of church and state by preaching to Thomas and by forcing him to read the Bible as punishment.
When the press got wind of his case, the national media spotlight turned on Thomas. The eighth grader certainly wasn’t a practiced activist at the time, but he proved to be strong and resilient, granting many interviews in the hopes that telling his story would prevent this type of discrimination from happening to other students. Letters of support poured in from LGBT youth and adults across the country. Thomas credits his parents’ support and the encouragement from these letters for giving him the resolve to see the case through.
In July 2003, Thomas won his case against the school district. He was awarded $25,000 in damages and received an apology from school officials who were ordered by the court to clear Thomas’s disciplinary record of citations related to the ordeal.
“All I want out of this is for me and other gay students to be able to go to school without being preached to and without being expected to lie about who we are,” says Thomas, who lives in Monroe, Louisiana, and is about to begin the tenth grade at his new school where he is considering starting a Gay-Straight Alliance Club.
This year, the ACLU of Arkansas will also be honoring Thomas’s work toward civil rights with the prestigious “Civil Libertarian of the Year” award.
“Schools everywhere need to learn from Thomas’s case,” explains Rita Sklar, Executive Director of ACLU of Arkansas. “They aren’t above the Constitution, and they can’t get away with silencing gay students and violating their rights.”
VIANEY RAMIREZ, 22
Natural Born Leader Weaves Together Many Strands of Activism to Make Space for the Next Generation of Queer Activists
Vianey, former cheerleading captain born and raised in Watts, California has always bucked the odds – and the stereotypes.
At 16, Vianey came out as lesbian. Coming out is a challenge for most youth, but because of the cultural and religious traditions in her community and family, for Vianey it was especially difficult. Although her father, who Vianey describes as “mellow,” accepted Vianey’s sexual orientation easily, her mother has yet to acknowledge that it is more than “just a phase” because to her, Vianey doesn’t “look gay.
Vianey’s father Jose and her mother Marlene grew up impoverished and uneducated in Mexico and Nicaragua. They immigrated to the U.S. so Vianey and her two younger brothers could get the education that they never had. The family even cut corners and took on extra jobs to pay for their children to attend local Catholic schools because Watts’ public schools are mediocre.
St. Matthias High School – the all girl parochial school Vianey attended – did provide good educational opportunities, but the Catholic environment reinforced conservative values and gender norms. So when Vianey started dating the captain of the girls soccer team, rumors started to swirl among the student body. How could the popular and feminine cheerleader be a lesbian?
Coming out in high school gave Vianey her first taste of what it means to be a role model for other queer youth. A natural leader, she was extremely active at St. Matthias High School. Her grades were excellent, she was a member of student council and led the cheerleading squad. Vianey used her extensive involvement and leadership skills to educate peers not only about homophobia, but also about the interrelated issues of class, race and sexism.
“Growing up in Watts as a first generation Latina born in America, I am intimately aware of the connections between class and race issues,” explains Vianey. “As a feminine lesbian who attended an all girls Catholic high school, my life has also been shaped by heterosexism and traditional gender norms. I question these traditions through my activism, and I try to expose the links among different types of oppressions in order to bring disenfranchised communities together.”
After her senior year at St. Matthias, Vianey enrolled at University of California at Riverside and became the first in her family to attend college. At UC Riverside, Vianey’s activism took off. She revitalized the once vibrant Latino-Queer campus organization “Que Onda Queers” (QOQ) and founded “UC Are Womyn” to raise awareness about sexism facing women – particularly women of color – on campus. The group attracted over 50 members in its first year.
To empower female students, UC Are Womyn placed posters across campus, which were routinely ripped down by vandals. But school administrators were reluctant to address the defacement when Vianey brought it to their attention. Without the support of the administration, UC Are Womyn had to repost the flyers three times a week in order to get their message out.
The hostile campus environment also played a role in Vianey’s biggest struggle as an activist to date. During her senior year, “The Highlander,” UC Riverside’s student newspaper, repeatedly ran homophobic and racist comic strips. Again, the University administration remained mute. To bolster support for the offensive cartoons’ removal, Vianey helped to weave together a message that included homophobia, racism and sexism. She brought together diverse student groups affected by the derogatory caricatures to comment at a special campus Town Hall meeting. University professors were moved to join the fight. Ultimately, the paper stopped publishing the cartoons.
Vianey is most proud of her role as a key organizer of the second annual Womyn of Color Conference, which focused on violence against women of color. Along with a handful of committed volunteers, she helped to raise an astounding $15,000 to put on the event. The Conference also included screenings of documentary films and a student-run production of Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues, featuring Vianey in the role of “The Angry Vagina.”
