By Alex C. Villafuerte
We hear far too many in our community talk about how “easy kids have it these days,” but the reality is that the hyper-polarized political climate our country is experiencing affects our youngest as well. When media outlets take time to disparage our community, those sentiments are parroted back to our youth by family, friends at school, faculty, and institutions of faith — so much so that more than 70% of all LGBTQ youth report being verbally harassed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Bullying and harassment can surge when election cycles ramp up “gaybaiting” tactics like we’ve seen in San Diego recently, and when anti-LGBTQ bills are introduced and reported on by the media, like the bill seeking to criminalize drag queens reading books to children in Missouri. Our youth needs more safe spaces to be able to be themselves and take pride in who they are.
In 2012, LGBTQ youth volunteers asked us to create a Youth Leadership Academy (YLA) designed just for them, so they could begin to be their own agents of change. The one-day academy brings youth together from across the region to engage, educate, and inspire our youngest leaders. From there, YLA was used as a launching point, and those youth came back to envision their own programs while San Diego Pride committed to securing the funds, volunteers, and space to make those programs happen.
Lunch Bunch was born, a place where youth from around the region come together every second Saturday of the month to form their own programs and curriculum, to develop as young leaders, and to simply enjoy a cost-free and stress-free lunch surrounded by their LGBTQ peers. Our motto is “You can sit with us.” In 2019, the youth decided to update Lunch Bunch’s name to the Pride Youth Collective in the spirit of coming together from across the county to continue building community and capacity for themselves. We were also approached by the McCarthy Foundation, which helped us fund our first youth programs coordinator, M. Valladolid, to help oversee and grow our programs.
Our youth leaders continue to ask for more opportunities, which is how “Fridays at Pride” came to be. This weekly event is a space where youth get together at the end of the week to check in with each other at the Pride office, assist each other with homework, and continue to invite other queer youth into the programs.
Some of the programs created out of discussions during Fridays at Pride are our annual youth events including the Youth Art Show. The youth sought to showcase young local LGBTQ artists using art as a positive form of expression and as a tool for advocacy. Artists are asked to submit their personal interpretation of our annual theme, which in 2020 is “Together We Rise.” On March 14, these young artists will host a reception at the Pride building and welcome our community to enjoy their hard work and creative vision.
Our youth leaders work year-round to plan our youth programs, including our youth events during Pride weekend, ensuring our youth have a space to call their own. At the parade, we have our Pride Youth Marching Band, which brings together youth from all over Southern California. To this day, it is still the only queer youth marching band and color guard in the country. They are a consistent crowd favorite and even perform at OUT at the Park with the San Diego Padres, at San Diego Unified School District events, and at our Spirit of Stonewall Rally. We also have student-led school organizations march together in our Gay-Straight Alliance/Gender-Sexuality Alliance (GSA) contingent. At the festival, high school-aged youth and younger enjoy free admission into the festival and even have a space to call their own: The Youth Zone. This space is solely for youth with resources and events designed just for them.
Recently, in partnership with the San Diego Women’s Chorus and artistic director Lindsey Deaton, San Diego Pride helped start the San Diego Queer Youth Chorus. They’ve performed at Light Up the Cathedral, the San Diego Pride Festival, and are joining Jason Mraz in February for his concert at Spreckels Theatre!
What started with a handful of youth asking for support has grown into robust year-round youth programs. Last year, we were able to host more than 3,300 youth visits. I couldn’t be more proud of our young leaders and the intergenerational efforts that support them. Their collective efforts create intentional space for our youth to revel in found family, build capacity, and unapologetically indulge in being radically and absolutely 100% their true authentic selves. That is Pride. That is how “Together We Rise.”