Guest Column

Young Gay Photographers Celebrate Their Talent
By Patricia Nell Warren

Network news anchors did not report the winners in a gay-youth photography project sponsored by Project Yes in Los Angeles. But Chris Balian, Unayzah Belviz, Ezekiel Gutierrez and Aaron Almanzo were definitely Oscar-size winners. The big prize was a $300 gift certificate for photo equipment. However, these four young people -- and the other 26 girls and boys who participated -- won an even greater prize, namely a new measure of pride and professionalism.

Project Yes is a gay-youth-empowerment program newly available to schools and community in the Los Angeles area. It is a joint venture between the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Community Services Center and the L.A. Alliance for a Drug Free Society and Community. The photo project included mentoring by several volunteer photographers, who helped the teen entrants to get a firmer grip on professional basics before they entered a print.

On May 1, a dozen judges, including myself, assembled at the Youth Center on Santa Monica Blvd. to view displays in four different categories. Choosing was hard -- so many of the images were poignant and powerful images of how gay kids see life. For many of us judges, faces in the photographs were already familiar. L.A. is a big place, with tens of thousands of homeless kids, and 650,000 enrolled in the schools. Yet there is a hard core of standout teens -- striving, struggling young individuals known to the service orgs, shelters, community institutions, school district personnel, and the district's Gay and Lesbian Education Commission.

On the evening of Friday, May 3, in a packed reception room at the Community Services Center, it was Oscar time. TV actor Wilson Cruz, the MC, led many rounds of warm applause for the winners. One by one, faces glowing, the 13 third-, second- and first-place winners (there was a tie for one third) went to the podium to get a certificate, a prize and a long-stemmed red rose.

"They're all winners," emphasized Cynthia Bond. She is in charge of Youth Services at the Center, as well as co-chair of the project.

Several contestants are personally known to me, going back two years to my volunteer teaching at L.A.'s EAGLES Center. EAGLES is part of a school-district program for gay teen dropouts fleeing bias in their home schools, who want to get back in the classroom. Christina Martinez, a tiny Latina in shaved head and baggies, seldom smiled. She struggled to school maybe twice a month, though she helped me with the yearbook graphics and mentioned her interest in photography. At the Project Yes awards, I saw a new Christina, eyes aglow, her small brown fist clenching her rose and her second-place prize.

"I'm really moving ahead... going to finish school in a year," Christina said, "and I definitely want to pursue photography as a career."

Chris Balian and Zeke Gutierrez logged a similar struggle -- and similar progress. With his schoolteacher mother's encouragement, Chris doggedly attended photography classes, put together a professional-grade portfolio to show around -- but was often strapped for cash for developing. Both young men published their first photos online, in the YouthArts West e-zine that I co-publish with John Waiblinger. Chris will graduate from EAGLES this spring.

"I'm still in shock," Chris told me a day later, relishing the fact that he (like the three other top winners) could now purchase a good flash attachment.

Coming out and staying out, for gay kids today, goes way beyond issues of sex. Pride and professional skills are often hard to get in a time of economic chaos. Faced with changing laws and ugly controversy in many school districts, gay youth face enormous challenges merely to finish school, choose a career, get trained and find economic independence. These kids are far from the myth (gleefully promoted by the radical right) that "gays don't need human-rights protection because they're rich and politically empowered."

Worse, few gay kids live in areas like L.A. County, where school district and community offer them a wealth of targeted support programs, from Project 10 in high schools to youth services offered by the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center, PFLAG, the MCC of L.A., Project Yes, and others.

Following awards, the framed winning photographs went on a month-long display in the Center lobby. Days later, gay Angelenos were still thronging to see them. Following that, the exhibition will move to L.A.'s City Hall. Meanwhile, the photographs will have their own Web page in YouthArts West, so look for these compelling images at http://www.qcc.org/yap.

Young hands damp with anxiety and eagerness -- brown hands, black hands, white hands. Each holding a rose, symbol of the preciousness of Life.

Patricia Nell Warren wrote "The Front Runner," "Harlan's Race" and other best-selling novels about gay life. She lives in Los Angeles, where she serves on the Gay & Lesbian Education Commission of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Her publisher is Wildcat Press. Visit her Web page here.
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