Vianey graduated cum laude from both the Women’s Studies and Sociology departments this year and recently started professional school at the University of California Hastings School of Law. After her long experience with different campus and community organizations, Vianey looks forward to working with UC Hastings LGBT student association, the school’s women’s law journal, and La Raza Student Law Association. She intendeds to practice public interest law and would love to work for ACLU or Lambda Legal.
“Vianey is such a magnetic and charismatic person,” says Dylan Rodriruez, Professor of Ethnic Studies at UC Riverside. “And she has no fear. As she moves through this world, Vianey helps to create more space for other people to be themselves.”
D. PATRICK BYNUM
Ozark Seventh Grader Takes on School Board to Make School Safe for Gay Youth
As early as second grade, D. Patrick Bynum remembers being taunted and called a “fag” and a “queer” by his classmates. The verbal violence escalated as he got older while teachers continued to look the other way. Finally, things came to a head in seventh grade when another student kicked Patrick and punched him in the mouth.
“School is very difficult because the people there are close-minded,” says Patrick, who came out to his parents when he was twelve. “I never came out in school even though I wanted to because my parents advised against it. Even though I wasn’t out, I was perceived as being gay and it was common knowledge.”
Determined not to take the abuse lying down, Patrick took his story to the school board, not once but twice. Backed by his parents and his friends, he told the board, “You do have gay students in your district and they have horror stories like mine. The only difference is that some harassed kids just quietly disappear and I’m not willing to do that.”
“My principal at the time, his face was very red,” Patrick recalls of the meeting. “There were people who cried. It was nerve wracking. They seemed sympathetic at first and made promises but nothing really happened. There were people on the board who genuinely wanted to help us, but they were outnumbered.”
Despite repeated lobbying by Patrick’s parents, the school board never acted on his concerns. His family eventually filed a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. At their last school board meeting, Patrick was told by the board president, “You have to remember…some groups of people just aren’t accepted here.”
Because school is no longer a safe place for him to be, since November Patrick has been home-schooled by his mother, who took time off from her job as a teacher’s aide. “It’s horrible,” Patrick says. “It’s really isolating. I’m a very social person and I’m in my house all the time.” Next year, Patrick hopes to attend a public school in Springfield where some of his friends from a local gay and lesbian youth group are enrolled.
In the meantime, Patrick writes short stories and poetry and dreams of becoming a professional comedian. He volunteers at the AIDS Project of the Ozarks in Springfield and answers the phone for the local chapter of PFLAG. Recently he took a call from another young gay person from a neighboring town even smaller than Ozark.
“He had never spoken to a real live gay person before,” says Patrick, who assured the caller that “he’s not the only person like himself” and introduced him to the youth group at the Gay and Lesbian Center of the Ozarks (GLO) in Springfield. “Things will get better,” he encouraged.
“He is a proud gay youth at an age when most people have no idea yet who they are,” according to Jim House, president of GLO, who nominated Patrick for the Colin Higgins Foundation’s Courage Award. “The courageous voice of this proud young man promises us hope for the future. With Patrick on our side, things will get better.”
VANESSA DURAN, 17
17-Year-Old Filmmaker Turns Lens on Being Proud, Being Queer
Ask Vanessa Duran what her biggest struggle is right now and she’ll tell you: it’s time. Not enough of it.
Ever since she came out two years ago, Vanessa, a 17-year-old queer African-American and Latina activist and filmmaker, has hit the ground running to promote tolerance and support LGBT youth like herself, jamming her days with committee meetings, public speaking gigs, teaching, and video editing.
As the youngest of four children growing up in El Cerrito, CA, Vanessa always felt “alternative” – from the clothes she wore to the music she listened to. Her family has traditional conservative roots, grounded in her African American mother’s Deep South Christian fundamentalism and her Mexican-American father’s Catholic, Chicano upbringing.
It took courage for Vanessa to come out to her parents. “That was really rough because I had to tell them a couple of times because they thought I would change,” Vanessa recalls. “By this point now, we’ve gotten to an understanding. They know I’m gay and now they don’t have to wonder any more.”
As a “baby dyke,” Vanessa was eager to hang out with other gay kids. One friend quickly hooked her onto “group,” short for the Saturday LGBT youth group hosted by the Pacific Center for Gays and Lesbians in Berkeley.
Since then, Vanessa has become a youth leader for a number of local LGBT groups, taking action and creating spaces for other LGBT youth to feel safe, build community, and gain their own sense of empowerment.
As a board member and Youth Council member of the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, she provides training on California non-discrimination law. She is a steering committee member and speaker for Overcoming Homophobia Meeting For Youth and an intern for Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center (LYRIC). At the Pacific Center, she is a program facilitator and the youngest member of the Speakers’ Bureau, which gives talks at Bay Area schools. Now an accomplished public speaker, she still remembers the first talk she gave at a local junior high school.
