By Jeff Walsh, Oasis Editor
Seth Watkins is constantly on the move. His picture appears in San Francisco gay publications with the same frequency as the picture of the escorts for hire. Only Watkins keeps getting written up because of his work as a queer youth activist.
Within the past month, Watkins protested against insane homophobic minister Fred Phelps at a mass same-sex marriage ceremony, organized a hate crimes rally after hearing of Billy Jack Gaither's murder, led groups of queer youth to speak to representatives at California's Queer Youth Lobby Day, helped plan the local Equality Begins At Home events... and I'm sure there are far more events I'm leaving out.
Like most queer youth activists, he seems more mature than his age, and has amazing stories to tell. He only came out five years ago at 17 while planning his mess-free suicide, joined the military, moved to Dallas because he fell for someone online and eventually arrived in San Francisco with his mission to become a queer youth activist. Mission accomplished.
Considering Oasis is read by people far away from San Francisco, the idea of being a queer youth activist here might seem trite. Watkins said there are two different San Franciscos, the one people idealize from afar and the one that really exists.
"San Francisco is not what it's all cracked up to be. Don't move here on the wisp of a dream and a prayer, because myself and several other queer youth will tell you not to do so," he said. "It is a fabulous and beautiful city, but there is a lot of apathy in this gay community. People don't turn out for vigils and a lot of people don't care in San Francisco because they feel so protected. Being an activist in San Francisco means that you're continuing the fight in Matthew Shepard's name, in Billy Jack Gaither's name, in your own experiences. If we don't continue to fight with our human heart and our human dignity for equality, then we will be back to square one where the religious right and the right wing will put us back in the closets by force. We're in a bubble and people feel safe in that bubble, but they don't remember the rest of the country and the rest of the world. That's why queer youth activists are needed in San Francisco."
Watkins left Colorado, where he had grown up and attended high school, the night his then-boyfriend hit him. He had never been hit before, and he had his boyfriend arrested and sued him. That night, he left town and headed for Dallas.
"I had been talking with someone in college on the Internet who lived in Dallas, who I thought was the love of my life, and I decided to leave for Dallas in the middle of the night, and leave all my stuff behind -- my brother, my cat, everything," he said. "It was a hard thing to do because they were throwing me out of the house, and either I had to go or he had to go. They all wanted me to leave and I had no place to go. So I hit the Greyhound station with two bags and went to a life where I didn't know where I was going to go."
Watkins spent the next two years in Dallas where he said he got his heart broken "with several hundred guys."
"They all told me they were going to take care of me, support me, love me. I was young, I was out, I was learning about gay culture and I started spending time at a coffee shop for 13 hours a day," he said. "I worked there, lived in 13 different places with friends, paying rent, nothing stable. Writing in my journals and my poetry, very depressed all the time.
"They called me the Storm Princess because I had a cloud over my head all the time," he said. "That's when I started reading XY and I started wanting to write for XY. And I started wanting to be a queer youth activist, but I didn't know what a queer youth activist was."
Watkins decided to move to San Francisco with only $150 on him and a bus ticket, moving to a place where he knew no one.
"I had no idea what San Francisco was like, but I was singing into a mop handle when I was closing the coffee shop for the last two weeks I was there: 'I'm on my way, to the bay, where I can be happy and gay, I'm going to have freedom'," he said. "I made up my own songs about being free and finding myself. I was going to try to write for XY magazine who had sent me an e-mail, which hinted, in my mind, that there was a possibility I could write for XY. And they never answered me, and then I called for a month and a half before I came and said I'm moving to San Francisco. I'm going to come to you, since you won't come to me. And I did, and I got here and freaked out."
Watkins said he wasn't prepared for the tall buildings, homeless people, taxis and buses that San Francisco offered. He also never even knew there was a subway system until three months after moving. Of course, Watkins' pilgrimage took him to XY's offices in the city. (And I should note that Watkins is not the first person I've talked to who moved to the city expressly hoping to work for XY. I really have to recommend that you realize that this is not a good idea, which has nothing to do with me slighting XY, just favoring you be realistic).
"I went by XY and, reluctantly, Peter Ian Cummings saw me and he was very nice, but he said, 'You kind of had a fantasy'," he said. "Not those exact words, but they let me work in their offices stuffing their box sets for three days and paid me for it, which paid for my hostel of six weeks before I got my coffee shop job to survive."
Watkins then took his quest to the Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center (LYRIC), the area's primary queer youth organization.
"I went by LYRIC and said 'I'm here. I'm ready to be an activist' and they said 'You need a place to live and a life. You need to be stable to be a volunteer.' So that really ruined my parade, so what did I have to do? Get stable."
Watkins managed to get himself invited to an art gallery event, through the gallery's owner whom he met online.
"I had been on chat and talking about all my friends and how I was trying to find work and he offered for me to come by and said they might have a position," he said. "I checked the library to see if it was a real gallery, and it was. So, I decided to go in my jeans and a disco shirt, and it was a foo-foo fa-fa party, a class-A fag party."
