Radical Youth

Meet 10 teens and twentysomethings working to improve conditions for the queer kids that follow in their wake

Coming out isn't necessarily any easier these days, but these 10 teens and twentysomethings have moved beyond worries of what their peers will think. Openly gay and proud-----even defiant-----they're working to improve conditions for the queer kids that follow in their wake. Whether advocating for youth in foster-care situations or prodding school officials to do something about anti-gay classroom environments, these 10 individuals are redefining the tactics and meaning of gay liberation.

Jeffrey Opdyke

Something's missing, Jeffrey Opdyke thought as he set foot inside Maple Grove's new high school last fall. Two weeks into his junior year, Opdyke marched into his guidance counselor's office and introduced himself. "Hi, I'm Jeffrey," he said. "I'm gay and I want to start a support group."

School administrators balked a bit, Opdyke admits, but armed with a handful of ideas he picked up at the '97 Network Building Conference for GLBT youth, the boy kept pressing the matter. He talked with students and initiated a bulletin that was sent to teachers. He recruited a faculty advisor. In January, Maple Grove's first gay-student support group--ranging in size from three to seven students--began meeting regularly.

"The more you make people aware of the issues, the better things will get," the 16-year-old says.

But Opdyke's outspokenness hardly made him popular. His best friend, who is also gay, lives in St. Louis Park. His mother, who discovered he was queer after stumbling across a computer printout of a gay Internet chatroom discussion, acknowledged his sexual orientation but told him to "stop waving flags." At school, Opdyke became the target of repeated harassment: In addition to suffering verbal taunts and occasional body checks, he says, he was thrown down a flight of stairs on the last day of school.

The rainbow flag on Opdyke's backpack, however, will no longer be seen the halls of the Maple Grove school. Last year, even as the support group was getting underway, even as he wrote a pro-gay editorial for the school newspaper, Opdyke was planning his departure. Pursuing an interest in theater, he applied to study at the Rudy and Lola Perpich Center for Arts Education in Golden Valley. He's thrilled with his transfer to the magnet school: "I was walking from one class to another today and there were two boys holding hands," he says with a laugh.

But Opdyke hasn't forgotten the other queer kids at Maple Grove. "I knew I wasn't going back to that school," he says, "and in fact, I needed less support than other kids. But I wanted there to be something for other people after I left."

Danny Tilman JR.

Danny Tilman Jr. was just 16 when his favorite twentysomething cousin died of AIDS. The Indiana teen was saddened and stunned. "He was a lot like me," Tilman says. "He sang, he was gay." But in the months leading up to the young man's drawn-out death, Tilman watched family members and friends drift away: "They would laugh and joke about him. I was more grieved by watching him die alone than by watching him die."

Two years later, Tilman is committed to sparing others such pain and loneliness. He works more than 30 hours a week as a senior peer educator with the Minneapolis Urban League's Hip Hop program, which aims to reduce the spread of HIV, STDs, and unwanted pregnancy among young African Americans. In addition to speaking at conferences, schools, and health fairs, Tilman makes the rounds at City Center and local coffeeshops, engaging acquaintances in easy-going conversations about sex, contraceptives, and health. "People like to talk about sex--that's one thing I learned," Tilman says.

Tilman began his work at the Urban League in February, shortly after moving to Minneapolis to live with his best friend. Although he'd visited gay areas in Milwaukee and Chicago, the Twin Cities astonished him: "I'd never seen so many openly gay people in all my life," Tilman says.

With energy and enthusiasm, Tilman has thrown himself into Minnesota life: He's a member of the state Commissioner's Task Force on HIV/STD Prevention, and will wrap up a Red Cross certification course on HIV/AIDS this month. He completed his GED in August and plans to attend Bloomington-based National American University this fall. He's also an active member of his church.

It's important for kids--queer and straight--to see other kids talking about prevention issues, Tilman says. The impact is greater. "If you stand on a soapbox, other people will look up to you." he explains. "Even if they don't always agree with you, people will respect you for standing up."

Christy Barich and James Carlson

Having a place to call home is something roommates Christy Barich and James Carlson don't take for granted. The pair of 20-year-olds, who just signed a second-year lease on a St. Paul apartment, spent most of their teenage years bouncing from place to place, wondering where they'd fit in. After her mother banished her from the house at age 14, Barich shuttled from shelter to shelter for more than a year before landing in a hospitable and caring foster home. Carlson's grandmother took him in when his mother died (he was 8), but both he and his brother spent periods during their teens in foster care.

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