“It was challenging at first – especially talking about something as personal as ‘Hey I’m gay!'” she laughs. “But the students were respectful. They felt me. Afterwards they came up to me and said, ‘Hey you’re cool.’ It made me feel really cool. My favorite thing is getting out there and talking to kids like me.”
At school, “everyone knows me as the ‘gay girl,'” Vanessa says. As the co-president of Berkeley High’s Gay-Straight Alliance, she has been featured in the San Francisco Chronicle more than once. Vanessa’s growing notoriety as a queer activist has attracted criticism from her peers, who accuse her of being “all high and mighty.” “It bothers me,” Vanessa confesses.
But she never lets criticism stand in the way of her work. These days Vanessa is an instructor of a black and white photography class at LYRIC. Next year she’ll be teaching a video class. In the summer, she’ll be taking over the arts and media position for Free Zone, an arts for social change program for LGBT and straight ally youth at LYRIC. She’s also furiously putting the final edits on a website trailer to promote a video she made with eight other youth called “As If It Matters.” The video, which recently won a Golden Gate Award from the San Francisco International Film Festival, takes on homophobia and other issues facing high school students.
For Vanessa, it was important to represent gay youth as “not all suicidal,” but normal kids with normal joys and normal problems. “We wanted it to be something everyone can relate to,” she says. “[Gay youth] have good grades, bad grades, we have parents, we have cultural issues. We wake up every morning and brush our teeth like everyone else.”
Vanessa blends activism seamlessly with her work in film, video, and photography to create powerful documentary and narrative pieces that deal with issues of identity, body image, racism, homophobia, and relationships. One of her independent videos, “Gay Youth,” was featured in the 2001 Bay Area High School Film Festival. She plans to attend San Francisco City College in the fall and to carve out a discipline that integrates queer issues and grassroots organizing with arts and media.
“I have a lot of confidence with my sexual orientation. It’s who I am and what I’ve come to accept and gradually come to love as part of myself,” she says. “When people try to pick on me, I go, ‘Whatever,’ I can’t let it bother me.”
“I Have Declared War on Heterosexism” Growing Up Gay, Black, Pentecostal – and Outspoken
Starting in fourth grade, Calvin Warren remembers being harassed by classmates for being gay. Students spread rumors about him being a “fag” and a “sissy.” He remembers finding “nasty messages ” scrawled about him in library books. He has been cornered and bullied. One student threatened to cut his face with a broken bottle.
More painful than these threats was the “psychic violence” he underwent as a member of his local Pentecostal church, where he was choirboy. Every Sunday from the pulpit, preachers would denounce who he was by damning homosexuality as an “abomination” and “the antithesis of black manhood.”
“At the time it was very painful,” says Calvin, now 21 and a senior at Cornell University. “Not being able to separate myself from the church, I was caught between a rock and a hard place. I felt cowed into that position because I had no place else to go.”
Calvin grew up in the city of Newburgh in upstate New York, a semi-rural community where a traffic light divides the wealthy from the poor. Raised by a single mother, Calvin always felt like “the odd man out.” Instead of playing ball, he read. Instead of hanging out with other boys in the neighborhood, he immersed himself in the church choir.
When he came out to his guidance counselor at the age of 16, she suggested he hook up with “Safe or Sorry,” a Planned Parenthood peer-education program on sexuality. “That was the birth of my activism,” Calvin says.
He soon began giving talks to high school students on topics ranging from safe sex to homophobia, inspiring his local Planned Parenthood (PP) to develop its Circles program. The program, which creates circles of safety and support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, received Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s (PPFA) Pepe Award for Excellence in Diversity in 2001. Calvin helped develop and give the welcoming address for PP’s “Safe Schools and Sexual Orientation: Avoiding Litigation” conferences, which empower school districts to create action plans to make their schools safe for LGBT people.
Last fall Calvin spoke at PPFA’s three regional conferences on his experience as a gay teen of color, and received standing ovations. Those who heard him were moved to replicate Circles at their home affiliates.
“I love language, it’s the most powerful tool we have, especially for marginalized people,” says Calvin, who joined the debate team in 9th grade and continued debating through college. “Heterosexism steals your voice. It denies your right to speak. When people were threatening me, I was too frightened to speak. You feel like you’re an invisible man. Planned Parenthood restored a sense of my agency by allowing me to speak.”
Calvin also found his voice as an undergraduate at Cornell, where he designed his own interdisciplinary major combining psychoanalysis, cultural theory and post-structuralism. His senior thesis, called “The Eroticism of Violence,” is a psychoanalytic reading of the lynching of African Americans in the late 19th and early 20th century. In the fall, Calvin will enroll in a joint PhD program in American studies and African American studies at Yale – while pursuing a law degree at the same time.
