Radical Youth

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

Nathan, who describes her work as "activist," will also serve as a keynote speaker at this year's Network Building Conference. In addition to talking about the links between queer youth and homelessness--she slept on several friend's couches and even spent time in a shelter before finding a place of her own--Nathan will talk about the importance of mentors in the lives of GLBT youth. She cites an English teacher at South who was there for her in her coming out and leaving home. "She was helpful and supportive," Nathan says of the instructor. "She kept saying, 'This is the best thing for you to do!'"

Not surprisingly, teaching is one of the careers Nathan is now considering. But she also wants to keep a hand in youth work. "I can't speak for everyone," she says of her upcoming keynote appearance. "But I can speak from my own experience."

Pamela Dowell

Pamela Dowell grins as she recollects her first visit to District 202, Minneapolis's queer-youth drop-in center. "I was scared to the heeber-jeebers," the 17-year-old suburbanite remembers. "Everybody knew each other, everybody was open, and everybody was scary looking. I could hardly believe I was thinking I might be gay."

Before the blond-haired Richfield resident could flee, however, a 202 staff member struck up a conversation. Dowell's fears and hopes about being queer came gushing out. Today, she's a regular at the center's downtown site. "It's my home away from home," she says, plopping a stack of spiral notebooks and a copy of Jane Eyre onto a tabletop in the center's coffee bar.

"I never much fit in," Dowell says of her life at school in the first-ring suburb. Though she made a pretense of being "boy crazy" in junior high and was generally well-known among her peers, she felt like "an oddball." Then a few years ago, she developed an overwhelming crush on the female student teacher in her physical education class. Dowell knew she was obsessing, but she dismissed her feelings as "idolization" not infatuation.

When, as a sophomore, Dowell did finally approach a school counselor about her sexual-orientation worries, she found the staff was ill-prepared to answer her questions. The counselor referred her to District 202. "No resources existed in Richfield," Dowell says.

After coming out as lesbian to her parents and sister, Dowell set about filling that resource void. She was determined to start a gay and straight student alliance at Richfield High School. She began a letter-writing campaign, sending away for information, contacting local queer organizations and alliances at other schools, briefing Richfield school-board members and administrators of her intentions. "I have a binder five inches thick of material I gathered and letters I sent," Dowell says. "Everybody has heard of me."

This fall, taking advantage of the post-secondary enrollment option, the Richfield senior spends most of her time at Normandale Community College classes. But she returns once a week for the meetings of the Gay-Straight Alliance of Richfield High School. The group began meeting last year without much fanfare, attracting a half dozen students. But this year, Dowell, who also heads the Spanish Club and sits on the state's Youth Advisory Council for HIV/STD Prevention, wants to raise the group's profile. She hopes to apply for and obtain grants to organize a faculty workshop on GLBT issues and print anti-discrimination fliers to hand out at school.

She laughs again as she recalls comments that a gay-straight alliance would never fly at Richfield High. "I decided to create pressure to make it work," she says.

Nikki Kubista and Erin Ferguson

Nikki Kubista knew she'd reached public-figure status when she saw herself in an art exhibit at the Minnesota State Fair. "It was surreal," the 22-year-old University of Minnesota student says. There was her picture, placed in the middle of an avant-garde collage. The artist, unknown to the Hopkins High graduate, had titled his work simply "Kubista." The unwitting subject was amused: "There was everything in this piece," Kubista recalls, "including chopsticks!"

The State Fair tribute startled Kubista, but as the president of the Minnesota Student Association, she and vice president, Erin Ferguson, are quickly acclimating to life in the public eye. Since being elected last spring, the two have become the voice of students on the U's Twin Cities campus, speaking on panels and at brunches and serving as consultants on projects requiring official student input. Kubista, a women's studies and history major, and Ferguson, a St. Paul native and public-policy major, also attend the meetings of the 70-member forum that oversees the student association's budget and activities.

Not bad for two young women who'd never before run for elected office. With only 100 votes to spare, Kubista and Ferguson, who are widely involved in other student activities, squeaked past four other pairs of candidates to claim the top student-government spots in April. "We wanted a shift in the dialogue," says Ferguson, 22, who notes that the pending lawsuit over student-service-fee funding for various students groups, including the U's GLBT group, drove them into the political arena. Their campaign, they note with pride, even included a drag show in front of Coffman Memorial Union.

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