Schwalb, 15, Croton-on-Hudson, NY

Last summer I decided to stay home from the camp of my Zionist, socialist youth movement, and I hung out in the West Village on the Pier with a lot of queer kids. In some ways I regret it, since my youth movement is where I’ve met most of my closest friends, and it means more to me than really anything in my life. But in some ways I don’t. That summer allowed me to be around queer people I really respected and queer people that I didn’t.

But now I feel like I have a cultural disconnect with the whole Pier scene. It’s not like I don’t respect them because they come from a different background or anything like that. I just don’t really share very much with them, whereas I share a lot with my youth movement friends who are also into activism and have life experiences similar to mine, as we all come from Jewish families.

On some level I want to be involved in the environment of the Pier, but there’s a lot that’s wrong with it: a lot is centered around careless sex and clubs and drugs. I kind of approach my involvement there in the future from a place of activism, which I feel sort of bad about because it makes me feel like I’m self-righteous or something.

Activism is the most important thing to me. Above all, I believe in the equality of human value. In the first slam poem I ever wrote, the first line was, “What I want to say today is an exact call to action causing warm interaction between people of different identities, ethnicities, not based on pity or even ethics committees, a change in attitude, the conclusion of a feud gone on far too long.” It was about xenophobia and how essentially we’re all human and deserve the same rights. I can’t say I was an activist when I was five, but since sixth grade, at least, I remember giving my grade presentations on the genocide in Darfur. I guess I was kind of a strange child.

I’m leading an environmental group at school. I’m in the process of becoming a madrich, which is a guide, in the youth movement. I’ve been involved with my school’s Gay-Straight Alliance since seventh grade, which was when I first started coming out while I had this huge crush on a girl in my youth movement.

My parents have been promoting activism from a young age. My tradition with my mom used to be to go to a rally in D.C. every year. It’s like my parents are these amazing people who’ve done amazing things and want me to get involved in activism, but at the same time, I remember my mom talking about this lesbian couple, and saying, “On a political level, should they have rights? Of course. But do I agree with them on a more personal level? Not really.” To me, there’s a conflict of interest there.

Now school’s starting tomorrow and I’m feeling alright. I’m focused on homework and trying to get back into the normal swing of things. I’m very pensive, thinking about how I can facilitate my own happiness at the same time as my family’s level of comfort. If I succumb too much to their demands I feel like I’m selling out and not being myself. At the same time, I want to make it easier for them.

As told to Diana Scholl.
Photo by Laurel Golio, taken in Croton, NY, 2010
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On November 16, We Are the Youth participant Schwalb attended PrideWorks, a conference for LGBT youth and their allies in Westchester, NY. The annual conference drew over 600 people. Here’s Schwalb’s perspective:

For all of us queers up here in Westchester, Prideworks is one of those things that you and your queer/activist friends talk about even when the event is pretty far off. In other words, “How great was the keynote this year at PrideWorks?” is sure to help spark a good conversation all the way into January. And there’s good reason! PrideWorks is a day-long conference for queer youth and their allies that provides a space for us to be together and give each other the support that we all need.

This year’s PrideWorks started out with various speakers telling us, the attendees, that we have the power to effect change in our schools and communities, and that by simply attending the conference, we’re acting as pioneers. Next up was Cheryl Wright, with a keynote address that was far from your average speech.  After playing a song or two, she invited Eliza Byard, Executive Director of GLSEN, to come up on stage and ask her questions. The questions largely centered around her coming out story and how she became involved with GLSEN, until she started to invite questions from the audience. To me, this seemed symbolic of the kind of community that I want my community, the queer community, to be: one that respects and celebrates the voices of all of its members.

Workshops throughout the day ranged from topics such as bisexuality to homeless queer youth, all providing interesting looks at the queer community, the groups it’s composed of, the intersections of identities, and effective tools for activism. My personal favorite was Growing Your GSA, where I gained a wealth of practical tips for increasing the impact of my activism.

All pre-programmed activities set aside, I think I speak for a lot of PrideWorks attendees when I say that my favorite part of the conference was “the circle.” Since 2009, the circle has been a gathering in the back of the County Center, on the basketball court, where PrideWorks attendees step into the middle of a circle and share feelings, stories, songs, poems, and reflections with one another. It’s really special in so many ways, largely because it gives us a venue to share our experiences and emotions and build a community. Plus, there are some really talented people who perform! For me, one of the more telling moments of the conference was when, in the circle, I decided to leave in a line that reveals my queer identity in a poem I had performed elsewhere, but hadn’t felt comfortable performing fully. I think it says a lot about the support that the conference provides to queer youth who really need it.

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Queer Teen Reports Back: Attending the Grand Central Die-In

We Are the Youth participant Schwalb attended the Flash Mob: Homophobia Kills Die-In at Grand Central Friday night (see video above). Hundreds protested the homophobia that led to the recent suicides by young gay men. Here’s Schwalb’s perspective:

Grand Central. 6 PM. Friday, October 8th. The main concourse was a lot queerer and a lot stiller than usual. Hundreds of queers and our allies had gathered to “die-in” and call attention to the transphobia and homophobia that’s gripped our nation since its genesis. It seemed as though the media coverage of a phenomenon that many of us had been hearing about and even experiencing ourselves for years and years had served as a wake up call to more mainstream queers and allies. Anti-queer sentiment still kills, it does so on a large scale, and immediate, committed, direct action is crucial if we want to better the situation for queers and queer youth in particular.

Despite cops proudly displaying their heavy-duty zip-ties, when the three whistles blew at a few minutes past six, we all fell to the ground, repeating the names of queer people who had either committed suicide in response to anti-queer bullying or been killed in hate crimes. When we heard another three whistles, we all stood up chanting, “Civil rights now!” Amidst these chants, I felt the same sensation in my ears that I feel when I listen to a carefully arranged six-part harmony. I swung my left arm back and forth like I had learned to do singing “Solidarity Forever.”

After many had gotten tired of chanting, “Civil rights now!” a switch was made to, “Hey hey! Ho ho! Homophobia’s got to go!” Yes, this mantra holds much truth, but I couldn’t help but think that this population dominated by 30-or-so year-old gay, upper-middle class, white cismen wasn’t thinking about the BTQ part of our alphabet cereal acronym, or the fact that when we think about any of the “ism’s,” one or more other “ism” intersects with the original ism, and we thus need to be considering rankism in addition to heterosexism and cissexism (which, judging by the chants, wasn’t really being thought about either) if we seek to combat any sort of discrimination.

To be honest, though I fully support this die-in and believe in the potential for positive change presented by actions like these, the reading of Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaws at Bluestockings that I attended after the die-in meant just as much, if not more to me, a queer teen, on a lot of levels, despite the fact that it had decidedly less media coverage. The very idea of the book as a collection of queer stories implies the idea of creating a patchwork of queerdom that, when sewn together, becomes a network of support and a powerful force for positive change.

And this was reflected in the reading: a diverse array of people came together to discuss the experiences of oppression we have in common, the experiences of oppression we don’t have in common, and how all of these experiences play off of each other in our creation of a supportive and inclusive community and society. All in all, as a struggling, queer teen, what gave me the support I need last night were the stories I heard and the email address that one of the contributors wrote in my copy of Gender Outlaws.