“I’m really interested in critical race theory and queer theory, which is an emerging discourse in law,” Calvin says. “I’m interested in the way law is able to govern people’s sexuality and able to construct people.”
Calvin continues to reconcile, question, and push the envelope of his identity as a gay black male within the codes of mainstream society. He has found a sense of peace with other gay Christians. He has also analyzed how sexual orientation influences an African American man’s acceptance as a role model for other blacks.
“The entitlement of blackness was denied to me; my sexuality negated my inclusion in the group,” Calvin explains. “I wasn’t really black because black people are not gay.”
The dominant theme in his scholarship and his activism is to restore a sense of agency to gay people. “I have declared war on heterosexism. I am tired of losing beautiful, inspiring gay people to depression, suicide and murder.”
“Our Voices May Be Small, But We Do Make a Difference” Mother of Gay Son Confronts Her Own Fears, Becomes Powerful Advocate
“Ask me my profession and I’ll tell you I’m a mother,” Eva Leivas-Andino laughs. Between changing diapers for her four children and becoming a grandmother of two, Eva has devoted a lifetime to community service since immigrating to the U.S. from Cuba 42 years ago. Her husband, an insurance executive, kept the family on the move through Puerto Rico, California, and Miami. During this time, Eva worked as a volunteer and advocate for abused women, women in prison, educational diversity, and in HIV and AIDS prevention training.
But 12 years ago when her third child, Paolo, then 20 years old, told her he was gay, Eva was forced to re-examine her own heart and prejudices.
“It was quite a devastating moment for me,” she recalled. “I was very afraid, very alone. I thought I was the only Cuban mother in Miami with a gay son.”
She feared what people would say, of being rejected, of facing accusations that she was a bad mother. “I was not born enlightened,” she likes to remind people.
Eight more years would pass before she would come to terms with these fears. The catalyst occured when she visited Paolo in New York City where he was living the life of a struggling actor. He took her to see a play about Oscar Wilde and the trials he endured for being homosexual. At the end of the play, Paolo whispered in his mother’s ear, “One hundred years later and nothing has changed for gays and lesbians.” He then opened up to her about his own trials growing up gay in Miami.
“At that very instant, it was no longer about me,” Eva recalled. “It was about him, his pain, his loneliness, his alienation from everybody. I had not been there for him because I wasn’t educated, because I was afraid.”
Her heart broke when her son described being ten years old in the company of family friends when the conversation turned to gays and lesbians. Someone suggested that all gays be put in concentration camp and burned. By virtue of being there and not speaking up, “I was part of the abuse,” Eva says.
Soon after, Eva began volunteering at Project YES, a Miami-based educational organization whose mission is to prevent suicide and ensure the healthy development of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth. Today she is the organization’s Hispanic coordinator and program manager, conducting sensitivity trainings and sharing her own story as a mother of a gay son with communities of faith, schools, direct youth service agencies, hospitals and even the Miami Beach police department.
Project YES focuses on the community networks that surround LGBT youth to improve their lives, Eva explained. “We figure the youth are fine, it’s the people around them who need to know what they go through.”
Initially when Eva became more public about her activism on behalf of LGBT youth, she met resistance within her community. “I sensed that people felt afraid and uncomfortable. In my ministry, I was told not to mention it that much.” But she was able to guide some family members and friends down the same path she trod and now they support her work completely.
“I’m a better person because I have a gay son,” Eva says “He taught me to love unconditionally.”
Today she keeps a copy of an email Paolo sent her taped to her computer: “Every time you sit down to write a grant, every time you speak, you are healing me. Never forget the power of your own voice.”
“I’m just an ordinary mother trying to do something for kids,” Eva says. “Our voices may be small but we do make a difference.”
While they did encounter some harassment and a few of their friends were afraid they’d been outed by association, there was an overwhelming show of support.
“I can’t tell you how many people told me how that article gave them the strength to come out to their friends and families. Many sat down to talk to their relatives holding the paper in their arms,” said Olga. Taking a courageous step to bring about equality for others was nothing new to Olga, who has dedicated her life to promoting social change in Puerto Rico and beyond. At the age of 14, she became active in her hometown of Bayamon, just outside of San Juan, by volunteering for organizations fighting for human rights and equality of economic resources. She soon found herself fighting for Puerto Rican independence.
Current location: San Juan, Puerto Rico
Tough beginnings to Tough Action
Anthony gained national prominence in 1998-at 15 years old-when he sued the Orange County School District for barring him from starting a Gay-Straight Alliance at his high school. “When Matthew Shephard was murdered, I was afraid to leave my house for a week, and I was completely terrified in school-always looking over my shoulder-for a whole year. Then I started to get angry: how could those men kill another young man just because he was gay? But I realized that if anger isn’t used to do something constructive it leads to hate, and hate leads to violence.”
