Feature: United by Strength

Gay youth face down climate of fear

LGBTQ+ activists and advocates in the North Bay and across the country are confronting feelings of despair brought on by the current administration.

By Tom Gogola

As an increasingly disgraced White House bullies its way from one feckless and embarrassing outrage to the next, LGBTQ+ activists and advocates in the North Bay and across the country are grappling with the same sense of despair that hangs in the air for many Americans.

For the LGBTQ+ communities of the North Bay, advocates already face fallout from Trump’s ramped-up deportation efforts, of special concern in a rural region that lacks the queer-dedicated resources of San Francisco, and where LGBTQ+ noncitizens face a cruel double- or triple-vulnerability—to be young, undocumented and gay.

Kerry Graser is a licensed counselor in Marin County whose patients include trans teenagers, who she says are the most vulnerable among the LGBT+ clients that she sees. She has a private practice and also works at The Spahr Center in San Rafael. In advance of this article, she asked two of her clients, who are 14 and 15 years old, to talk about their fears and concerns in the present environment—and was surprised at what they told her.

“My answer on behalf of them would have been, ‘All of this hate speech, and this lack of inhibition for people to say whatever they want to whomever they want—it’s frightening. But, it’s not an issue for them or they didn’t say it was.’”

Instead, one of the trans teens emphasized climate change, and the United States’ deteriorating relationship with most of the world—that client basically expressed and channeled “the general population’s concerns,” Graser says.

The teens are also coming of age in an era of state-sanctioned misinformation and the looming charge of “fake news!” at any and every turn of the road to Russia and/or ruin, not to mention reams of online information of dubious reliability. “There’s a lot of ‘What I hear is going on … ,” Graser says of youth who are engaging with the menace in the White House.

The other student’s concerns were around the administration’s health-care bill, and what he had heard insofar as its back-pedaling on birth control coverage. “He was concerned that, if you can’t access birth control through [the American Health Care Act]—what if you are taking puberty blockers or testosterone?”

And Graser noted that her client, while acknowledging that the issue isn’t particularly controversial in California, said that North Carolina and Texas’ freak-outs over bathrooms and who can use them, is high on the list of concerns and fears.

Other LGBT+ youth in the region may also experience the threat of deportation as part of their set of intersecting vulnerabilities.

“I’m not living that experience, but there is already a huge sense of fear, of being LGBT-identified, and then this huge undercurrent of being deported. It creates a whole different dynamic for an individual and a culture,” says Javier Rivera-Rosales, program director of Positive Images in Santa Rosa, an advocacy and outreach group that works with LGBTQ+ youth from around Sonoma County. “It jeopardizes stability and rootedness … this is the only thing they know; this is their home.”

Rivera-Rosales highlights the difficulty in out-front advocacy and outreach in the current climate of fear, where some undocumented LGBTQ+’s retreat to isolation or loneliness. Others become empowered and speak out. “People who don’t disclose their status are still speaking out and being that advocate,” Rivera-Rosales says. Even still, he continues, “one of the biggest things I see is that fear component.”

Youth facing deportation are also ensnared in cultural and familial issues. “What is your relation to your family and your friends to your queerness, your gender identity, your sexual orientation?” he asks. “I know folks personally that don’t feel safe in either category.”

That sense of fear is something that Eric Sawyer can speak to as one of the founders of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP) in the 1980s. The lifelong HIV/AIDS and human rights worker is pessimistic about the state of the union as he tees off in a phone interview from New York about a country that has “actually elected someone who has no qualifications whatsoever to be the [president] of the United States and is bringing with him a cadre of imbeciles and incompetent pilferers. Self-absorbed me-me-me vacuum cleaners trying to dry the world of every natural resource, anything of value to enrich themselves.”

ACT-UP’s media-savvy activism spurred public attention and worldwide action that helped save Sawyer’s life and those of countless others during the height of the AIDS epidemic.

Sawyer says the feeling of despair in the air is very much like the early days of ACT-UP as an indifferent and/or homophobic media and political class wrote off the deaths as isolated incidents, while “a plague [was] decimating the gay community and IV drug users and other vulnerable groups.”

The difference between now and then was that during the Reagan era, for all of its flaws and faults, the vulnerable and already-trampled weren’t also dealing with “the widespread degradation of American society, the rule of law and our government,” Sawyer adds. “It’s clear that some of these pariahs that are in the White House for whatever reason, really want to collapse society … I don’t understand why there is not revolution in the streets.”

An earlier generation of gay men faced down a flatly homophobic culture as they took the first steps out of the closet. Emmy Award-winning filmmaker John Scagliotti came out of a 1960s anti-war generation that broke numerous social and cultural barriers to pave the way for a nation where, a half century after the 1969 Stonewall riots, gay marriage is now a constitutionally protected right. At least for now. Scagliotti was an activist during a period when life and death for many young people was answered through the question of whether they’d be sent to Vietnam or not. His Before Stonewall is one of several films he made that details LGBTQ+ history in the United States.

Scagliotti says that despite the urgent depravity of the current spectacle underway in Washington, he’s not convinced that America is cracking up under the strain of its multiple ailments as he considers whether ACT-UP–style activism—confrontational, media-savvy and unrelenting—is a product of the times.

“I don’t feel we are there yet,” he says. “ACT-UP came out of a real sense of horror. Everyone was dying. And I don’t feel, as much as [the current president] is kind of bad, vulgar and ridiculous and silly, and rounding up Mexicans, but so did Obama—I don’t think people feel it yet. Maybe on climate change, young people might feel that. That’s the closest thing. That’s what ACT-UP is from, so there is a possibility there, the shared sense of existential despair,” he says.

Ian Stanley is the 38-year-old program director of LGBTQ Connection in Napa, a multi-services outreach group focused on youth advocacy and activism. He cites the paucity of services for Spanish-speaking LGBTQ+ residents as one of several gaps his organization tries to fill in a rural region with many noncitizens and other LGBTQ+ youth. The organization was founded to support young trans-persons, he said, “and especially the youth who are least likely to be connected or to find support.”

Stanley’s organization is expanding into Sonoma Valley and Calistoga in the coming months. “California has a buffer of protection,” he says, “but the rhetoric is creating fear” for young trans people and immigrant communities alike.

“As our program has grown, we have definitely had to pay attention to our role in the community and the approaches we take,” Stanley says.

But after studying the history of the LGBTQ+ community and the role ACT-UP played, he now sees “undocumented LGBTs who are really at the forefront and pushing action and change—pushing fair and just immigration reform. They are much more at the forefront. It pushes you to the life-or-death model.”

Graser at The Spahr Center notes that in her capacity as a specialist in the LGBT+ community, and especially with teenagers, that the good news is gay, lesbian and bisexual youth, by and large “feel supported and accepted. In this community, most parents are accepting and trying to understand.”

Marin’s LGBTQ+ community and allies are invited to a Pride Picnic, organized by The Spahr Center, on Saturday, June 17, 11:30am to 2pm, at the Marin Civic Center Lagoon Park; for more information, contact Jennifer Malone at 415/457-2487, x-104.


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