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Queer youth movement flourishing in Santa Cruz County

Queer youth movement flourishing in Santa Cruz County
Queer youth movement flourishing in Santa Cruz County 04:18

Watsonville (CBS) -- At Watsonville High School, hundreds of students, parents, lawmakers, friends, and neighbors recently gathered to celebrate the courage of young people.

The event was the 25th annual Queer Youth Leadership Awards (QYLA). For a quarter of a century, Santa Cruz County has hosted the celebration. The goal in part is to honor LGBTQ+ students from around the region who create positive change.

As celebrants found their way into the main quad, a Mexican folk dance group known as "Estrellas de Esperanza" took the stage and performed. Traditionally the girls in the troupe wear a skirt and blouse. But In honor of the awards ceremony, all the dancers dressed in what's typically the boys' outfit: a traditional suede jacket with fringe and cowboy-style hat.

KPIX 5 was on hand to witness what could only be described as a tremendous outpouring of support, which included among the audience Rep. Jimmy Panetta (D-Carmel Valley) and state Sen. John Laird (D-Santa Cruz). Parents, teachers, students, and families sat shoulder-to-shoulder at tables decorated with rainbow flag colors.

Then it was time for the awards. There were many, including a young 8th grade trans student named Aaron who according to his biography has been a LBGTQ+ activist since 5th grade.

"I can't believe I have this chance to be recognized and in front of so many people," exclaimed Aaron as he arrived at the podium.

Aaron helps adults understand how to support queer kids. He told an anecdote about when he first came out to a relative.

"The person I came out to first was my aunt Vanessa. It was while we were in a store, and she wanted to post on her Snapchat story that she was with her niece," he said. "But I told her something along the lines of 'Can I fix it?' And I changed it to 'nephew.'

Also honored on this evening: high school senior and student body co-president Lucía who goes by the pronouns they/them/their. Among their many accomplishments, Lucía successfully lobbied for more gender-neutral bathrooms at school.

"There was no voice advocating for queer people at my school, so I became that voice, and being out and proud has really pushed me to step out of that comfort zone," noted Lucía.

For those on hand to celebrate, they told KPIX 5 that Pride month is a big deal.

"Pride to me means being able to be myself, whatever I want and not only accept my sexuality and my gender, but also accept my culture, especially as an indigenous person," explained student and activist Reyes.

A recent Gallup poll finds the proportion of U.S. adults who identify as LGBTQ+ is growing. This trend is especially true with younger generations.

The uptick is happening at a time when there's more acceptance and more legal protections against discrimination. An estimated 10% of kids ages 13-17 now identify as queer. Even so, many at this ceremony, including Reye's mother, told KPIX 5 that they sense a brewing backlash underway.

"As a parent, I joke at work that I can become a felon just being a parent and supportive to my trans child which is insane," said Reyes's mother Rachel. "I try not to think about it too much. But I'm always aware in the back of my mind that the potential for not being safe is there."

By KPIX's count, 20 states are now looking to enact some kind of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. Most specifically target transgender and nonbinary youth. The legislative push was not lost on many of the students at this event.

"Once we get our rights, we did not just get them. We still have to keep fighting for them," said co-emcee Holly.

Laird, whose Senate District 17 includes Santa Cruz and San Luis Obispo Counties along with portions of Monterey and Santa Clara Counties, told the gathering that state lawmakers have a plan.

"We are in the process of declaring California a haven for trans kids so that people will know there is a safe space," said Laird.

The party ended with a serenade by the 2022 QYLA Queer Youth Choir and a sense of optimism in the air.

"I am hopeful that with this pushback against LGBT people there will be an equal and opposite reaction if not more," said Holly. "Because we are just people, and we just want to live like everyone else can. And no attempt to legislate us out of existence is going to work."

Each award winner received $500 to donate to a favorite charity. These charities were announced throughout the night and included a nonprofit organization dedicated to those suffering from an incurable genetic disease known as Huntington's disease, a literacy program for incarcerated youth, a local pride parade, and a suicide helpline for LGBTQ+ kids.

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