Anthony came out at school when he was only eleven years old. “I didn’t know what gay meant then,” he says. “I just knew I liked the boys.” He was thirteen when he came out to his family, and the next several years were the hardest of his young life. He even ran away from home, surviving on the streets of Los Angeles for a month. “It wasn’t easy for my parents to come to terms with my sexuality, but they’ve grown so much over the past four years. We are so close now,” he says.
School had never been a welcoming place for Anthony, but it became nearly unbearable. “I sank so low then, I felt like I was just surviving from day to day. But at some point I decided that things weren’t going to be like this for me forever,” he says. He decided to take action to promote tolerance in his own high school. He decided to start a Gay-Straight Alliance.
It wasn’t an easy task. He put in an application to form a club, but his principal repeatedly tabled it, claiming that she hadn’t looked at it yet or that the school board was still deciding whether a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) was “appropriate” for El Modena High School. When the school board tried to hold a closed meeting to rule on the GSA, the Orange County Register, the local newspaper, got wind of it and printed a scathing story, forcing the board to cancel their meeting and hold open sessions to decide the fate of Anthony’s GSA. Even with GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network) of Orange County and a cohort of supportive family and friends rallying behind him, the school board ultimately denied the GSA equal access to club status at El Modena High School. “My mother always told me that whatever is worth having is worth fighting for,
so there was no question about whether to fight for the GSA. I had to do it,” Anthony says.
Colín and other students filed a lawsuit. They won a preliminary injunction, marking the first time school officials were judicially rebuked for trying to silence a GSA.
The El Modena High School Gay-Straight Alliance was the first in Orange County. Since its inception, Anthony has helped start GSAs in other high schools in his conservative county.
Anthony was thrust into the media spotlight as a result of his successful activism. He now speaks regularly at LGBT functions and has won several awards for his work. “Sometimes teens are intimidated and reluctant to ask me questions or share their experiences with me. But just to have one young person come up to me and tell me that I’ve made a difference in their lives makes it all worth it,” Anthony says.
Some people he credits as role models include Martin Luther King, Jr., Ghandi, and John F. Kennedy, for “promoting change through nonviolence.” Bessie Smith, an openly-gay jazz singer in the 1920s, is another of his role models. Anthony is a singer himself, something he hopes to pursue seriously in the future. “My voice is my weapon and my instrument,” he says. “I feel most at peace when I sing.”
Abandoned by School Principal He Vows to Change Board of Ed
Jed squeaked past his freshman year at Santa Fe High relatively unscathed. Sophomore year he wasn’t so lucky at the 4000-student campus that serves half the public school students in Santa Fe. Almost from the first day of his sophomore year, Jed was harassed between classes and even during class for being gay. His desk in math class was carved with death threats, homophobia and anti-Semitic slurs. Outside of class, the student who did the carvings bragged about how he was going “hunting” for “fags” and “Jews.”
But if math class was dreaded, art class was worse. “It was common practice for one student to distract the teacher while nearly the entire class took turns spewing hate,” said Jed. The hostility escalated until one day following class, five students ganged up on Jed and attacked him on campus, spitting on him, sticking gum in his hair and hitting him to the point of severe bruising.
Seeking the help of the principal did more harm than good. The principal deferred to the art teacher who threw the five students out of the class. This action only fueled the abuse so that Jed had to watch his back wherever he went on campus. He often ditched class for the safety of the school library or a nearby Hardee’s restaurant.
When a manager at the Hardee’s called the school on Jed, he was forced to return to the unchanged environment at the school. The harassment and violence came to a head when a substitute teacher showed up for his chemistry class. During class, a school football player began calling Jed names and screaming homophobic slurs. At one point he grabbed a pair of shoes and threw them at Jed, hitting him in the face.
With no help from the substitute, Jed left class and reported the incident to the principal who told Jed to inform the security guards. When the security guards questioned Jed and his attacker together. They took the side of the attacker and stated, “we don’t tolerate faggots at our school.”
That night Jed went home and convinced his parents to send him to a private school. The private school was less than ideal and Jed ultimately chose to go for his GED, which he earned at the end of his junior year.
Jed is being recognized by the Colin Higgins Foundation because he was able to redirect the hate and hostility he faced into a determination to bring about positive changes in the Santa Fe public schools.
Jed began volunteering for the People of Color Aids Foundation, teaching safe sex and AIDS awareness classes in the school system. Soon he was speaking up to other groups, including P-Flag meetings and law enforcement and security conferences.