At the party, Watkins met the president of a publishing company, who offered him a job in the company's customer service department, where Watkins still works. Once he got a stable job and somewhat settled, things started to happen.
"Before I knew it, I was being introduced to council people, supervisors, educators, writers, getting involved in activism," he said. "I went to Queer Youth Lobby Day in 1998. I got involved with Young, Loud and Proud, and pulling my own self together."
During this time, Watkins also met Jonathan Katz, the chair of the gay and lesbian studies department of the City College.
"He got me interested in gay and lesbian studies and HIV/AIDS peer education at City College, and I had been out of school for five years, always putting it off," he said. "And I went back, and I'm now in my second semester. I'm taking gay and lesbian studies courses and a senior HIV counselor-training program that I'm doing very well at. Jonathan Katz has been a mentor to me, the best teacher I've ever had in my life. He knows his stuff."
Like many queer youth, Watkins was affected deeply by the brutal beating and subsequent death of Matthew Shepard.
"I was so affected by that, like every other gay youth, that I started a huge community card that would eventually turn into 17 pages of posterboard signatures from people of all ages and backgrounds from the streets in San Francisco," he said. "I was flown, in sponsorship by City Supervisor Gavin Newsom and a couple private sponsors, to go to the national vigil in DC at the last minute after being at 12 different vigils in San Francisco."
Watkins was then supposed to fly to Matthew's funeral with lesbian supervisor Leslie Katz, with his flight information being coordinated by the city mayor's office. Watkins was going to present his card to Shepard's family, with Katz presenting a certificate of memoriam from the city. Unfortunately, the only airline flying in to Colorado from San Francisco was United Airlines, which is currently fighting a city ordinance requiring all businesses who have contracts with the city of San Francisco to enact domestic partnership benefits. The airline has filed a lawsuit against the city, and as a result no city employees are supposed to fly United. Watkins finds it hypocritical that his trip was cancelled and the mayor subsequently flew to a Mayor's Conference in Washington DC on United Airlines.
"I was really emotionally upset. Then I started getting involved on the Matthew Shepard e-mail lists and all the other e-mail lists and I started another list called Remembering Matthew where I started the idea of an anthology of poetry, essays and so forth, which was to capture everybody's feelings and poetry," he said. "Not to make him a martyr, but capture the feelings everyone around the world were experiencing in an emotional book that people could remember and relate to, and have all the proceeds go to the Matthew Shepard Foundation and other hate crimes and queer youth-related groups. Since then, after the murder of Billy Jack Gaither and the intensity of hate crimes and lobbying for hate crimes legislation, the anthology has now become Remembering the Fallen for all victims of hate crimes."
Watkins plans to release the anthology on the anniversary of Matthew's death, and he's still accepting submissions until the end of June. He
recently organized a rally after the Gaither murder in San Francisco, which he organized while nursing a 102-degree fever and getting all the city permits and coordinating with 14 other local organizations. And he's already starting to help coordinate events for the Pride events in June.
"People have also approached me to organize the Stand Against Hate rally at this year's pride festivities, which is an hour-and-a-half long event which I could help choreograph," he said. "I'm waiting for confirmation on that.
Watkins has come a long way since he accepted his sexuality while simultaneously planning his suicide five years ago. It happened while he was in an independent living program in Colorado, and he became a neat freak.
"It was my first apartment and I was bleaching everything. It was a crappy apartment, there were stains all over the carpet and I would vacuum and bleach them until I made it worse," he said. "And I was sitting there one day in a chair one day cleaning, and I was depressed, suicidal. I was sitting in the chair, and thinking about taking out a piece of plastic and putting it on the carpet, getting two mop buckets, slitting my wrists and draining my blood into the mop buckets so I wouldn't make a mess. And then I looked down and at the carpet and said to myself, 'what would one more stain matter?' and I was laughing hysterically. And then I started crying. That was the day I came out to myself.
"It was this big burden lifting off of my head. That's when my whole life took a change. The quiet, timid, brown-nosing straight-A student everybody hated-kind of person disappeared and out came the nervous, excited, innocent, fresh, energetic, attention-getting, playful new me."
He told friends in school, who told the rest of the school, who told the rest of the schools in the district. He then felt threatened, was called faggot, but several people in the grade ahead of him, like the class president and head cheerleader, told him how proud they were of him and how much courage he had.
He graduated three quarter early, and -- newly queer -- decided for some reason to join the military.
"It was hell, because I had just come out to myself, and I was hearing the words faggot every 30 seconds in boot camp, and... I told," he said. "I was put through so much physical abuse to my body by exercise, to the point where you couldn't walk. I was torn down verbally by everybody in my platoon, my drill sergeant. But because I was such a good soldier, I was one of the top, everybody admired my courage again."
While he was being investigated, he remained the perfect solider, maintaining an office job on the base and changing people's minds.
