A group of high school students stepped up – and out – to be leaders in Calistoga and in their LGBTQ community with the launch of a new team and support group based at the high school.
“This is the first Youth Leadership Team (YLT) in Calistoga. The purpose of our YLT is to connect youth to resources and safe spaces, and also a place where youth can grow to be leaders in their lives and communities,” said Eduardo Rivera, program coordinator for LGBTQ Connection. “This cohort of youth leaders are rolling out our programs and developing them so that come January our programs will be in full force. They are in charge of getting folks to our LGBTQ Support Groups, setting times and locations, being part of our trainings,” and “creating events for the Calistoga community.”
The Youth Leadership Team includes four current Calistoga High School students joined by a former student who came back to Calistoga to support and mentor the youth. Their first project as the YLT was to establish a mission, set up regular meeting times and roll out the program.
Their hope and mission is to provide a place where they, and others in the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer or Questioning) have a safe place where they are accepted, where they can be “authentic,” and be themselves without worry of judgment or criticism, the students said.
To reach that goal the YLT will organize events that will be inclusive of the diverse LGBTQ community reaching out to multiple generations, ethnicities and anyone who identifies in any way of the LGBTQ community, Rivera said. It may come in the form of trainings, dances, retreats or other events that are “inclusive, vibrant and diverse.”
The student leaders said they have all faced “backlash” or rejection from family for who they are inside, for identifying as LGBTQ.
Rejection, Rivera said, has serious implications to LGBTQ youth.
“(LGBTQ) youth who are rejected, they’re 8 times more likely to attempt suicide, 6 times more likely to report higher levels of depression, 3 times more likely to use illicit drugs, 3 times more likely to get a HIV or an STI,” according to studies, he said. “That’s the impact of rejection.”
Drew Martin, a ninth-grader who is on the YLT, said youth have a “hard enough” time figuring it all out and being on the receiving end of negativity “can lead to drastic things, and you don’t want to be the cause of that,” he said adding that LGBTQ people “should be able to express themselves.”
Stereotypes about LGBTQ people are hurtful, the YLT said.
“Know me for me, know us for us. Don’t let what we are define who we are,” said Sophia Winslow, 11th grade.
It’s especially tough for transgender people, said Matt Boyadjieff, who graduated from Calistoga High School three years ago and joins the YLT group as a young adult leader and mentor.
“Within the LGBTQ community there are groups of people that are more stigmatized than like gay and lesbian (cisgender) people. Because trans people get a lot of stigma just for existing. It’s very tiring,” he said. “When we have places like support groups like this that we can come to and be authentic I think that’s something special.”
Groups such as this are places where he said he doesn’t have to worry that people are “making assumptions and stereotypes” about who he is without even knowing him. “It’s refreshing to come into an environment like this and know I won’t get judged for that,” he said.
Each YLT member came to the group, to be leaders, in a different way, but the underlying theme was finding a place of acceptance and understanding and looking to broaden that scope.
Tenth-grader Sarah Mutz learned about the opportunity through the school’s Gay Straight Alliance Club.
“I personally get a sense of safety out of it. I don’t have to worry about anything,” she said.
For Winslow, being a YLT member was less about the social camaraderie and more of the big picture.
“It is a chance for me to be a part of something bigger than just myself, because I don’t join a lot of clubs, I’m not a real social butterfly. I like to stay within my group of friends, my group of teachers. I don’t usually branch outside of that. This is a chance for me to branch outside of that, to meet people who are different than me, but we also have something in common, which is this group. It’s just a chance for me to be a part of something larger than just this small town and this small school and this small group of friends, this is bigger than that,” she said.
Kalynn Taylor, 12th grade, said he went through “a lot of emotions” when he “came out of the closet,” and tried to deal with those emotions on his own because it was too painful to discuss with just anyone.
“I didn’t want to open up in front of people because I just didn’t want to be judged,” he said. And he was excited to learn about LGBTQ Connection, but at the time the group only existed in Napa. Rivera said state funding allowed the organization to expand to Calistoga where by working with the school and UpValley Family Centers they learned there was interest and need.
For Taylor the group has become a “second home” and a place of acceptance. It’s something he and the other YLT members want to bring to others in their LGBTQ school community, and to the greater Calistoga community.