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.

Their experiences have left each with something to say, and both Carlson and Barich have taken a keen interest in helping other homeless youth and kids in foster care. Barich, now a senior at Hamline University, works part-time at The Safe House in St. Paul, a shelter for homeless kids, and spends 20 hours a week organizing a mentoring program that links up homeless youth with caring adults. "A lot of youth don't think that any adult would want to spend time with them," Barich says. "I encourage them to ask an adult they like to take on the role of mentor. They may meet twice a week or twice a month."

Barich's first-hand experiences and speaking abilities have won her invitations to various social-work and youth-care conferences, and she's made the rounds with legislators at the state capitol more than once. Her identity as a lesbian has also allowed her to investigate the relationship between being queer and being homeless. "GLBT kids are disproportionately represented in the youth-care system," Barich says.

Carlson, meanwhile, has taken a quieter, but equally passionate role when it comes to activism on behalf of youth in foster care. He'll serve as a keynote speaker this month at the Network Building Conference, speaking about the importance of mentors. Michelle Chalmers, a Twin Cities social worker, has become his "lesbian mother," Carlson says. Hearing about the young man's plans to become a model or attend cosmetology school is energizing, says Chalmers, who is careful to note that Carlson has never been her client.

"He's an incredible artist. He gave me a painting for my 30th birthday," Chalmers says. "And he bleached the highlights in my hair."

Laura Vick and Kate Wall

Laura Vick avoided going into details when she proposed doing a community-service project on diversity to earn a Girl Scout gold award. The prestigious award goes to scouts who excel in leadership or community service. "I turned in my proposal and I was really vague," Vick says. "They didn't really know what I was doing until I turned in my project."

Vick's plan was to educate her peers in Northfield about gay and lesbian issues as well as HIV/AIDS--matters she knew could cause some controversy in the small southern-Minnesota town. Still, she reserved some time and a place to conduct a series of workshops at the local high school during the district's health and wellness week. "I was really afraid nobody was going to come," the 18-year-old confides. "But it turned out to be a great success."

Indeed. Attendance at the various sessions on homophobia, HIV/AIDS, and pluralism attracted from three to 100 people. Several health classes participated, and students in study halls could obtain passes to attend the workshops. The speakers who Vick had lured from the Twin Cities to talk about diversity were asked to speak impromptu in other classes. And during one workshop in which participants were asked to move to different parts of the classroom according to their various identities--black, female, gay, and so forth--Vick and her girlfriend, Kate Wall, came out to their peers: Despite the snickering from some students, the two girls stepped forward when the discussion leader asked if anyone identified as gay.

"It really got people talking about homosexuality," Wall, 17, says, "and that had never happened before. And people kept talking about the workshops for a long time afterward."

The workshops also caught the attention of Northfield's human-rights commission, of which Vick was elected a member in 1997. The commission awarded her a certificate for her work at a city council meeting on Sept. 8.

Wall, meanwhile, has continued to work with Northfield's LGBT Youth Committee, which, among other things, has helped bring a portion of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt to Northfield and is trying to build a queer-youth support group. "The atmosphere, at the high school at least, is not completely safe," Wall says. "We're working to create safe zones and safe staff, people who you can approach and confide in if you're gay or lesbian."

Carla Nathan

While her parents were away at church one Sunday morning, 19-year-old Carla Nathan left the house. After packing her things, she tidied up the room in the basement where she'd spent most of her teenage years. Things hadn't been going well since she'd come out to her family as gay. "I knew that when I came out, I would most likely have to move out," Nathan says.

So when her mother showed up at school the next day and demanded to see her, Nathan wasn't surprised. The South High student informed her teachers and counselors that she didn't want to see her mother. But somebody didn't get the message, and Nathan found herself in an empty hallway being screamed at and bullied by her mother. Things eventually turned violent, and the teen decided to take matters into her own hands: She filed for, and obtained, a restraining order against her mom.

Nathan, an articulate young woman with a penchant for Tommy Hilfiger polos and a silver ring pierced through one eyebrow, recalls the scene with cool detachment. Her level-headed approach to things has earned her the respect of her peers and adults alike: The candidate for homecoming queen and former vice president of South's student council now serves on the advisory councils of Out 4 Good, the Minneapolis Public Schools' GLBT student and staff support program; the GLBT Host Home Program of Minneapolis Youth Diversion's Project OffStreets; and the Children's Law Center of Minnesota. She recently finished a stint as an AmeriCorps volunteer with the American Red Cross.

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.

Policy, however, not politicking, is the primary interest of this pair. Ferguson and Kubista, who have known each other since they competed against each other at a high-school debate tournament, say they'll tackle such issues as rising tuition and lack of affordable housing around the U campus in the year ahead. But studies and jobs--Kubista works as a U switchboard operator, Ferguson as a Starbucks barista--will also keep them busy.

"We really want to make student government a different kind of place," Kubista says, "a place where people--including queer people and people of color--can work and get things done."

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