LOS ANGELES, CA – The Colin Higgins Foundation today announced its 15th Annual Youth Courage Award winners, whom it will recognize for extraordinary leadership and advocacy on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth. The 2015 winners are: Alex Bergeron, 20, of San Francisco, Calif.; Anthony James (AJ), 20, of Columbus, Ga.; and Victoria Villalba, 19, of Phoenix, Ariz.
Each winner will receive a $10,000 award as well as an all-expenses paid trip to Los Angeles for the Christopher Street West/L.A. Pride parade and festival—one of the nation’s largest Pride celebrations—in June, when they will also be recognized at an awards ceremony. They will also attend the National LGBTQ Task Force’s Creating Change conference, a prominent LGBTQ advocacy and organizing event, in January 2016 in Chicago, Ill.
“These remarkable young people have faced and overcome extraordinary challenges and met them with tremendous courage,” said James Rogers, board president of the Colin Higgins Foundation. “In their resilience and strength, we see the spirit and legacy of Colin Higgins.”
Colin Higgins, screenwriter of the classic film Harold and Maude and writer/director of 9 to 5 and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, established the Foundation to support LGBTQ youth in underserved communities. The characters in his films—much like the Courage Award winners—handle themselves with grace and dignity in the face of overwhelming hardship.
Meet Alex, 20
A queer transgender man who fled an intolerant household, Alex has endured homelessness, drug addiction and bullying, as well as challenges reconciling his identity with his conservative Muslim upbringing. What keeps Alex strong and sober is his community and his drive to help those facing adversity like he has. He dreams of creating a safe space for LGBTQ youth to seek counseling and to express themselves using art and music therapy.
Already, Alex has demonstrated great commitment to the LGBTQ community. He works with the Queer Resource Center at City College of San Francisco, where he is a student, and he volunteers with the city’s LGBT center and the Asian & Pacific Islander Wellness Center. Alex also served on the board for the 2014 TransMarch in San Francisco.
“I was really given opportunities where I could jump in and be useful,” Alex said of his volunteer work. “The more useful I feel, the more my stability and everything continues.”
Meet AJ, 20
A bisexual man raised in a poor black Southern neighborhood, AJ has a keen sense of intersectional awareness. He not only fights for LGBTQ rights, he also is a staunch advocate for workers’ rights, including his support of getting the minimum wage increased.
Even as he works three part-time jobs to help support his parents and attends the University of Alabama, AJ devotes himself not only to the LGBTQ movement but also to amplifying the voices of women, immigrants, people of color, and people living with disabilities. Bringing humor and a positive spirit to his work has made AJ a respected, beloved organizer on campus. Among his accomplishments: playing a part in the successful effort to expand the university’s non-discrimination policy to cover gender identity and expression. Studious from an early age—when he turned to school as an escape from troubles at home—AJ aspires to be a doctor, organize health care workers, and advocate for LGBTQ health care.
“My motivation really comes from taking a step back and realizing that in order to achieve my own sense of liberation as a queer person, as a black person, as a working class/working poor person, in order to achieve my liberation in those identities then it’s necessary for me to fight for the liberation of others,” AJ said. “My motivation is centered around this idea, to paraphrase Fannie Lou Hamer, ‘No one is free until we’re all free.’ ”
Meet Victoria, 19
An undocumented immigrant, Victoria first came to the U.S. at age 3. When her father was deported, the family returned to Mexico. It was there that Victoria, at age 15, came out to her parents. When they rejected her, this put Victoria in an unstable and dangerous situation. For three years, she lived on her own, and as a queer transgender woman she encountered physical, emotional and verbal abuse while seeking employment and housing. She then sought political asylum at the U.S. border. However, her request was denied, and she was held in a detention center. The situation drew more dire still after Victoria reported the injustices taking place in the detention center. Victoria was then put in solitary confinement for three and a half months; a community outcry led to her release.
Shortly after being released, Victoria joined United We Dream’s Queer Undocumented Immigrant Rights Project (QUIP) chapter in Arizona, and she has focused on fighting for the liberation of transgender and queer people in U.S. detention centers. Her activism has included launching hunger strikes, organizing informational conferences for undocumented transgender people, and spearheading success efforts to have three transgender women released from detention. Living with the constant threat of homelessness, as well as food insecurity and the risk of deportation, Victoria plans to use her grant to secure housing, complete her GED, and then pursue a college education.
“I feel like someone who was formally detained, and undocumented and trans, it’s something powerful that motivates me to keep fighting every day,” Victoria said. “I know I’m not the first one, and I know I won’t be the last. That’s why I’m standing up against this, so hopefully the system stops discriminating against us and treats us as humans. There’s no border that separates us because we’re all human, and as humans we have rights because no one is more or less than another person.”
Since 2000, the Colin Higgins Foundation has honored more than 50 Courage Award winners. Since 1993, the Foundation has awarded more than 340 grants totaling more than $3 million to further Higgins’ humanitarian vision.
About Colin Higgins Foundation / Youth Courage Awards
Colin Higgins is best known as the screenwriter of the classic films Harold and Maude and as the writer/director of 9 to 5 and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. The Youth Courage Awards were established in 2000 to further the spirit and lifework of Colin Higgins. All of his films celebrate honesty and integrity in the face of adversity: Harold and Maude find love despite the objections of family and society, the heroes of 9-5 find fulfillment and save the company by learning to appreciate their individual talents and differences, and the shunned madam of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas transforms the lives of many through her kindness.
The Colin Higgins Foundation is administered by Tides, a nonprofit social enterprise that provides financial and management services to donors and doers. Tides actively promotes change toward a healthy society, one which is founded on principles of social justice, broadly shared economic opportunity, a robust democratic process, and sustainable environmental practices. Tides believes healthy societies rely fundamentally on respect for human rights, the vitality of communities, and a celebration of diversity.