By BTL Staff
LANSING – LaJoya Johnson, a Michigan State University student, is one of five individuals being honored for advocating for positive social change for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer and questioning community. To recognize her acts of courage, the Colin Higgins Foundation has awarded her with its fifth-annual Courage Awards. Faced with incredible challenges such as tragic death, brutal hate crimes and political struggles, each winner has taken a personal stance against ignorance and discrimination to make a difference in both their local communities and the world.
The Colin Higgins Courage Awards are given each year to acknowledge ordinary but remarkable individuals who refuse to be silenced by societal norms, demonstrating amazing courage when confronted with hardship, intolerance and bigotry based on sexual orientation.
“LaJoya epitomizes resilience and a willingness to speak out for traditionally underserved communities. She has endured overwhelming hate and hostility, yet has handled herself with honor and grace as she educates and enlightens others about the LGBTQQ experience,” said Catalina Ruiz-Healy, philanthropic advisor at Tides Foundation and the Colin Higgins Foundation manager.
Johnson, an African-American lesbian, has risen above the adversity around her to advocate for change. Through her influential voice, she’s working to bridge the gap between people of color and the LGBTQQ community at MSU. “I’m glad I can be a voice for both,” Johnson said.
Johnson has put a personal face on students of color at a predominantly white school and continues to advocate for education and equality for sexual orientation. Intolerance in her life was felt early on when she was disowned by her father because of her sexuality. Unashamed of who she was, LaJoya made a personal commitment to advocate equal rights for communities traditionally underserved. She organized the first-ever candlelight vigil on the MSU campus and spearheaded an online petition gathering 3,000 signatures for a moment of silence in Newark public schools, all to honor the life of Sakia Gunn, an African-American lesbian from New Jersey who was the victim of a hate crime. Sakia was someone LaJoya had never met, but felt compelled to recognize.
To further their advocacy and educational efforts, the recipients of the 2004 Colin Higgins Courage Awards received a grant of $5,000 and a scholarship to attend the 17th Annual National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Creating Change Conference.
Other 2004 Courage Award winners include:
Louay Ghonaym: Being gay is illegal in Lebanon, so when Ghonaym came out to his parents, he feared someone would kill him, even his father. He fled to the U.S. and applied for political asylum. Ghonaym is now a powerful gay student activist on a predominantly Mormon campus in Salt Lake City, Utah. He is teaching others about the similarities and differences between the Muslim and Mormon religions and educating his fellow students on LGBTQQ issues at the University of Utah’s LGBT Resource Center.
Stephen Funk: Not willing to die for something he did not believe in, Funk took a stand. He defended personal attacks last year to become the first conscientious objector to the war in Iraq. Facing harsh criticism for both his opposition to the war and his sexual orientation, he did not back down. Instead he rose to the challenge and began educating others and speaking about his decision at many anti-war protests in the Bay Area. At home in San Francisco, Calif., he continues to advocate for peace and LGBTQQ issues.
Steven Alicea: As a gay foster child, many families tried to “cure” his homosexuality. In his 17 years, Alicea’s inability to be “cured” has led to 17 different foster homes. Since he was adopted by a lesbian couple in 2003, he has been educating foster parents about gay youth and has helped place many kids in loving and accepting homes. Living in Miami, Fla., he educates his peers about issues the LGBTQQ community faces through his involvement as a youth representative of the Florida State Commissions, board member of Pridelines Youth Services and founder of Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network in his high school.
Sylvia Guerrero: Her 17-year-old transgendered daughter, Gwen Araujo, was murdered just a few houses away from her home in Newark, Calif. The first trial ended in a mistrial, and she awaits a new one in May. Her hope is that others can learn through her tragedy; that one person’s life may be saved because of her loss. Since Gwen’s death, Guerrero has become a mentor to transgender youth and travels around the country to educate communities about transgender issues and advocate change.
Colin Higgins, screenwriter, director and producer of films such as “Harold and Maude” and “Nine to Five,” established the Colin Higgins Foundation in 1986 to further his humanitarian goals. In addition to the Courage Awards, the Foundation supports numerous LGBTQQ organizations, ranging from the GLSEN to LGBT outreach and AIDS prevention programs. The Foundation focuses on organizations and projects that work with LGBTQQ youth; geographically underserved communities, such as rural and reservation communities; and demographically underserved communities, such as communities of color, transgender communities, and low-income communities. To learn more, visit www.colinhiggins.org.