This work led him to become involved in Project Glyph, a program aimed at ending homophobia in Santa Fe schools. A tight-knit, supportive group of gays, straights and children of gay parents spent a summer producing a video about homophobia. Later, Jed made a landmark presentation to the Santa Fe Public School Board. Jed’s speech garnered a standing ovation and helped convince the board to adopt the Glyph curriculum that instructs all administrators, teachers and students in the Santa Fe Public School district on homophobia.
Like most 20 year olds, Jed is currently trying to figure out what he wants to do with his life. Though his parents, especially his Mom, have always been supportive, he’s currently living happily on his own. To support himself, he works two jobs, but still finds time to intern for the Theater Residency Project. He’s also managed to squeeze in a few semesters at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco and hopes to continue his studies.
Standing up for gay rights is still a priority. This April, the religious right persuaded the school board to abandon the Glyph curriculum. “They haven’t defeated me yet, and I’m not about to let them now,” said Jed whose already rehearsing for his next opportunity in front of the board.
ROSEMARY LINARES, 18
She Proves Excellence is the Antidote to Intolerance
Rosemary, an 18-year-old bisexual, began the coming out process during her junior year of high school, telling only her closest friends at first. That summer, she attended a Leadership Training Institute sponsored by Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN). On the way home from the airport, she mustered up the courage to come out to her mother. Though she’s still learning, her mother’s initial reaction was supportive.
The community on the other hand has not been quite as understanding. “Before I was even out — just vocally supportive of the LGBT community — many people mocked, teased and criticized me,” said Rosemary.
The discrimination Rosemary experienced was subtle yet powerful. During her junior year Rosemary was assigned to do a presentation on a twentieth century social protest for her social studies class. She chose the struggle for equality for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people.
Her teacher opposed her choice and tried to force Rosemary to either switch out of the class or drop it entirely. Going to the Principal of the high school was little help. He sided with the teacher, claiming her project would create division in the classroom. But Mom put the pressure on the Superintendent of the Saline Area Schools and eventually Rosemary was allowed to give her five-minute presentation to the class. There was no division, just applause.
“This example of discrimination was a monumental experience for me. In the end, my success showed me that I have a lot of inner strength and power that I never acknowledged before,” said Rosemary.
For the final class project, each student had to prepare a two-minute speech on his or her hardest assignment of the year. Rosemary spoke about her ordeal over the social protest project. While slightly exceeding the two-minute limit, she captivated the entire class who had no idea what she had gone through. Though she received the longest and loudest round of applause, she received only a B+ on the project.
Braced with newly found confidence, Rosemary set her sights on starting a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) in the school. When word got out, the teacher who agreed to sponsor the GSA was threatened and her classroom vandalized.
This made Rosemary even more determined, but time had passed and the students helping her graduated. Flying solo, Rosemary went ahead with her plans and was thrilled when thirteen people showed up at the first meeting. The numbers continued to grow throughout the first year.
“I was so happy, but a little shocked,” said Rosemary. “I had no idea Saline High had so many people interested in the rights and issues of the LGBT community. I just kept hoping that my work would pay off and it turned out even better than I imagined.”
At the end of the summer Rosemary will be attending Antioch College, a small liberal arts school in Ohio. She hopes to take advantage of the special co-op program where she will have the opportunity to travel, studying and working in other countries.
Eventually, Rosemary says she would like to go on to graduate school and possibly get her doctorate. She said, “My dream is that when I’m towards the end of my life, I will have won some victories for humanity.”
Scout’s Honor Takes on Intolerance
When 12-year-old Life Scout, Steven Cozza, submitted a letter to the editor of the local Petulama, CA newspaper, he was just doing his duty as a good scout. He had recently been told that his own Boy Scouts of America (BSA) did not allow gay kids and adults in their program. Though Steven is not gay, he felt ashamed of the program he liked so much and began doing his part – including letters to Congress, requests to the BSA and petitions on street corners – to see the policy changed.
“I’m just doing what the Boy Scouts taught me,” Steven – now 15 and a freshman at Petulama High School, just north of San Francisco – says. “The BSA is supposed to represent the very best values of our society and instead they embrace the worst bigotry and discrimination.” Though he says it isn’t always easy speaking in front of large crowds, this teenager has had the courage to stand by and follow through on his commitment to seeing this policy eliminated by speaking at churches, community organizations and, most recently, at the Millennium March on Washington.
Since December 1997, when Cozza first took a stand against the BSA’s exclusion, he has collected over 55,000 signatures on a petition he makes available at community organization appearances, youth advocacy rallies and the website maintained by his non-profit group, Scouting For All.
