The sunrise was beautiful as the large bus carrying me and 32 others made its way to the Youth Empowerment Summit (YES) at Mission High School in San Francisco on Saturday the 15th.
I was much too tired to enjoy it however (the bus was scheduled to leave at 6:30 a.m. and so naturally I woke up at about 6:15), and I cheered with significantly less enthusiasm than the other high school students as we welcomed new schools onto the bus.
All together, we had kids from Aptos High, New School, Watsonville High, Pajaro Valley High and North County. There was also another bus that was carrying students from Harbor High, San Lorenzo Valley High, Scotts Valley High, Santa Cruz High, AFE, Pacific Collegiate School, and Soquel High.
These two buses were provided by a private donor and organized by the two largest districts in our county. Even I, as dead-tired as I was, could feel the infectiousness of the excitement that radiated out from the back of the bus (and may or may not have grumpily tried to swat it away).
The YES conference is a large annual conference of Gay-Straight Alliance Network from northern California, organized by GSAs and attended by students, teens, and adults from all over. When we pulled up in front of the beautiful Mission High I was feeling much better, and walked off our bus with as much enthusiasm as the others.
We moved into the lobby with a crowd of talkative kids from other schools and everyone registered at the front desk before moving down the hallway lined with tables. Set up at each booth were various support groups that offered pamphlets, protection, and information about where various meetings were held in the city.
I grabbed a welcome bag full of information about the sessions planned with everyone else as I headed into the beautiful large auditorium. The room was nearly full with kids that shouted across to their friends and cheered the stage hand that occasionally crossed in front of them.
I sat near the back to take it all in, and leafed through the schedule, as a student I was the only journalist allowed to take part in the workshops, and as such had to choose between which ones to attend.
The day seemed to be split up into five sessions, each one about an hour and a half long, and there were a variety of workshops to choose from in each session. Before I had a chance to decide on one though, the presentation started. Five teenagers sat around a table and shared their stories of the trials and tribulations that went with passing through high school as an LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) youth.
One had to transfer schools because of bullying without any administrative help; another almost dropped out of high school altogether. Each story they told had one common, underlying theme: that the school system had failed them, but they chose to rise above it and succeed in spite of it.
The entire time they talked there was an unprecedented silence over the crowd. I go to high school, I have attended assemblies, and never in all of my life in school have I seen such attention, respect, and quiet from such a large group of teenagers. I think it was then that I really understood just how powerful the YES event was, and how relevant it was to all of these kids' lives.
After the speakers were done there was a huge cheer that would've gone on for twice as long had we not been told it was time to go to the first session.
Still undecided on where to go, I followed the throng up the stairs and asked the first group of kids I saw where they were going. They told me that I should go with them to something called "Big Tobacco and Queerphobia", and honestly, how could I resist a title like that?
We made our way to the classroom (passing bathrooms marked "gender neutral") and took our seats. We were the first ones there, later joined by a couple of kids who I learned were from Pittsburgh (one of them wore a pink shirt that declared "I'm so gay I shit rainbows" which I should've recognized then as an omen of what was to come).
Running the presentation armed with nothing but a PowerPoint to entertain the 10 of us for the next two hours was a man and a woman. They kicked off the workshop with introductions and then dived right in.
The next hour was pictures paired with statistics. They depicted smoking advertisements that clearly targeted LGBTQ youth, and discussed how and why large corporations do this. I found the presentation very interesting, and the statistics were frightening enough, however there were a few examples that I found a bit too like a conspiracy theory.
We saw side-by-side comparisons of advertisements in different magazines: one had a man smoking his cigarette while looking down at the beach where a woman lay tanning, the other was the same, except for in the foreground was a shirtless muscular man who stared back at the smoking one.
At the end we filled out feedback surveys (these were filled out at the end of every session) and then were handed glossy squares of paper showing a flow chart titled: "How We Screw Ourselves", displaying how we promote this LGBTQ targeting by tobacco corporations unknowingly.
Afterwards I got to attend an open forum in one of the classrooms. This was open exclusively to students, and there were several classrooms holding them at once, each divided up by location.
As a Santa Cruz High School student I got to attend, and while I can't report exactly what was said, I can comment on the remarkable openness I saw there.
Throughout the YES event I witnessed a comfortability of the students and a security that I have never seen before in any high school. This forum was open to everyone, and while there was a teen facilitator offering questions for us to discuss, for the most part the conversation carried itself. I was amazed at how receptive the group was to others ideas and how willing they were to participate in the conversation.
It was in this forum I met a trio from Pioneer High School in San Jose. They are three of the most remarkable and impressive young adults I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. I joined them as we all moved down to the cafeteria, and, since all of the tables were full, we sat down on the floor to talk.
I asked them where they were from and why they were here. They (like many others attending) were students who ran and participated in their own high school's GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance).
It wasn’t long before our group of four became one of eight, and then twelve. Students welcomed strangers into their folds with open arms, and with these people I have never met nobody felt embarrassed or closed off. We discussed sexuality, difficulties in high school, and I asked the trio about what it was like to run a GSA.
"Well, we hold it every Wednesday at lunch," said Isobel, a sophomore from Pioneer High. "And we usually just try and have a topic or something."
She looks towards her friends for help to explain what they do.
"A lot of people ask what we've accomplished," said a junior who wished to remain anonymous. "It's not about accomplishment though, I think it's more about having a safe space and environment for others."
And if there is one thing the YES conference excels at, it's making the kids who attend feel comfortable and safe. After we finished our lunch (which was provided for free by the staff), they told me I should definitely attend the Safe Sex for Queers session, and I obliged.
This was hands down, the most fun class I have ever taken. The teacher, Luis, was the most relatable, engaging and charismatic teacher that I have ever encountered. This workshop was better than any high school health class I have ever heard of, and it was more helpful and informative than any as well.
It was such an open forum, every kid respected the teacher and each others' questions without any undue laughter. The topics we covered ranged from what makes sex consensual, to what makes it safe; from what makes it fun on an emotional and healthy level, to what the different STDs, STIs and other diseases can be caught. It was helpful and just downright amazing.
Never before have I seen students so thoroughly engaged and give so much respect to a speaker.
That's what really struck a chord with me, the fact that these students received respect from adults and returned it as well. If we saw more high schools like this, with a feeling of equality between pupil and teacher, rather than the admonishing and sometimes domineering effect teachers project, I think we would be much more productive.
Once the sessions ended, there was a closing address in the auditorium. The day had been long, but it didn’t seem as though anyone was ready to leave. Luckily, though the workshops were over, the speakers had left, and all the adults besides the chaperones had disappeared, my fellow students and I still had one more event: the dance.
It was the ultimate ending to an enlightening day. The cafeteria had been cleared of tables and filled with the throng of students and a DJ that did a great job, and even a drag show for the transgender students attending.
It was so great to see all of these teens – some of whom would return on Monday to a school that ostracized them; some to a family that didn’t accept them; and others to a home that didn’t know them – just completely let loose in a crowd.
They weren’t afraid of everyone else seeing them dance with someone of the same gender, or dance by themselves, because they knew that here they could be completely themselves. They could share their pain with people who understood and knew what it was like; they could finally relax without worrying about what others would think if they saw the scars on their wrists; they could be them, wholly and completely them.
Here, they discovered they were perfect.