Guest Column

The First Youth Lobby Day In California --
"They represent me, but they won't talk to me"

By Patricia Nell Warren

On January 3, the first Youth Lobby Day in California produced what might have been the largest gay-youth political turnout in state history. The question is: will unfriendly legislators listen to these young people whom they are so eager to control or ignore?

Close to 300 Golden State teenagers converged on Sacramento. Their aim: to lobby for two bills. SB 101, which extends AIDS education to fifth and sixth grade, was inactivated by its introducer, Sen. Theresa Hughes, because she knew it didn't have enough votes to pass. AB 1001 adds sexual orientation to the protections guaranteed by California's education code. Last year AB 1001 was introduced by openly lesbian Assembly Member Sheila Kuehl, and principally co-authored by Assembly Members Lee, Fasconcellos and Villaraigosa. The bill failed to get out of the Assembly Education Committee. With a re-consideration vote slated for January 10 for AB 101, the young lobbyists hoped they could help change some minds on both bills.

Youth Lobby Day was organized by LIFE Lobby, the only community lobby in the capital -- veteran of successful AIDS bills and a post-Omaha bomb scare. The youth-lobby tactic was already tried and true in Massachusetts, where gay-youth-friendly bills became law because legislators had to listen to real, live gay kids for the first time in their lives. LIFE hoped the tactic would work here.

With chartered buses and donated plane tickets, the California young people were brought from Sacramento, San Francisco, Bay Area, L.A. San Diego, Palm Springs. They ranged from age 15 into their 20s -- all races, all possible lifestyles, some with college blazers, some with baggy pants and head bandanas, others with nose-rings and dyed hair. One transgender youth bravely marched through the long tiring day in skyscraper heels. Some had supportive families; others were former runaways and street kids, now living in shelters. Some were even straight, wanting to support the gay students in their schools. They were nervous, yet aglow, at the prospect of telling their gay-bashing stories directly to their elected representatives, and getting a little power with the American establishment. Even cruising and dating temporarily took a back seat. "I met this cool guy," one young man reported, "and...we sat up all night and talked about politics."

A number of adults also attended, including PFLAG members who chaperoned under-age lobbyists. A large L.A. contingent included the only openly gay member of the L.A. Board of Education, Jeff Horton, as well as members of the Gay & Lesbian Education Commission (including myself) and staff from the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Community Center. Notables among adult youth advocates, such as Jessea Greenman from Berkeley, were in evidence.

"The legislature doesn't believe you exist," LIFE advocate Ellen McCormick told the crowd of gay youth during 10 a.m. briefing. She pointed out that it took a full decade for the legislature to address AIDS issues. Then she and other LIFE executives went on to explain how some legislators and school administrations still insist that they know of no homosexual students in their schools, and therefore they feel there is no need to protect such students, let alone teach them about the dangers of AIDS.

Further briefing came from Assembly Member Kuehl herself, who held the young crowd rapt with her wit and charisma. Kuehl likened state government to The Wizard of Oz. "Remember when Dorothy found out," she grinned, " that the Wizard was really a little old man behind a curtain, pushing buttons and turning wheels? Well, this place is like that." The kids grinned too. They understood.

At 11:30 a.m., a phalanx of network news crews filmed the noisy rally on the Capitol steps. Grinning gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students held a long banner in front of the stately Doric pillars. Chants of "Two, four, six, eight, how do you know your kids are straight!"floated up past the stately dome. A girl dressed like the Statue of Liberty, wearing a rainbow toga, waved a rainbow flag..

In the afternoon, the young people got down to the real-world hard work of lobbying. Splitting into little district groups and pushing behind the Wizard's curtain, they visited their legislators' officers. It was clear that legislators and staffers were clearly taken aback by the well-behaved but energetic gay kids whose vibrant presence filled the Capitol like bees for an entire day. Most Capitol politicos are used to schoolchildren who are led around on tours, and don't ask troublesome questions. These particular visitors were tired of being ignored, bashed and treated like dirt. So they poured in and out of elevators, marched down the long hallways, peered down from the gallery, camped on the Capitol steps to discuss and regroup. Everywhere they went, some of them carried red balloons lettered HURTT MAKES HATE -- reference to Senator Robert Hurtt, who wants to re-activate California's sodomy laws.