"By the end of it, everybody had signed my platoon picture and we won honor platoon. During an honor drill, we this 15-pound rock that we called 'Private Rock' that we had to do exercises with and it was my turn and I dropped the rock on the college floor called 'No Man's Land' that you never walked in, and it chipped the floor," he said. "So, I basically abused Private Rock, and my drill sergeant who was a bald Nazi with little beady eyes who was a 13-year Infantryman said 'Get the fuck out of my face.' And I ran out and hid under a tree and cried to death, because I was afraid for my life. "And when I was doing my office duty, and I was standing there and he whispered in my ear, 'If it had been anybody else but you, I would have killed them.' And he meant it. I eventually got out on a honorable discharge."
Watkins is no longer close with his family, whom he called abusive and neglectful and has instead "created my own family of friends and loved ones." He knew he was gay since he was eight, although it became more official at 13. His older brother still resents a story Watkins love to tell.
"I made a joke that my older brother used to jump on his friends and try to butt-fuck us, to annoy us," he said. "And the thing is, that's when I started questioning my feelings of 'why was I liking this act?' I'm being sodomized, but why am I enjoying this? So, later on, when I was 20 I told him 'you're the one that made me gay' and it really pissed him off. He swore he would disown me if I ever said it again. I just think it's funny."
Watkins also had to deal with his emerging sexuality during his stay in Christian camps.
"I was in Christian camp throughout my whole youth, after my Dad died when I was 13. I would just remember being around the hunky counselors at camp, the football players, the jock-types and sleeping above them as a little teen helper," he said. "I wanted them and I remember falling in love with the New Kids On The Block, and owning the tapes ... and then burning those tapes and posters at summer camp because everyone was all 'they're faggots,' and they called me faggot. I was saying, 'No, it's not true. They're not.' But I eventually burned them and that was the hardest day of my young life, because they were my coming out experience.'
As an activist now, Watkins remembers both his own past and the recent past of gay history to keep him fueled up and active.
"I do it because I feel like it's an honor. I think about the Stonewall riots. I think about Harvey Milk. I go by the Castro by the Harvey Milk plaque and I rub my hands on it," he said. "I see the history and the people that have died of AIDS. I have friends who have died of AIDS and have HIV. I want to fight from the bottom of my heart, with my heart and my love for equality and human dignity. It's all about the heart and loving what you're doing for no personal gain whatsoever. About feeling good that you're contributing to the world and you're not getting locked in a fatalistic, daily routine, commercialized world.
"It's about the good times and the bad times. That's why I'm called the Twilight Child," he said. "I'm able to walk both in the light and in the dark, to be part of both worlds and in-between. If there's a little good, I'll create some havoc. A little chaos, I'll create some good. I'm totally neutral."
Seeing the new generation of queer youth inspires him more, although it does reinforce experiences he will never have -- such as just being a youth and able to act your age and not grow up at such an accelerated rate.
"A lot of people coming out at 14 are learning how to date, which a lot of us who are 22 and 23 didn't get the experience of in high school. We didn't take out boyfriends to the prom, or have GSAs or support groups," he said. "I think it's great they can be young, because I long for that myself."
Watkins does think, however, that more gay youth need to reach out to the older generation so gay history can be passed on.
"People need to go beyond ageism and befriend older gay males, because those are the people who were at Stonewall. They lived through the epidemic," he said. "It's important for the activists of my generation and the activists of the older generation to get together and bridge the gap, because there's a whole generation missing because of the AIDS epidemic."
And sometimes, Watkins still tries to let go every now and then, and act his age.
"If I want to unwind and feel like I'm 22, I call up my other queer youth activists and we all go do things like go to the beach, hold hands and skip through the mall, go dancing, weekend getaways.. and then we come back and do it all over again," he said. "We all integrate and go out together. But even when we do those things, we're always talking about the next rally, events or meetings."
Watkins doesn't show signs of stopping any time soon, but he said he's happy to be one of the few people who dedicate themselves wholly to activism.
"Only one percent of this nation fights for human kindness and the human spirit," he said.
We should all be glad we have people like Watkins fighting for us.
to live and dream
By Seth Watkins
there exists a place
between reality and fantasy
where I rest my weary soul
between both worlds
for traversing the streets of reality
and walking the paths of fantasy
I lack neither
strength nor creativity
but there are times
when I must escape
residing in the world
I call solitude
where I am alone
and a lover-of-myself
reality brings with it
the powers of lust and greed
pressuring me with debts
which take years to pay
and deceitful men
who desire my affection
I don't need
payments of heartbreak
I recall the addictive flavor
how the lingering-sweet-aroma
alters the mind
causing fictional dreams
to be born and come true
I mustn't require unrealistic dreams
for I am skill a part of reality
that is the focal point
the in between
where in either direction
lies a change
this is the place
where choices are made
a place not to live or dream
but to live and dream
Oasis Editor Jeff Walsh would love to hear your feedback on this article.