Annual awards ceremony celebrates queer youth achievement
Fifteen years ago, when Terry Cavanagh began working with young people on AIDS prevention, the world was a very different place. The local community—like others nationwide—seemed to be in denial that Santa Cruz youth were also at risk.
“[People would say], ‘well we don’t have any gay people in our school,’” says Cavanagh, the founder of the local Queer Youth Leadership Awards. “And this would be high school—these would be guidance counselors, teachers, vice principals in schools of several hundred or several thousand students. We knew we had a problem there in terms of visibility and connecting with students and young people.”
The QYLA was Cavanagh’s attempt at avoiding the traditional social worker approach of his colleagues who focused primarily on at-risk youth, and instead connecting with the community by raising awareness about queer issues and recognizing that not only do queer youth exist, but they can also be successful. The model is translatable, Cavanagh says, and he hopes other communities will adopt similar programs.
“The next 15 years is about broadening the reach of tolerance, acceptance, and celebration of diversity in terms of sexual orientation in the culture,” Cavanagh says. His vision is that this will occur all over the country—not just in Santa Cruz.
Three awards are given out each year—the Queer Youth Leadership Award, the Ally to Queer Youth Award, and the Organizational Ally to Queer Youth Award. This year there are seven, 15, and six nominees, respectively, for the awards. The ceremony will be held at Shoreline Middle School at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 12.
“It’s very inspiring to see parents and community members in the same space celebrating their children,” says Stuart Rosenstein, chair of the Queer Youth Task Force (QYTF) and the QYLA. Rosenstein started out as a note taker for the organization while attending UC Santa Cruz, and eventually became co-chair and then chair. His work with fellow college students inspired him to work with high school students and eventually middle school age, as well.
“[In 1998] all you heard was grim statistics about gay youth being higher percentage for suicide, higher percentage for drugs and alcohol, higher percentage for negative things, and you never heard about the gay kids that were valedictorian and community leaders and all these young people who really were flying below the radar,” he says.
The QYLA is one of five projects organized by the QYTF. Other programs include the Safe Schools Project, the Transgender Teen Project, the Adult Ally Project, and weekly Networking Meetings at the Aptos Public Library. The QYTF was founded in 1997 and has a broad mission statement that includes supporting families of LGBT youth, creating relationships with school districts and enacting anti-bullying programs, and assisting schools in implementation of AB 9, Seth’s Law, named after a 13-year-old who committed suicide after being repeatedly bullied for being gay. The 2011 California law now requires public schools to create policies to address instances of bullying as soon as warning signs appear.
“On our campus we’ve always had a problem with homophobia and with bullying,” says Paisley Hayley Frost, president of San Lorenzo Valley High School’s Gay Straight Alliance. “Those are our two biggest issues and addressing them is always going to be a challenge because it starts really young.” Frost has been involved the school’s GSA club for all four years of high school and is a second year nominee for the Ally to Queer Youth Award.
“We’ve ended a lot of the bullying through acceptance and education,” says Frost. “We’ve tried to educate a lot of kids and faculty and staff on campus on what we’re here for and what we want to do and also creating that safe space.”
April 20 marked the 17th Annual Day of Silence—in which students all over the country, ranging from middle school to college age, took a vow of silence to show the silencing effect that harassment has on the victim and in an effort to bring attention to bullying and anti-LGBT behavior.
Started in 1996 by a group of Virginia college students and officially sponsored in 2001 by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), the Day of Silence is a student-led national event that focuses on anti-LGBT behavior in schools.
On this year’s Day of Silence, Congressman Sam Farr (D-Santa Cruz) made a speech on the floor of Congress—for the 10th year in a row. Farr was inspired in 2006 by QYLA award recipient and Harbor High School’s then-student body president Ronnie Childers, who was denied the right to give blood when he disclosed he was gay. Although gay men have been prohibited from giving blood since 1985, the American Red Cross blood issue has been spotlighted and Farr continues to hold hearings to get this policy changed.
“I’ve used my time on this anniversary every year to bring attention and to hopefully get other schools engaged, and encourage other members of Congress to speak openly on these issues as well—we have gay members of congress and we have very little discussion,” says Farr. “It should be more on the public record.”
Locally, queer youth issues are gaining visibility throughout Santa Cruz County, and QYLA students and coordinators are working to gain community visibility and are feeling hopeful about the ground they have already covered.
“The fact that they have a queer youth awards ceremony in gymnasiums or auditoriums of middle schools is stunning to most gay and lesbian people who are in their fifties or sixties or older,” says Cavanagh. “The very idea that we would be encouraging and permitted in celebrating 14 and 15-year-olds who are in touch with their sexuality in a school setting is revolutionary.”
For more information, visit qyla.org.