Feature photo updated at 2:48 p.m.
By Paulina Rojas
Being a teenager can be hard, but being a teenager who is questioning their sexual identity can be even harder. That is especially the case in communities where such topics are rarely discussed openly.
This is why Building Healthy Communities Eastern Coachella Valley partnered with the Gay Straight Alliance to host a leadership summit on Saturday, February 27 at Coachella Valley High School. The event focused on opening up conversations with the aim of fostering greater understanding of LGBTQI issues among community members.
“It is a little difficult because not many people are open,” said Alejandro Mesa Aguilar, a senior at Coachella Valley High School. He said being an LGBTQI youth in the east valley is challenging because not many people openly discuss issues of identity.
Aguilar is also part of BHC’s Youth Participatory Action Research group. He added that for many east valley youth, questions go beyond simply deciding whether or not to come out.
“There’s not many people here that are different, in the sense that they are not out or they are in the closet. It is more than just two sides,” he said. “It takes time, some people find out who they are after high school, sometimes people actually find out before.”
During the summit, which was open to all members of the community, youth were able to share their coming-out stories, while adults learned about proper gender pronouns, the gender spectrum and how to be an adult ally.
Alyssia Parks, advisor for Coachella Valley High School’s Gay Straight Alliance, also attended the summit.
“I wanted an event like this to invite my students who may be straight or who may be questioning (their sexuality) or may just not have come out yet to come and learn more about the community,” Parks said.
Parks also said it is vital for LGBTQI youth to have consistent support as they enter spaces that might be hostile towards them.
“Support, they need support in a society that is not fully accepting of them,” she said.
Saturday’s forum comes after several incidents, including the killing of Juan Ceballos in 2014. Ceballos, a 20-year-old Mecca resident and College of the Desert student, was allegedly killed by a coworker because he was gay.
For BHC-ECV, the summit presents a unique opportunity to help support a conversation about the issues facing LGBTQI youth in the eastern Coachella Valley and to provide a safe place for those youth to share their struggles.
“I think that this is an opportunity to acknowledge what an LGBTQ student is going through,” said Sahara Huazano, project coordinator at BHC-ECV. Huazano also said BHC-ECV plans to host similar events in the future.
Having conversations like these will hopefully not only encourage more community members get involved but also help LGBTQI youth feel more comfortable in their own skin.
“We want to help people know that it is okay to come out right now,” Aguilar said. “It is okay to be yourself either now or later on.”
About the author:
Paulina Rojas joined Coachella Uninc. as a beat reporter in February 2016 after working as a city reporter in the eastern Coachella Valley for more than a year. Although born and raised in New York City, Paulina feels right at home in the eastern Coachella Valley. She loves the warmth of the people and buying fresh bread from her favorite bakery in downtown Coachella. Paulina is a graduate of the University of Houston, and her work has appeared in The Las Vegas Review – Journal, The Houston Chronicle, HelloGiggles and Vivala. View her author page here.