Emma Hawkins. Courtesy of Rebecca Starks Photography.

The Queer Youth Leadership Awards (QYLA) celebrated queer youth throughout Santa Cruz County in light of the awards’ 15th annual anniversary, which took place at Shoreline Middle School.

On May 12, the QYLA congratulated the awardees and nominees for the 2012 Queer Youth Leadership Awards. There were three award categories: the Queer Youth Leadership Award, the Ally to Queer Youth Award and the Organizational Ally to Queer Youth. The awards aim to honor today’s queer youth leaders and their allies across the city and county of Santa Cruz and have done so since 1998.

The Queer Youth Leadership Awards is composed of the Santa Cruz County Task Force for LGBTIQ Youth. The Task Force, also known as the Queer Youth Task Force (QYTF), is an affiliate of the Diversity Center, a community center which serves the LGBT community of Santa Cruz County.

Soquel High School Senior and QYLA awardee Emma Hawkins was awarded “The Queer Youth Leadership Award” for reviving the Gay-Straight Alliance on her campus by positively engaging not just LGBT youth, but all students.

Hawkins said she was motivated to engage herself in GSA as well as many extracurriculars to support students who struggled like her.

“I was never really accepted by other kids,” Hawkins said. “After being a part of GSA, I felt like I could be myself and embrace it. I wanted the same for other people who were on the edge and felt like they don’t matter. I felt like I made a difference even though this was just my first year of being involved.”

QYTF chair Stuart Rosenstein said he hopes the awards have a wide effect.

“We want to inspire parents and grandparents who have closeted kids. It’s important for them to know it’s OK to be openly gay,” Rosenstein said. “We don’t always get the opportunity to highlight most of these kids, straight kids too. We don’t even know who they all are. I wish we could identify everyone who is involved.”

Rosenstein said that in highlighting young, open members of the LGBTQ community and their allies, it’s important to address how in celebrating these active members of the community, there are still members who live in fear regardless of their sexuality. He said though discrimination may come in different forms, it causes the same negative effects in alienating people.

Rosenstein experienced firsthand the disconnection caused by prejudices.

“When I was in middle school I was bullied,” Rosenstein said. “Now as an adult I have the opportunity to move into a community that has done the work in fighting for LGBT rights. I was able to pick up and follow in the footsteps of this community.”

UCSC alum and QYLA coordinator Lex Beatty was inspired to partake in the community after being a victim of a hate crime in January.

“The healing process was ugly, but I made it,” Beatty said. “I had an emotional recovery, not to make it dramatic. I saw how intense this was. I wanted to give queer youth something to believe in. We’ve come a long way, but the reality is that we are still having a push back and it comes down to our kids. They pay the price.”

The QYLA hopes to expand in the near future to other cities, hoping to mark the lives of more young leaders and allies.

“The QYLAs are what I call a legacy event,” Beatty said. “We have not had a shared history that you’ve been able to make a legacy or young leaders shape Santa Cruz, but with these kinds of events you are building the future.”