In the early days of the AIDS crisis, a group of local leaders went to school officials to offer HIV prevention education.
The response they got showed them how much that education—and education of LGBT issues in general—was needed.
“They said, ‘you don’t need to do HIV prevention here; we don’t have any gay kids,’” says Stuart Rosenstein, who has chaired the Queer Youth Task Force (QYTF) of Santa Cruz County since 2000.
To bring the LGBT community out of the shadows of that era, QYTF members realized that they needed to highlight the work of the LGBT community, particularly the youth, who have shown leadership in their communities.
Thus, the Queer Youth Leadership Awards was born. Now in its 26th year, the event was created to celebrate the achievements and abilities of queer youth.
This year’s event will be on May 13 at New Brighton Middle School.
Rosenstein says the event was created to honor young people who have proven to be leaders in their communities and to celebrate them.
“That’s still a big word in the LGBT community,” he says. “We’re not tolerating; we’re not accepting; we’re celebrating our queer youth leaders.”
Rosenstein says the organization recently produced a video about the first four honorees from 1998.
“They are now with families and leading institutions, some of them in Santa Cruz County,” he says. “There is just so much joy around that.”
There are nearly 400 proposed laws targeting LGBT people making their way through the legislative process nationwide.
At the same time, a handful of young people this year could not accept their award nominations because they are not yet out to their families or have family members who do not accept them, Rosenstein says.
“With all the success and celebration, there’s also so many students out there that are still not being recognized,” he says. “So, we still have a lot of work to do.”
“There are so many battles for equity, whether it be racial justice, social justice, climate. The fight for equity and equality for our queer and trans youth has to carry on,” Rosenstein says.
Honoree Sion Erkiletian, 16, who goes by they/them pronouns, is a member of the 2023 Queer and Trans Youth Council and has written several articles for the zine Queer Agenda.
Erkiletian, a Delta School student, says they have wanted the nomination since they learned about it.
“I feel like this is something that could lead to greater things in my life because I have a lot of big dreams about what I want to do,” they said.
Working to improve the world for LGBT people, Erkiletian says, is a critical mission.
“There is a lot of hate in the world,” they said. “And if I can spread a little bit less hate and spread a little more positivity, that would be a really nice thing.”
However, Erkiletian’s focus on environmental activism is more important than that.
“I was raised to love this planet, and I was raised to fight for this planet, and I think that I can’t fight for queer rights knowing that we’re at our own demise,” they said.
When asked for advice for young LGBT people who have not come out yet, Erkiletian was careful to answer.
“Don’t hide away from yourself, and stand up for yourself when it’s safe,” they said. “You have to recognize when there is a line between risking your safety and being yourself. That’s important to know because this world is not all rainbows and flowers and happiness.”
San Lorenzo Valley High School senior Asher Sunrise Trageser has been described as an overachiever since kindergarten.
Trageser has been involved in performing arts through all four years of high school and recently directed the senior show The Bold, The Young, and The Murdered.
Trageser has helped several fellow students through their coming-out processes.
“Being nominated for QYLA has definitely been an honor, to say the least,” Trageser says. “It’s made me feel validated about the work I’ve done to make my peers in the queer community feel safe. I don’t want to say that the stereotype of gay people in theater is true, but being in theater has provided me with so many amazing opportunities to support the community.”
The Queer Youth Leadership Awards happens May 13, 5:30-8:30pm. New Brighton Middle School Performing Arts Center, 250 Washburn St., Capitola. $25-$125 (sliding scale) qyla.org