Click Here!

Riot for change

By |2018-01-16T10:02:58-05:00February 19th, 2009|News|

by Jessica Carreras

Almost every day, Yoni Siden would go to Pioneer High in Ann Arbor and be pelted with fruit. Calls of ‘fag’ followed him in the halls. Classmates teased him endlessly. Students in cars would run him off the road.
And he’s not alone.
For the lucky ones, being a teenager is about hanging out with friends, practicing grammar and memorizing history, getting a license and getting into trouble. First loves, first heartbreaks and a lot of learning.
But for LGBT youth, the picture is not always so carefree.
Instead, they go to school and face name-calling and harassment around every corner, apathetic teachers who look the other way and guidance counselors who don’t offer comfort or solutions.
As the anti-bullying legislation that can help these kids languishes in the hands of Michigan legislators, some youth – like Siden – are taking matters into their own hands.
In 1999, the Neutral Zone of Ann Arbor, then just an infant of an organization for teens, began a program called Riot Youth. The goal was simple: To give LGBT and questioning youth a safe space to explore, learn and meet other teens just like them. Over the last decade, the group of fewer than 10 kids hanging out and socializing has turned into over 30 teens that are heading the LGBT movement toward change.
In 2006, that itch for activism came to fruition with a survey that, over the next two years, would come to show the truth about bullying, harassment and being LGBT from the eyes of over 1,100 Ann Arbor youth. Begun by Siden and carried on by his predecessors at Riot Youth, the survey results were finally revealed last Thursday night. At an open house and performance at the Neutral Zone, Riot Youth showcased not only their findings, but also how bright and driven LGBT youth can really be.

“It was freshman year and I had recently come out, like completely out of the closet,” recalled Riot Youth facilitator Sterling Field, 17. “I was looking around for friends anywhere so I could find people who were gay, because as far as I could tell, no one in high school was. I was feeling pretty lonely.”
Field’s story is one echoed by LGBT youth everywhere. With new knowledge about their sexuality, teens look for people who would accept and understand them, and friends they can relate to. For the fortunate teens of the Ann Arbor area, Riot Youth provides an answer.
Riot Youth is comprised of 30 or so teens from various Ann Arbor schools who meet on Friday nights at the Neutral Zone. Some come every week, while others drop by occasionally. New members come in once or twice a month, and find the mood to be very accepting.
“Being LGBT and being in middle school or high school is kind of like being on your own deserted island,” explained Field. “There’s nowhere else to go. Luckily, Riot Youth is a great resource.”
Every week, it’s something new. Last week, they brought in a speaker from the HIV/AIDS Resource Center of Ypsilanti to talk about safe sex. They host a Queer Prom every spring, help schools to form Gay-Straight Alliances and even have their own theater troupe, Gayrilla Theater.
Now, they’re talking about plans to get involved with anti-bullying legislation, and possibly even making a trip to Lansing to lobby for Matt’s Safe Schools.
Whether it’s eating pizza or planning activist activities, the kids of Riot Youth have drive that could make a lobbyist envious – and parents nervous.
“My dad worries that my activist lifestyle is going to make me a target for harassment,” said Katie Strode, a 16-year-old Huron High School junior. “But being an activist and fighting for safer schools and everything that I do is what I’m passionate about.”

Passion, for Riot Youth, is a way of life.
While some kids are worried about getting their licenses or scoring a date to homecoming, Strode and others are making names for themselves in the world of activism. Several of them raised funds to send themselves to the Creating Change Conference in Denver, and Strode attended the Gay and Lesbian Straight Education Network’s Youth of Color Conference.
What she and the others saw was that the need for youth input is crucial.
“I think we bring an important perspective because there’s a whole bunch of adults sitting around talking about how they can better our situation,” Strode said of Creating Change. “Collaboration in required in the LGBT community to move anything forward. The movement is all led by people out of college and that means they’re missing the perspective of future leaders.”
“We’re the ones who the laws will actually protect or hurt, so we need to make our opinions known,” agreed Field. “Otherwise, people don’t know what we want.”
The adults who work with and mentor Riot Youth, including everyone from University of Michigan graduate students to social workers to Triangle Foundation staff, admit to being awestruck by the determination and maturity of the teens. As a result, they say, the future of LGBT activism looks brighter.
“I think it really shows that the LGBT movement has young people who are just as strong of advocates as any other community,” said Triangle Youth Coordinator Brett Beckerson, who often works with Riot Youth. “Maybe even stronger.”
“There’s a few youth there who would literally blow you away with how engaged they are at 16 and how much they do and how much they’ve already accomplished and what their life goals are,” he added.
For the youth, however, activism and getting ahead seems more like a lifestyle than a chore. Some are even involved in green living or discrimination projects at the Neutral Zone, while others serve on the board, or run their high school GSAs.
Some admit to spending all of their free time at the Neutral Zone, and others have even begun relationships with fellow Riot Youth members.
Whatever the case, they all agree that Riot Youth is essential to their well being as young adults.
“Riot Youth is terribly important,” Field stressed. “Without it, I probably wouldn’t be here.”

But beyond companionship and help through tough times, Riot Youth are eager to find a way to make high school easier for all bullied teens. Field, Strode and the other youth hope that their work on the survey will help make school a safer place for all.
Disseminated at Pioneer, Huron, Community and Stone high schools, the survey asked youth about their sexual orientation and their experiences at school surrounding LGBT issues and bullying. The surveys were given to 1,171. Out of those, 1,010 were heterosexual, while the rest identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or questioning.
The results of the survey started by Siden and conducted by Riot Youth teens confirmed what proponents of anti-bullying legislation already knew – that almost all LGBT youth have been exposed to name-calling, bullying and harassment.
But instead of presenting the upsetting results in a somber matter, the teens decided to make statistics into theater.
Thursday’s event featured the premiere of the Gayrilla Theater Troupe, which included several of the members of Riot Youth. Through theater, they gave a fresh take on what being an LGBT teen is like.
“Gayrilla Theater is not about producing big Broadway-quality shows,” explained Callie McKee, who works with the group. “It’s about storytelling, plain and simple. The youth here represent their own stories, and they represent the stories of queer youth of Riot Youth, from Ann Arbor and from all around Washtenaw County.”
Broken into six parts, the Gayrilla Theater performed the stories of LGBT youth who face questions and opposition from their peers, friends and parents. They addressed the questions asked of them and by them, and talked about what it was like to walk through the halls each day with the fear that their sexuality would become a topic of discussion, or ridicule.
While the crowd of mostly adults cheered for what they saw as the inspiring work of young activists, the teens of Riot Youth felt as though they were just putting a face to the statistics of harassed, depressed and deeply hurt LGBT teens.
“(Our work) may seem incredible to (some), but the bullying and harassment and name calling and ignoring – it’s all very normal and very real to us and that’s why we’re doing something,” Strode explained. “Its not that we’re incredible activists. We’re just sick of being picked on. I’m sick of being called a ‘dyke.'”

To learn more about Riot Youth, or to make a donation, visit

About the Author:

Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.
Click Here!