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Volunteering for Our Youth

By Patricia Nell Warren

President Clinton thinks that more Americans should volunteer to do good things. More time, energy, money and TLC is needed, he says. I agree. It's a nonpartisan message that should galvanize every American, no matter what their politics. Hillary Clinton will probably add that it takes a village to volunteer.

In the gay village, this message should give a little lift to people who are feeling burned out. Volunteers are the people who make things happen. Yet activist demands on our time and money are spiraling, as legislative attacks on the community increase. I could spend my whole day faxing letters to legislators in support of -- or protest of -- this or that bill. Nonprofit AIDS organizations tell me that donations are down. Ellen or no Ellen, we have a ways to go.

In my opinion, one effective way to do the most with volunteering is to do it for our young people. After all, they are our future. More specifically, we can help provide legitimate economic safety-nets for our needier kids. Because some of them aren't going to make it otherwise. I'm talking about scholarships, for those bright students who are going to be our future, our year 2001 in law, politics, the media, medical research, social work, history, etc.

As a commissioner of education in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and as a speaker who travels the country, I have seen the danger signs among the kids that I know. While many gay adults are consumed with anxiety about partner benefits, while some adults are consumed with anxiety about whether kids are having safer sex, the fact is -- our young people are consumed with anxiety about just getting through school and into the job market.

More and more, I am seeing the bright LGBT students from low-income families, or families who have thrown them out, who are going into debt for large amounts of financial aid. One East L.A. girl I know is entering her junior year of college (major in political science) $20,000 in debt.

Working your way through school is a good American tradition. Many of us older folks did it. But today the game is different...more dangerous, more stressful. Many more kids come out in high school. How many jobs are available to openly gay kids? I've already seen the students who dye their hair back to normal, get rid of their lip bead, cover their tattoo, and act super straight so they can pass at McDonald's or a computer-training program. Today's job training isn't always free, and companies are selective about who they pick. In short -- for the non-straight student, the transition from high school to college is far more rocky than it used to be. The economic load can be just as crushing as those bigoted attitudes at school.

The arithmetic is simple and brutal. An LGBT senior out in high school + family hostility + rising tuitions = no support for college from mom and dad. Or try it another way. A high-school student out + leaving home because of family hostility + living independently + jobs hard to get = a hair-raising economic challenge. Is it any wonder that some kids turn to the street or the sugar-daddy system to make ends meet?

Indeed, some suicides among LGBT youth can surely be traced to economic desperation. The trend has already been reported among heterosexual youth -- as in Boston recently, where a high-school youth coalition demanded jobs and job training from the city government as a remedy for the spike in suicides among them. If straight kids are seeing the connection this clearly, it's time for the gay community as a whole to see it too.

We constantly hear heterosexual parents complain that a college education can cost well over $100,000 these days. Some states are thinking of starting tax-free investment programs for the benefit of straight parents. Time for us homosexuals to start thinking along these lines. It is very much in our interests, even for those of us who have no children, to start thinking like parents of our next generation. If the government won't help us, forget the government. We can bootstrap it ourselves, just as people did in the Chinese-American community for a long time, when they knew they couldn't count on the "outside world" for start-up capital.

Why don't our kids just apply for scholarships? Terrific idea. But it's debatable how many of those thousands of mainstream scholarships might be given to openly gay students. Gay and lesbian scholarships do exist, but information about them is not widely available, and there aren't enough of them. In Los Angeles, where perhaps 65,000 of our 650,000 students might be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered, we have half a dozen local scholarships, and I am working to fundraise for one more. "Several" -- out of even 10,000 -- is a small drop in a very big bucket. We could probably burn up the national total of GLBT scholarships in Los Angeles alone!

Scholarships can be rainbowed in variety. For people who have died of AIDS, there could be more memorial scholarships like the Peter Kaufman Memorial Scholarship, given by the Kaufmans, two parents who are commissioner colleagues of mine. There could be more diversity-minded big companies like AT&T, whose GLBT employees persuaded their management to give scholarships to openly gay kids. Or PG&E, who partners with BANGLE on scholarships. More local organizations like the Atlanta FrontRunners and the Minnesota GLBT Education Fund, who offer their own scholarships to local students. More national organizations like PFLAG, GLPCI and COLAGE, and more business organizations like the Greater Seattle Business Assn., who all sponsor scholarships. More foundations like Uncommon Cause, who give scholarships to lesbians...because women are more often in an economic shadow.

Yes, and scholarships for bisexual and transgendered students too.

Fundraising possibilities abound, to tweak the imaginations of our most financially creative citizens. The Gay and Lesbian Issues Committee of UTLA did "Bowling for Dollars" for their Stonewall Scholarship. Our Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Education Commission got money the hard way -- selling candy, bake sales, yard sales. Students themselves are banding together to create scholarships -- for example, the Liberty Foundation group at MTSU. At Occidental College, the Lambda Emergency Scholarship Fund, given by the BGALA, is a model of student-based financial aid.

Even at the graduate level, the National Scholarship Fund for Gay and Lesbian Students needs to be vastly supported if it is going to sweep our all our needy students through a masters in any subject.

On the side, we also need more community businesses, and more national orgs like GLSTN, who will volunteer job training, low-interest loans and paid internships to LGBT students. Many kids badly need volunteers who will show them the ropes about job interviews, resumes, personal appearance, etc. My own company, Wildcat Press, employs students part-time, and we have kept the wolf from a few doors over the last couple of years. One thing we've learned is how clueless many students are about the job world.

Some scholarship prospects also need doctors and clinics to volunteer free medical help -- and I don't even include treatment for sexually transmitted disease here. AIDS is far from being the only health problem that these kids face. I've seen an astonishing amount of stress-related problems among the kids I know -- from thyroid problems to ulcers. There's Celia, an 18-year-old who landed a scholarship in spite of her ulcers, but has a ton of medical bills to pay on top of her financial aid. There's Alberto, straight-A high-school senior, who may be developing diabetes and has no access to his family's medical insurance. I've seen kids whose teeth are falling out because they've been out since age 14 and their families refused to foot their dentist bills. What are these students to do? Suceed in reaching college, only to falter there because of mounting health problems?

Last but not least, we need professional, responsible tutoring for kids driven out of their home high schools by bias -- students who are struggling to pass their GED test and get college-bound. (My definition of a "responsible" tutor is one who doesn't exploit the teaching opportunity to get dates with students.)

To a kid who has nothing, even $500 is a lot of money. $500 buys books. It buys some application fees for college. The kids we help today will be our achievers of the millennium. The ones we don't help -- even the bright ones -- may end up among the homeless or chronically jobless of 2001. Or they may provide yet more heart-wrenching suicide statistics.

As Hillary Clinton says, it takes a village to raise a child. But it also takes a village -- ours -- to put that kid through school, and launch him or her into economic independence and a proud self-fulfilling career.


Note: Infoseek and other search engines are a good start on locating LGBT scholarship information on the Internet. Search under "Gay and Lesbian Scholarships" and "Financial Aid." One good Web site is Web Resources for Lesbigay teens at http://alexia.lis.uiuc.edu/~chapman/index.html. For a more general search, try FastWeb, which offers personalized scholarship search on the Net. A good printed source is The Complete Scholarship Book, published by Student Services, Inc., available through most bookstores.
Patricia Nell Warren is author of "The Front Runner" and other bestselling books, as well as a widely published commentator. Her publisher is Wildcat Press. Copyright (c) 1997 by Patricia Nell Warren. All Rights Reserved.

©1997 Oasis Magazine. All Rights Reserved.