LGBTQ Foundation Provides Crucial Scholarships
By Dawn Ennis
Coming out is a rite of passage. But too often, it can divide adults from their children, who suddenly feel like strangers to one another. The joy and happiness that comes with announcing one’s authenticity should be embraced by everyone, and yet it can lead to heartbreak across generations.
Mothers, fathers, grandparents and guardians believe themselves to be the ones who know the newly out best. After all, they’ve known them since birth.
But it’s a new birthday of sorts for LGBTQ youth leaving the closet, as they announce an orientation or gender identity that may be different from what their elders perceive. Sometimes, instead of a celebration, they are met with silence – or worse, anger, denial and even rejection. Those results can lead to extreme and unfathomable circumstances: losing not just the expectation of unconditional love, but also unconditional privileges, such as a place to call home and financial support.
However, dreams need not be dashed or destroyed because of a lack of parental support or financial hardship. Even the LGBTQ children of accepting parents need assistance when they seek an opportunity to better themselves through higher education, given the overwhelming costs associated with earning a college education.
That’s where the CTGLC Foundation comes in. Since its founding by legal legend Dena M. Castricone in 2017, when it was known as the Connecticut Alliance for Business Opportunities (or CABO) the CTGLC Foundation provides that much-needed boost to Connecticut’s LGBTQ youth, and allies, too, through generous scholarships.
“The foundation has awarded more than $12,000 in scholarships to Connecticut high school seniors in order to continue their advocacy and community support in the collegiate setting,” according to the foundation’s website.
“We wanted to do more than just write a check,” Castricone wrote in an online post about the board and foundation’s history. “We wanted to celebrate and empower these budding leaders and to propel them into leadership positions in government, education and business. We wanted them to feel the power of the community supporting them and for these incredible young leaders to know that we stand with them now and in the future.”
In 2012, the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce honored the board with the National LGBT Chamber of the Year award. The foundation started awarding scholarships in 2015 and board members were so impressed with the quality of the applications, they decided to award two a year, instead of just one.
A scholarship of $500 is awarded to the winner of the Community Achievement Award, and a second winner receives $1,500 for a scholarship named for Castricone, in recognition of her leadership of both CABO and the foundation. Jackie Thurston, a special education teacher and GSA co-advisor at her high school in North Branford, succeeded Castricone as foundation president in 2017.
“I’ve seen firsthand just how much mental health needs to be an utmost priority,” Thurston says. “These students who are leaders and catalysts in our community are helping a lot of their peers move forward, see the light at the end of the tunnel and keep them involved.”
Thurston, 36, was North Branford’s 2020 Teacher of the Year and previously one of only 76 educators in the United States to receive the Fulbright Teachers for Global Classrooms Program grant for 2018-2019. She was the only educator in Connecticut to receive this distinction. But instead of talking about her credentials, Thurston gives a shout-out to her students in the GSA.
“This is exactly why we do the scholarships,” she says. “So that in the future they know they can make a difference, for the lives of the community and everyone around you.”
The deadline to submit applications for the annual scholarships is every June 1. This opportunity is open to all seniors attending high schools in Connecticut who have plans to attend an institution of higher education in the next academic year and maintain a minimum grade point average of 2.5. Most important, of course, is for the applicants to share how they are working to further the foundation’s mission.
“I was bullied for being trans,” says Cal Benitex, the 2019 winner of the Dena M. Castricone Scholarship. He’s 19 and now thriving as a sophomore at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. He won a scholarship for what he did when he was 17, when the rejection he encountered at his New Haven high school inspired him to take action.
“I came out my senior year and I didn’t really get a good response from my closest peers,” says Benitex. Daily micro-aggressions piled-up, he says, and he felt endangered. “Teachers didn’t really do anything about it, and that made me feel more unsafe. So I thought I would channel whatever anger I had to create a workshop.”
Benitex reached out to the organization Teach for America and was booked to speak at a conference, offering teachers training on how to best serve their trans students. “I talked about the gender binary and different ways people could identify,” he says, “respecting pronouns or remembering to use gender neutral language.” His workshop included scenarios for teachers contending with students that are closeted, and “how to approach them in a way that prioritizes those students’ safety.”
His workshop was so successful, Benitex has been invited back year after year.
Winning the scholarship, he says, showed him that, “As a trans person, I can succeed in my own way. It’s just nice to get recognition for the workshop I did, because I still do it. I go to that conference yearly and present the workshop, and now I’m trying to adapt it to a college classroom.”
Says Thurston, “We keep in touch with a lot of our alumni and a lot of our past recipients, and what they are doing in the world is so incredible. Our first scholarship winner just became third runner-up in the Miss Connecticut pageant, as the first non-binary area contestant in the history of the Miss USA pageant, and also became Glamour Magazine’s college student of the year because of their activism.”
That’s Leah Juliett, the award-winning, queer non-binary writer and activist. They graduated from Western Connecticut State University in 2018 with an honors degree in political science, and Juliett is currently pursuing an MFA in Social and Environmental Arts from Prescott College in Arizona, under the direction of Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter. Their goal is to be the first non-binary legislator in Connecticut. Juliett founded March Against Revenge Porn after having photos of their naked body circulated on the internet.
They talked about their experience in 2019, in a powerful TedX Talk: “My fragile, 15-year-old flesh will forever flourish on Firefox, or Google Chrome, sprouting like weeds from my non-consented clitoris.com, my pixilated pink parts forever stretching into sensual screensavers for oversexed teenage boys who sold my body like a trading card you can’t buy back.”
In 2020, the foundation awarded two scholarships, $1,000 each to Adrian Huq of Derby and Nathan Posca of Naugatuck, each of whom were then high school seniors.
Described as one of the loudest voices of change at Naugatuck High School, Posca was a member of his school’s Gay Straight Alliance and worked to ensure all students felt included, according to the CTGLC. He ran the GSA prom, Pride events for the National Honor Society, and led the school’s National Coming Out Days. “He inspires the younger students to carry his torch and is unapologetically himself,” wrote his teachers, who nominated him, “which gives the others students the power to do the same.”
Huq, who is non-binary, was president of their Gender Sexuality Alliance at Metropolitan Business Academy in New Haven. They are a climate activist now pursuing a degree in environmental studies at Tufts University. Huq actively worked to validate LGBTQ students through art and Pride events, and was a go-to resource for helping students deal with unaccepting family members. They also created an LGBTQ library at their school and created lesson plans for teachers that offered sensitivity training on topics ranging from pronouns to coming out and homophobia.
“I know that within the LGBTQ community, people of color can have very difficult experiences navigating their queerness,” Huq said in their scholarship application, “and I hope to represent those who are not often seen and represented widely within the community.”
Says Thurston, “These are some of the most inspirational people I have ever met.”
“I felt affirmed when I was lucky enough to win the scholarship, and go to college and be able to live the way I want to live, in my own identity,” says Benitex. “Even when the country feels very hostile right now toward trans people, I genuinely think there’s hope for kids like me, and it’ll get better in its own way.”
The CTGLC Foundation is in the process of finalizing its application to the IRS to be designated a 501 (c)(3) tax-exempt charitable organization, and is looking for donations to help fund its scholarship program. The group is also looking for more board members; anyone interested is invited to send a resume to email@example.com.