[oasis] [columns]

Derik Cowan

December 1996

Looking at the Queer Youth Movement

In October, I had the pleasure of attending and performing for the National Gay Youth March on Washington, over Columbus Day weekend, sponsored by the Indianapolis Youth Group. In some ways it seems odd for me to admit that it was my first such event. I'd been to Pride parades and festivals before (actually, I'm starting my second year on the Pride Planning Committee in Northampton this year), I've run groups interested in gay youth issues, helped plan a dance for the local gay youth organization, and generally consider myself a vocal advocate of gay youth rights, and yet I had never been to a gay youth festival. The last one held in Boston fell over my exam period, and a similar event held in San Francisco over the summer while I was there interfered with my work schedule, so I wasn't able to make it either. I was excited going into the festival, and a bit nervous as I didn't know what to expect, but it turned out to be a remarkable experience, and one which I hope to be able to repeat.

This isn't to say that there weren't rough spots. This was the first time that the organizers of the March had done something of this scale--a national march in a strange city involving not only high school but also college and other youth who have slightly different issues. On the whole I congratulate the organizers again on a job well done. It's inevitable that some rough spots show up in plans involving a large number of people, and for the most part these were patched up as smoothly as possible.

What made the conference so remarkable for me, however, and the reason why I would recommend such an experience to any and all gay youth who have a chance to make such a conference had little to do with the organizing and much more to do with the energy in the air. I don't remember what the exact figures were for numbers of people who showed up at the conference, but to be in a room with so many alive and energetic youth looking for an opportunity to make a difference in their lives and to be a source of support for other youths was an invigorating experience. I often feel like the gay community (and to a certain extent we youths ourselves) consider queer youth to be the future of the movement, but we really aren't, we're very much the present. Take a look around. Gay Youth are all over the place, whether it be headlines about extra-curricular activities being shut down in Salt Lake City to keep a gay youth group from forming in the schools or Jamie Nabozny winning his case against the heads of his former high school for not protecting him from anti-gay bias crimes committed at school, we are the ones who are making things happen in the fight for liberation. I don't think that it's a coincidence that Oasis is celebrating its first anniversary this month and XY magazine will be following suit in only a couple months. This flourish of new queer youth publications are in my mind linked to the fact that gay youth issues are coming more and more into the forefront of gay politics in general.

I find the process by which gay youth issues are becoming important and accepted in the community in general to be interesting to watch. As recently as a couple of years ago, the gay community by and large was afraid to touch the issue of youth for fear of being labeled by the religious right as "recruiting" or "harming our children's minds" in some way. This isn't to say that there haven't been people with the foresight to see gay youth as a hot issue for quite a while or that there aren't well established gay youth groups that have been going forever, but it has really been within the time that I've been out that I've seen a large change. When I came out and was thrown out of my parents house, there was no local gay youth group to take me in, merely a youth hotline which wasn't even specifically for gay youth. Soc.support.youth.gay-lesbian-bi hadn't yet been formed as a newsgroup, and none of the current gay youth magazines/ezines were around yet. I was able to cull what support I could from the gay society at large, but often that support was either not there because people were afraid of what being labeled as pedophiles or the support was offered in exchange for sexual favors. The prevailing attitude seemed to be that when I was old enough to get into the bar scene, then I would be old enough to be bothered with, but otherwise I was unimportant

Today things seem to be changing. There are more youth groups starting up daily, and gay youth issues are finding themselves at the heart of public debate. There are national gay youth festivals that attract more and more people--both youth and others who are interested in youth issues. Even the issues themselves are changing. As someone at the festival mentioned, 2 years ago we started fighting for the right to go to school without getting beat up. Today we've won the fight and are fighting for the right to assemble in support of one another. But we still need more. We need to not only be able to support one another, but we need access to information about sexuality made available to us through our schools. We need to find a way to reach those of us who are closeted and unready to come forward to a support group and let them know that they aren't alone. We need to form some sort of institutional support for those of us that are thrown out of our homes and families. Above all, we need to abolish the idea that heterosexuality is necessarily normative and therefore in some way better or more privileged in our society.

A lot of you who are reading this are probably wondering at this point how I think that youth can make a difference. I mean, you're not old enough to vote, you don't have the money to make a big donation, or anything like that. But the key to this is to remember that most of the great strides made by the Gay Youth Movement have been done at the urging of the youth. I remember talking to the leader of the local gay youth organization about how the organization was formed because the youth were pushing the leaders of the local chapters of things like Nickelodeon and MTV to give them something to do. Similarly, a look at the Youth Rights Law passage in Massachusetts, again it was the youth who pushed for the law and managed to bring along enough adults with them to make a difference. The more vocal we are, the more we can do.

Personally, I'm psyched to be sitting here, not only celebrating the first anniversary of Oasis, but also my first anniversary as being a member of this resource for queer youth, and I hope to still be around to say the same next year. Oasis has opened many doors for me to express myself and my concerns, and It's allowed me to reach many people that I couldn't have otherwise. But I'd like to be able to do more, be it finding new places to take my one man show about surviving having been thrown out of your home or by speaking or by finding new forums to get involved in. I encourage everyone to get involved in making their environments that much safer and more gay friendly however they can, because together we will make a difference. We've come a long way, but we still have a long ways to go.

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