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Photograph by Curtis Cartier
Tween Spirit: Emilee Ray Ann Liversage, Branciforte Middle School student and STRANGE member in good standing

The Young and The Restless

Queer youth in Santa Cruz are forming communities of their own.

By Molly Zapp

By now, most in the group know each other's faces, past crushes, family situations and schools, but the Tuesday night meeting of STRANGE, a group for queer and allied youth, begins with formalities: State your name and your preferred gender pronoun--PGP for short.

"My name is Emilee, and my PGP is 'she,' though I'm pretty used to 'he,'" says STRANGE member Emilee Ray Ann Liversage. At 12, Emilee is thoughtful, silly and refreshingly without the common adolescent air of suffocating self-consciousness. She wears all-black sweats, no makeup and a frequent smile that reveals a mouthful of braces. She's also the only out queer kid she knows at Branciforte Middle School, and she's frustrated with what she perceives as indifference to homophobic comments and slurs like "that's so gay."

"It's totally tolerated at my school," she says. "Teachers don't care, the principal doesn't care. No one cares, except us. Me," she says as she looks around at her queer friends at STRANGE. "My [straight] friends care, though. They look at me whenever someone says that, and they see my face, and it's like 'Dude, I'm so sorry.' It feels hard, because I feel like I'm the only gay person there. I know I'm not. ... I feel alone and isolated," Liversage says.

The isolation that unsupported queer youth can feel--and the attendant higher risks of depression and suicide--is a societal problem that Santa Cruz programs like STRANGE and the Queer Youth Scene seek to address. Vanessa Wilson, STRANGE program coordinator, describes meetings as "a place where the youth come together to have a safe space, to be able to talk about the different needs that they have having to do with family life, schools and their relationships and friends."

Nikira Hernandez, Queer Youth Scene coordinator at the Diversity Center, says the face of queer youth is changing. "As the social and political climate shifts, students are coming out earlier and earlier," she says. And that means middle and high schools are the newest setting for the struggle over gay rights.

Under the California Student Safety and Violence Protection Act of 2000, commonly referred to as A.B. 537, all public schools have a duty to protect students from discrimination and harassment based on actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity. The students who attend STRANGE and Queer Youth Scene meetings know their rights, and describe a wide range of accepting and nonaccepting attitudes from fellow classmates and administrators.

"When a 12-year-old gay individual is empowered with the information that there is a state law that mandates that bullying and harassment toward them is illegal, it can do nothing else than empower them," says Stuart Rosenstein, chairman of the Queer Youth Task Force. "When queer youth are reading in one place about state laws that protect them, and then, on a different page, read about homophobic slurs and state initiatives that are hateful, it is not possible for queer youth to remain silent, as in decades past."

A 2007 survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network found that 86 percent of middle and high school LGBT students nationwide experienced verbal harassment, 60 percent felt unsafe at school and nearly one-quarter had been assaulted on campus. Students at schools that had GSAs generally reported less harassment and assault, and an increased feeling of safety.

"It's cool that there's a place where you can go around other kids who may be experiencing other hardships," says Savanna Deftee, 17. "I've experienced a hate crime, and it's cool to be in a place where other people know what that's about."

True Grit
Adrian Villegas, 17, spends his Friday nights at the Queer Youth Scene with his friends Isaiah Garcia, 15, and Eli Torres, 15. Villegas is the president of the Pajaro Valley High School GSA, and estimates that out of 1,615 students at PVHS, 10 of them are out. He and Garcia, who also attends PVHS, say their school's climate is OK to come out in but that students still insult them and call them "fags." Harassment moved Villegas to action, so he spoke with his teachers. "Most say they don't know what to do about it," he says.

Garcia, whose magenta streaks illuminate his dark brown hair, says his teachers were "very supportive." "They backed me up," he says.

At Delta Charter High School, Nick Cal Maddox, 16, who identifies as trans, says his teachers call him by his preferred name and gender pronoun and discussed LGBT-appropriate safe sex practices.

Though she feels supported at Delta, Savanna Deftee had very different experiences at previous schools. The harassment began when she came out in junior high; she recalls how fellow students would call her names and even jump her after school. At Gilroy High, a female classmate called her "a fucking dyke who steals all the girls" and stabbed her abdomen with three pencils.

"It hurt hella bad. I just broke 'em off," Deftee says. A teacher noticed blood on her shirt; when she told him what had happened, she says he replied, "It's not our job to baby sit."

After that, Deftee gave up any faith she'd had in the school remedying the situation. "I just kind of dropped it. I'm a foster kid anyway, and it's not like they were going to listen," she says.

"I knew that if I didn't come back to school, or if I walked around in fear [the assailant and harassers] would have won. So I just walked around like it was OK. I gritted my teeth; they couldn't break me."

Some of the kids seem to have parlayed their own experiences into a drive to build a community and change the world. While many adults seek to shelter kids from the very knowledge of homosexuality, the teenage members of STRANGE and the Queer Youth Scene, although young themselves, want even younger children to hear about LGBTQ existence.

"I think the idea that gay people exist should be taught to children," Torres says. "You don't see any kids' movies with gay people. Kids don't know that it can be normal. It doesn't have to be in-depth, but kids should be shown that boys can like boys and girls can like girls." Torres cites his cousins as examples: his cousin is lesbian, and her 5-year-old brother "understands and accepts his sister's girlfriends. When he's older, he's not going to think, 'That's weird.' He's going to think, 'That's my sister, and I'm OK with it.'"

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