When he was seven, Luka Chavez came out as bisexual to his younger cousin and siblings, a step he says was made easier having grown up in a family open to LGBTQIA+ issues.
Luka’s first question for his relatives after this revelation was simple but earnest: “Do you still love me?”
Their response, he says, was a resounding “yes.”
“That made me feel really safe,” Luka says.
Emboldened by this, Luka—now 13—came out to his parents on Sept. 21, 2018, which he describes as a personal holiday.
“Like a little anniversary of the day I finally told my parents who I was,” he says.
Assigned female at birth, Luka’s transformation continued when he saw a video on YouTube that featured a transgender boy telling his story.
“He said he never felt comfortable being himself, and that if he had been born as a boy he would have been a lot happier,” Luka says. “I felt like, ‘yes, I kind of feel like that too.’”
That same year, as a Watsonville Charter School of the Arts second grader, Luka wrote a book with a transgender child as the protagonist to help himself process his transformation.
But that created a surprising backlash, when some parents complained to the teacher about him.
“They said they didn’t want me in the class with their kids, because they didn’t want their kids learning about what transgender means,” Luka says. “That was the first time I ever experienced some kind of prejudice.”
The teachers supported Luka, and many of them put up posters showing support for the LGBTQIA+ community, he says.
Luka said the pushback didn’t affect him, since his mother said she would always support him.
“My mom made it very known that if I ever came out as gay she would accept me no matter what,” he says.
He also found support outside his family. Through most of his journey to becoming a transgender boy, Luka has been part of the Queer Youth Task Force of Santa Cruz County (QYTF), an organization created to foster understanding and acceptance of LGBTQIA+ youth who do not have that support.
QYTF is one of 13 youth-serving organizations sponsored this year by Santa Cruz Gives.
Co-founder Terry Cavanaugh says the group was created during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, when community leaders noticed that many young people in their teens were testing positive for HIV, the virus that causes the disease.
But when they approached high schools to do outreach work on the subject, they were met with perplexed administrators seemingly unaware of the existence of the LGBTQIA+ community in their midst, Cavanaugh says.
“They said, ‘we don’t have any gay kids, we don’t know of any,’” Cavanaugh says.
So QYTF aimed to bring visibility and acceptance to a community that was essentially hiding in plain sight. The support network that stemmed from the organization was more important than ever, since HIV was one of several dangers facing young gay people, Cavanaugh says. Young people identifying as LGBTQIA+ also have higher-than-average rates of suicide and drug and alcohol addiction, and are more likely to be kicked out of their homes by their families.
QYTF is also increasing visibility of LGBTQIA+ youth and initiating change on an institutional level.
This looks like working with school superintendents and nonprofit leaders, and making law enforcement agencies aware that hate crimes were happening to LGBTQIA+ youth, QYTF Chair Stuart Rosenstein says.
“Before that, queer youth were scared to go to the police,” Rosenstein says. “If they don’t feel safe they need to know that law enforcement is going to protect them.”
In that spirit, QYTF in 2004 founded the Safe Schools Project, which provides training and support for administrators, teachers and school employees to support LGBTQIA+ students.
The Trans Teen Project was created to support the specialized needs of transgender youth, and to provide them with a support network that includes adult mentors.
The Adult Ally Project aims to recruit adult allies to help queer young people and the programs countywide that support them.
“The heart and soul of Santa Cruz County is people who are wanting to make life better for other people,” Rosenstein says. “And that’s how the Queer Youth Task Force was founded and that’s what it’s done since.”
One year after QYTF was founded, Cavanaugh launched the Queer Youth Leadership Awards (QYLA), now an annual event aimed at celebrating the achievements and abilities of queer youth.
“We used a strength-based model,” he says. “We said, ‘somewhere there are some of these young people who are going to make it and do fine. And they are probably helping people in their community, in their school settings. Why don’t we emphasize their strengths? Why don’t we make them role models?’”
While the QYLA ceremony is aimed at the LGBTQIA+ community, it is also intended as a message to any young person who is bullied for stepping outside the bounds of societal expectations, Cavanaugh said.
“The kid who isn’t queer but gets bullied because he likes to play the piccolo, or he is an artist, or she likes to play soccer,” Cavanaugh said. “Kids get gender role stereotyped and then are picked on for being gay. Well, if you take the picked-on-for-being-gay out of it, then there’s more gender role freedom for everybody. So it really helps everybody.”
Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency Director Monica Morales said that QYTF played a pivotal role in her life when she came out when she was young. Since then, she has seen the organization advance youth wellness and LGBTQIA+ rights, a mission that is still essential even in the face of growing societal acceptance.
“We’re still very behind,” she said. “We still don’t have equal rights. We’ve come a long way,—yes, we have gay marriage, but there is still a lot of discrimination that young people and the LGBT community face, even in Santa Cruz County.”
Bullied as a queer youth himself, Rosenstein says the main thrust of his mission is to reach young people who do not yet have the support they need.
“It’s important to know that there are absolutely wonderful, loving people from Scotts Valley to Santa Cruz to Capitola, and Aptos to Corralitos and Watsonville who are shining stars of how to embrace and celebrate their LGBT young people and their families,” he says. “What we all do as a county is to help support the students who don’t have that love and support.”
Luka, who was nominated for a Queer Youth Leadership Award in 2022, says he has a message for young people struggling with their sexuality and identity:
“Change will come,” Luka says. “One day you won’t feel embarrassed to be who you are. One day you will feel comfortable being who you are. And I think that’s what you have to look forward to. Imagine yourself years from now when you are happy. when you are yourself. That’s what gets me going.”
Through Dec. 31, you can support the Queer Youth Task Force in the Santa Cruz Gives holiday giving campaign. Other youth-serving organizations in this year’s campaign include Food, What?!, Big Brothers Big Sisters Santa Cruz County, Boys and Girls Clubs of Santa Cruz County, CASA of Santa Cruz County, Ecology Action, Girls Inc. of the Central Coast, Hopes Closet of Santa Cruz, Live Like Coco, Live Oak Education Foundation, Santa Cruz Community Ventures, Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History and Friends of the Santa Cruz Public Libraries. Donate to these groups at santacruzgives.org.