The Associated Press
Monday, April 2, 2007
(Sacramento, California) The half-dozen lobbyists who crowded into a lawmaker's office here didn't come bearing slick pitches, campaign cash or votes to swap, just tales of high school torment as fresh as their faces.
Maria Ramos, 18, discussed the academic toll daily doses of name-calling took on her gay and lesbian friends. Andrew Konke, 21, drew parallels between gay rights and earlier civil rights struggles. Ignacio Pitalua, 19, talked about having a trash can dumped on him by other boys who suspected he was gay.
"It's a big obstacle to learning," Pitalua said, pressing Assemblyman Curren Price to co-sponsor a bill that sets specific requirements for schools to protect students from anti-gay discrimination.
Young people, some barely in their teens, are becoming the gay rights movement's newest ambassadors at statehouses from Olympia, Wash., to Montpelier, Vt. Their advocacy, unheard of as recently as a decade ago, reflects the slowly growing acceptance that is emboldening gays and lesbians to come out of the closet while they are coming of age.
"The biggest change that has happened from 10 years or 20 years ago is there are more out people now, from openly gay teachers to openly gay classmates," said
Candace Gingrich, youth outreach coordinator for the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights advocacy group. "That awareness and getting that kind of support from your peers makes you stronger, as an individual and as a group, being willing to fight for things and to stand up against harassment."
Veteran activists credit the political participation of gay youth, their straight friends and children of same-sex parents with a string of recent legislative victories, including last month's passage of an anti-bullying bill that provides specific protections gay and lesbian students in Iowa.
The law's adoption came after the Iowa Pride Network issued a report saying more than 83 percent of the state's gay, lesbian and transgender students said they had been verbally harassed because of their sexual orientation.
"We kept getting comments from legislators of `There aren't gay kids in Iowa, this is an East and West Coast problem,"' said Ryan Roemerman, the network's director.
The group also arranged a news conference attended by Iowa's lieutenant governor and three students who provided firsthand accounts of discrimination. They included a girl who was kicked out of her Catholic high school after she came out as a lesbian and another who said she wasn't allowed into the locker room to change with other girls.
Brad Anderson, spokesman for Iowa Gov. Chet Culver, said the organized lobbying effort, which also included a 1,000-person rally at Drake University, was "absolutely critical" in getting the legislation approved.
"They added a loud voice, just physically being in the Capitol, and you saw them working all hours of the day lobbying to get this stuff passed," Anderson said.
Lluvia Mulvaney-Stanak, director of Outright Vermont, thinks young people have an advantage when it comes to persuading lawmakers, especially hostile ones, to hear them out. Painful stories of isolation may remind hardened politicians of their own children or awkward adolescence, she said.
"Young people no matter who they are, command this really tangible sense of empathy with adults. We've all been there," Mulvaney-Stanak said. "Maybe we were geeks or the athletes, but when it comes to victims of bullying and harassment, everyone has had a role in that cycle."
Yet the most effective spokespeople are not necessarily gay youth, but the straight students who joined with them to form more than 2,500 high school gay-straight alliance clubs across the country since the early 1990s.
Carolyn Lamb, director of California's Gay-Straight Alliance Network, estimates that up to 40 percent of the 400 high school and college students bused to Sacramento last week for Queer Youth Advocacy Day were not gay, lesbian or transgender.
"Most of the adult-driven (gay) civil rights work doesn't have such large numbers of straight allies who see it as a civil rights cause," she observed.
While previous generations waited well into adulthood before identifying themselves as gay, the average age at which gay children came out to friends and families in 2005 was 13 years and 4 months, according to Caitlin Ryan, a San Francisco State University researcher.