It was the first day of the session, and many legislators were tied up in party caucuses. A few gay-unfriendly politicos behaved as if they were afraid of the young people, or believed they carried dangerous germs. They gave the kids a wide berth as they passed, even hugging the walls ridiculously or walking very fast and pretending they didn't see the kids.

Sen. Robert Hurtt found his office under virtual siege. The senator was "not available" when the first polite but grim group of lobbyists showed up at his door, carrying red balloons. Joel Feldman, 19, of L.A., insisted that they be able to speak to someone. Finally Hurtt's chief of staff snapped, "I'll give you five minutes." Joel got his five minutes, then was shown the door. Later in the day, Hurtt's office reportedly slammed the door in the faces of a second group. However, these teens also stood their ground. They buttonholed a Hurtt staff member and pointed out firmly that they were the Senator's constituents from Orange County, and some of them were old enough to vote. The staff member reportedly got the message, and sat down with them to listen.

A far warmer response came from Anthony Villaraigosa's office. The Assembly Member himself was tied up in caucus, and his staff were already on our side. But his aide sat for a while with the large L.A. delegation, and they gave her fresh ammunition. One nervous Latino honors student, Fabian, told the staff of his wars with homophobic school administrators, who finally forcibly transferred him out of his home school because he was the first out student there. Fabian made some telling points, including the fact that the students themselves, as well as the teachers, were not opposed to his presence in the school. Commenting on AB 1001, Fabian said: "If we had that bill, this wouldn't have happened to me in my school."

A common profile emerged from the stories, as they were told throughout the Capitol. These teenagers revealed that they are some of California's brightest and best. Among them were top students and athletes, poets and artists, doers and organizers. They told of publishing underground papers, organizing Project 10s and gay-straight student alliances. Among them, too, were survivors, who had gone through hells that would break the heart of the most hardened adult.

As the day passed, I talked with different individuals whose progress I had watched for a couple of years. When I first met one 16-year-old from Palm Springs, he was struggling with pain, confusion, and parental opposition at home. Now, with a job and a handle on his home situation and school, he was there in Sac with an eager expression in his eyes. Rhiannon Pollock, a lesbian girl I'd met while teaching at L.A.'s gay continuation school, EAGLES Center, was equally excited. "I am definitely considering a career in the law and human rights," she said.

Unfortunately, that same day, a bi-party struggle over the Speaker's seat resulted in Republicans gaining a choke-hold on the Capitol. "You can forget about your AB 1001 for this session," one Democratic chief of staff told a group of young visitors. In the Democratic offices, several staff expressed fears over their jobs, as the Republicans start to slash the state budget.

Unfortunately, too, the networks ignored this historic moment for gay youth. Later that day, the TV news aired the squabble over the Speaker's seat. Not a single sound bite for the teenage lobbyists that I could find. The media grandes believe that it's not news unless they say so.

Nevertheless, that night, as everybody adjourned to the LIFE office for a pizza fest and final de-briefing, a crowd of tired but inspired youth shared their experiences and their eagerness for more. "Next is Washington," said one girl, making a victory fist.

Said Joel Feldman: "It was absolutely awesome. What a chance to find out how things work and be a part of it. I'm organizing a bunch of us to keep in touch with legislators who need to hear from us. Like Keith Olberg from Victorville, the Republican senator who heads the education rules committee. You know, his chief of staff wouldn't even talk to me...said they weren't going to change their position. These people represent me, but they won't talk to me? It makes me want to rewrite the system."

Indeed. Our country talks endlessly about young people, but ignores them as much as possible. We are remiss in giving our young people any real access to the halls of power. For example, in the December '95 Congressional hearings on homosexuals in education, gay youth were discussed at length, but no gay youth were allowed to testify in person. Yet the growing controversies in American society all focus on youth, and the rightful place of gay youth in American schools. The laws being passed right now -- or not passed, as in the case of SB 101 and AB 1001 -- will affect our young people profoundly for years to come.

More and bigger Youth Lobby Days in state capitols all over the country, and in Washington D.C., are in order. Whether or not the media choose to report them, their impact will surely be felt.

Patricia Nell Warren is the author of the gay literary classic The Front Runner. She is also the advisor to The YouthArts Project. She can be reached online at WildcatPrs@AOL.COM. Article reprinted with author's permission.
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