On a typical day in his freshman year life, Cozza wakes at 5:30 a.m and doesn’t get home until after 10 p.m. He’s on the Petaluma High Track team and recently has been working with two teachers at his school to start a Gay/Straight Alliance. Between his sign language class at the community college and studying to maintain his 3.4 GPA, he still finds time to devote himself to ending the ban on gays in scouting through his work with a non-profit he helped to found, Scouting for All.
That is, if he’s not in San Francisco receiving the Board of Supervisor’s proclamation of Steven Cozza Day or in Washington D.C. accepting PFLAG’s Flagbearer Award alongside honorees such as Coretta Scott King and Senator Edward Kennedy. Now, in addition to the many honors and recognitions he’s received for being a vocal straight ally to the cause of gay and lesbian equality, the Colin Higgins Foundation, founded in 1986 to make grants to youth advocacy organizations in the name of the acclaimed Hollywood director, is awarding Steven Cozza $10,000 to further support his efforts.
Though Steven feels that “the message is more important than the messenger,” he does admit that it is encouraging to get such prestigious awards and recognition. With inspiring role models and a dedicated commitment to the Scout oath, Steven Cozza is waging an all-out battle against discrimination at the grassroots level and beyond.
Current location: Pentaluma, CA
Since winning the award I went on to racing bikes professionally over in Europe for about 6 years. I lived in Belgium, Spain, Italy and Germany. I have also started a 5013C Non-Profit called www.StevenCozzaRaceforKids.org to help disadvantaged children locally and around the world. Since getting injured and having to retire from cycling, I am now a real estate agent for Frank Howard Allen Realtors. A huge part of my business in real estate is giving back to the local community that I serve. I am currently organizing a massive kids charity event called the Bici Sport Petaluma Kids Gran Fondo. Approximately 3500 kids will be able to cycle, walk or run a 1, 4 or 7 mile course. All the money the kids raise with pledge forms will go back to their schools and 4 chosen kids in the area with disabilities and or life-threatening illnesses. I am now recently married to my wife Jen and we have a 1 year old Golden Retriever named Poppy.
Good Sport Tackles Tough Season
“I have always thought of myself as a regular American jock. I want to be a policeman someday,” says Greg Congdon. He was certainly a jock, as a varsity letterman in football and wrestling. But in his small hometown of Troy, PA, Greg didn’t get to be an average jock.
Greg says, “It wasn’t acceptable to be gay at my high school. But I’ve known I was gay since junior high.” So when he was a junior at Troy Senior High School, he overdosed on prescription drugs.
His suicide attempt failed, but when hospital employees questioned him about why he did it, he told them it was because he’s gay. Word leaked back to one of Greg’s teammates.
Greg’s teammate told the entire school. “I was completely ostracized. My best friend told me ‘we can’t be friends anymore.’ My old teammates told me, ‘if you try to play sports, we’ll make you wish you hadn’t.'”
A month later, with his entire social world turned against him, Greg attempted suicide a second time. He survived, but faced even more threats and humiliation at school. Greg met with school officials to tell them he felt unsafe. They told him that they couldn’t protect him outside of school. They told him to drop out of school and study for his GED with a tutor, which he did. Greg says, “The worst part was missing my sports and the feeling of being on a team. So I still went to sports events, but I couldn’t go alone, and of course people were staring at us.”
After his second suicide attempt, however, a doctor gave him a copy of XY, a gay youth magazine. Greg sent in his picture and his story. XY published his story, which then caught on in other media, such as ESPN and the Associated Press. The Colin Higgins Foundation is now honoring Greg for the strength and courage with which he managed his ordeal.
Being in all the papers was overwhelming at first. Greg says, “you take a small town country boy and throw him into the spotlight, and it’s going to be a shock.” And of course he still had to fear for his safety. But he says, “I realized other gay teens were reading my story and it was helping them with their feelings of being alone, so I wanted to do it.”
His senior year, Greg even went back to his High School to start a Gay/Straight Alliance. But the guidance counselor told him that the only reason she let him in her office was because “they had to let any concerned citizen in,” and that having a Gay/Straight Alliance would “violate people’s religious rights.”
Despite Greg’s disappointment, he is still serving as a role model, advising gay students around the country. He says, “Other people wouldn’t let me just be a gay jock. But I tell myself, I had to do it the hard way, so others will have it easier.”
“Teacher Of the Year” Out of the Closet and Out of the Classroom
Just two years ago, James Merrick was named “Teacher of the Year” at the Rio Bravo-Greeley Union School in Bakersfield, CA. But that was before Jim became vocal about the open homophobia of a Kern County Human Relations Commissioner.
The uproar began in May of 1998 when, at the urging of a friend, Jim attended a meeting of the Kern County Human Relations Commission. At the meeting, Human Relations Commissioner Rev. Douglas Hearn, made several hateful and disrespectful remarks about homosexuals. Outraged by the Commissioner’s remarks, Jim took the issue up with the local newspaper.
