Every year, the Colin Higgins Foundation grants three Youth Courage Awards to acknowledge young people fostering the next generation of LGBT leadership. This year, all three honorees have two things in common: they all have come out as LGBT and undocumented.
“The foundation took a stance and gave voice to this intersection of underserved communities,” said Stephanie Hartka, the philanthropic advisor at Tides, the Award’s non-profit fiscal sponsor. “It’s called the Youth Courage Award because these kids are immensely courageous in all they have overcome based on their sexual orientation, gender identity and national origin.”
This weekend all three LGBT youth selected for the award will be honored at NYC’s LGBTQ Pride Weekend. They will be awarded $10,000 to do whatever they want — whether they decide to continue their activism or go to school.
We talked to each of the honorees to find out more about their activism and find out their plans for their grants.
Katharine Tabares Guerrero, 18, Colombia/Queens, N.Y.
“Since I moved to the U.S. I have been involved in social movements like with LGBT youth and immigration policy,” Guerrero says. “I worked with immigration groups and was part of the Youth Power Project where we take on leadership in issues I want to talk about.”
With Make the Road New York (MRNY) and the Queer and Undocumented Immigration Project (QUIP), Guerrero has been looking and fighting for issues on the intersectionality between LGBT rights and immigration. To name specific progress, Guerrero helped pass a bill that extends the asylum for transgender individuals coming into the U.S.
“LGBT people who were looking for asylum only had one year before they become undocumented. Many don’t know they have to apply so soon,” Guerrero says. “These people are on the run from their countries because they fear what could happen to them there because of the way they identify.”
With the grant, Guerrero will be able to focus on a new career at Hunter College in New York. Guerrero will be studying political science.
“Our communities have been oppressed for so long,” Guerrero says. “We have to stand up and take advantage of these beautiful identities and realize we are beautiful when we take time to empower ourselves.”
Alan Pelaez, 20, Mexico City/Waltham, Mass.
“I have been a community organizer for 4-and-a-half years, working primarily with undocumented communities, advocating for them, and testifying at the state house,” Pelaez says. “Three summers ago, Massachusetts passed amendments that could have hurt so many undocumented youth, so I slept outside of the State House for 11 nights in protest.”
While living in Waltham, Mass., Alan has also worked extensively with QUIP and has made strides towards raising awareness for undocumented people in detention centers.
“We took control of a highway outside of a detention center for three hours so everyone inside could see us protesting,” he said. “They began to write letters on their windows so we could look up their case files.
As a result, Pelaez says the group found a transgender immigrant who had been in the detention center for 7 years, 5 of which were in solitary confinement. He said they got in touch with some lawyers to see if there was anything to could do to get him out.
Pelaez will continue attending Fairfield University in Connecticut thanks to the grant he received for his activism, where he plans to continue fighting for LGBT rights.
“Right now I am working on reaching out to the Latino community to talk about queer issues and a lot of our efforts are going into spaces that are not accepting of varying sexual orientation,” he says. “It has been hard, but it is something that has to be done.”
Isaias Vasquez, 21, Mexico/Denver
“Shortly after I came out as undocumented, my friends also came out and made it public,” Vasquez says. “We formed a small group in school where we advocated together to get a counselor to work 100 percent of their time to work with undocumented students to get scholarships.”
A self-proclaimed DREAMer, he works to help undocumented youth find scholarships. After interviewing more than 200 students in his highschool, he found that 50 percent of his high school’s student body was undocumented. He also worked extensively advocating for the DREAM Act.
“Even though we lost in the Senate, we still felt we have never reached such a far point in immigration in 30 years,” he says. “I joined a national group called United We Dream. That’s where we started thinking about what’s next for us.”
Vasquez said he is also working to help change policy that does not allow undocumented people to obtain a driver’s license.
“We are trying to do a policy change to change the local police,” he says. “With so much racial profiling going on, broken taillights and minor traffic offenses puts you in immigration procedures and affects your families for something that is not a huge crime or big offense.”