ACLU Scholarship Winner Talks Activism, Family

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Highland High School student Cara Cerise has a political and public service resume that many people twice her age would envy. At 17 years old she has served as a member and then president of Building One New Dream, her school’s social justice club, restarted the Utah chapter of Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere at the Utah Pride Center and lobbied against several anti-gay bills, including one that sought to ban gay-straight alliances in public schools.

She is also one of only 15 high school students in the country to receive a $5,000 scholarship from the American Civil Liberties Union in recognition for her work in “protect[ing] civil liberties, especially for young people.”

Cerise said she was drawn to gay rights causes in her teens largely because of her family background. Her father, who is gay, received full custody of both Cerise and her 14-year-old sister in 1995, and Cerise says growing up in a household headed by a gay couple was often a struggle for her. She remembers hiding Human Rights Campaign stickers and copies of OUT magazine when friends came over for sleepovers out of fear of ridicule and fear for her family’s safety.

“I feel there’s a really strong sense of a traditional family – especially in Utah – of a mom and a dad and children, and I just didn’t know how my family fit into that,” she explained. “Like at parent-teacher conferences, wanting to bring my dad and his partner but kind of being embarrassed to tell the teacher about that or ask if that was appropriate, because I didn’t know if it as right to have my family there or if it was allowed because my family wasn’t traditional.”

The turning point for her, she said, came in 2006 when classmates and fellow BOND members told her that she should look into Camp Anytown, a retreat held in several states that teaches youth age 14-18 about how to recognize and fight bigotry in all its forms. Intrigued by her classmates’ experiences (“They said, ‘Cara, you have to go, you’ll just love it!’” she remembered) Cerise joined “40-60 diverse students from around the valley” at the camp in Big Cottonwood Canyon from June 18-23.

Cerise said the six day retreat changed her life by teaching her not only to identify her values, but how to address the homophobia she had grown up fearing. “Before I didn’t know how to go about doing that,” she explained. “I knew my family was important to me and I was very prideful in being a part of a gay family, but I didn’t really now how to speak out. I just hadn’t found my voice, really. … I just found what was important to me and was completely inspired to speak out.”

She also said that she found it easier to speak out after becoming more active in BOND club (which she now runs) and meeting other students who shared her interest and passion for combating social injustice. And as she became more comfortable in her new role as a young activist, she said she wanted to reach out to teens and children who had grown up in families like hers.

“I was also trying to think of ways too that I could use my specific situation of having a gay parent to help other youth that may be feeling the same way as I did – kind of alone and not knowing how to fit in to the LGBT community exactly or how we could help out,” she said. When she discovered that Utah’s chapter of COLAGE had been inactive for a year, she called the Utah Pride Center (where she already worked as a youth group volunteer) to see about starting it up again. She now leads the group.

As a high school junior, Cerise also lead BOND club members in lobbying against HB 236. Sponsored by Rep. Aaron Tilton, R-Springville, this bill made headlines across the state for its attempts to restrict school clubs that “involve human sexuality,” which many took to be an exclusive attack on gay-straight alliances. Although both houses passed the bill and the governor signed it into law, Cerise was not discouraged. She was back on Capitol Hill during this legislative session lobbying in support of Rep. Carol Spackman Moss’ anti-bullying bill.

“I testified before the House Education Committee in support of the bill and talked about how all students deserve and need the protections of the bill, whether that is gay students, straight students and so forth,” she said.

Gov. John Huntsman signed the bill into law on March 17.

With a $5,000 scholarship in hand Cerise has begun the process of applying to college. Although she hopes to spend 2009 studying in Paraguay to learn to speak Spanish she has applied to Westminster College and to schools in San Francisco and Portland, Ore.

Although Cerise says she enjoys several subjects, she said that the social sciences are her passion and that she could see herself pursuing a degree in political science “or possibly law.”

“I guess form lobbying and being on the Hill so much I’ve come to the conclusion that to make change on bigger scale it takes the support of the government and laws,” she said.

When not fighting bigotry, Cerise said her passions extend to yoga, cycling, skiing, listening to music (R&B artist India Arie is a particular favorite) and just spending time with her friends and the family that inspires her.

“I’ve grown up in a loving environment and have always received support from my father and his partners, and I know that my family will always love and accept me for who I am,” she said. “[They’ve taught me] to keep a positive attitude, be open-minded and accepting, and do my best.”

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