Although Jim had been “out” to his close friends and family for about a year, he had always remained quiet about his private life at school. When he began to be quoted in the papers, his support of gay rights was perceived as an admission of his homosexuality to some of his students’ parents. When he returned to school in the fall, a small number of vocal parents requested that their children be removed from his classes – although he was the only eighth-grade science teacher at the school. While the principal initially tried to quell their concerns, he eventually caved in to the parents and pulled the students from Merrick’s class.
Forced into the spotlight, Merrick, who was married for 42 years and has 4 children, bravely chose to come out in the local paper and fight the discrimination he was facing at the school. While this decision was ultimately “the most liberating experience” of his life, the anger of the parents increased as the issue became front page news. The school became a hostile climate for Merrick to the point that he felt his life was in danger and his only option was to take a leave from teaching.
But he didn’t give up the fight. Instead, he chose to take it up with the state’s Labor Commission who ruled in his favor. In a settlement agreement, James was granted an apology from the school board and the board agreed to change current policy to include “sexual orientation” and implement a diversity-training program to help staff better appreciate diversity of race, religion and sexual orientation. Terms of the agreement also restored salary, sick leave and retirement benefits and placed Merrick on the committee for the next ten years, charged with selecting the diversity training to be implemented.
“I received a tremendous amount of support from all over,” Jim said. “I’m particularly grateful that my struggle has made it easier for other teachers.”
Now retired, Jim continues his work in Bakersfield to end homophobia. He and his partner of five years have helped to establish a network of local gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender organizations online at www.glcn.org. The web site connects local gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender persons to a wide variety of support including social, religious, youth and AIDS care organizations.
Bigotry Becomes Teacher’s Pet Peeve
A teacher injects life and excitement into his high school curriculum and is regarded by students as the one teacher most likely to be remembered as a major influence in their lives. He develops an innovative program for unmotivated students to involve them in new extracurricular activities. He coaches baseball and serves as a role model and educator inside and outside of the classroom. Nine years into his teaching career, having been exalted by his community, awarded by his school and granted funds for his program, all of his hard work and accomplishments are tossed aside when he informs his colleagues and students that he’ll be returning next fall as a woman – the appropriate gender role.
Dana Rivers, formerly David Warfield, had every intention of beginning a normal school year when she returned to Center High School in suburban Sacramento last fall. She says of the letter that she sent to her colleagues announcing her transformation, “I wasn’t trying to make a political statement. I was trying to keep my job. I am first and foremost a teacher.”
She didn’t expect the school board to ask her to resign after four letters of protest against a transgender educator. She didn’t expect to become an advocate for transgender youth and a spokesperson for transgender issues. She didn’t expect to be honored with a $10,000 grant by the Colin Higgins Foundation for courage in the face of discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation.
Since being forced to resign, Rivers has kept busy serving on the boards of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgender organizations, educating herself on the discrimination and hardships that transgenders face, and speaking to the media. Recently the California State Credentialing Commission closed her file without comment, clearing her to teach again. “By nature, I’ve always been a person who is willing to stand up for what is right …But this time it’s about me and people like me and I’m able to use my activist skills for something very personal.”
Her willingness to stand up for what is right is exactly the attitude that established her as a loved and respected teacher in her small community of 1500 families. It was the attitude that led her to explain her condition – known as gender identity dysphoria – and warn her colleagues of her gender change rather than just report to school with a different name and face. It was the reason that she chose to address circulating rumors and speculation with a school newspaper interview that explained frankly (the Board determined too frankly and improperly) her 44-year battle with gender dysphoria and the procedure she was undertaking to overcome it. These days it is the motivation for her to continue to give interviews to journalists, to speak at events such as the Millennium March on Washington, and to help design better programs to serve the needs of transgender youth around the country.
Last fall when Center High’s favorite teacher wasn’t in class, the students united in a full campaign to publicly protest the suspension of Dana Rivers. They canvassed around the community on her behalf and they hounded the local Top 40 radio station with phone calls that led to daily monitoring of the story by popular djs. Their campaign put them before the school board and finally to the steps of the state capitol where they rallied to keep the member of their community that had given so much. Though she was accused of violating parent rights and improperly imparting information to the students at Center High, Dana Rivers contends that she did — and continues to — act responsibly by speaking out against discrimination.
In the face of unemployment, homophobia, and divorce, Rivers feels that she still hasn’t a choice but to continue to be true to herself, saying, “I’m driving my attorney crazy because I think it’s important to keep telling my story, to keep talking to people. I’m not trying to be a martyr but I’m not going to pass up the opportunity to let people understand the struggle of gender dysphoria.”