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Lambda Archives honoree Sara Beth Brooks is a true leader for the next generation of LGBT activists

SAN DIEGO -- They make a difference in our lives. Some are well-known activists in San Diego's LGBT community and others are working tirelessly outside the spotlight.

Thirteen key players in the LGBT community will be honored Friday Feb. 11 at the 2011 Heroes, Pioneers and Trailblazers gala. The event takes place at The Center and is sponsored by Lambda Archives of San Diego (LASD).

In the days leading up to the gala, SDGLN will profile each of these individuals and provide our readers with an inside peek at what this award means to each honoree.

2011 Youth Award Honoree: Sara Beth Brooks

Sarah Beth Brooks was born in Denver, Colorado, but she grew up in Sacramento, California, where her family moved when she was five-years-old.

"I consider myself a California native," Brooks said. "As an adult, I’ve lived in South Lake Tahoe, San Diego, and Seattle. I am currently back in Sacramento pursuing my education."

That education is currently at the community college level awaiting a transfer to the UC system, at Berkeley, and it has become a degree in peace and conflict studies, a slight redirection from her previous pursuits.

Ever since she opted to take the California high school proficiency exam in 2002, Brooks’ education has been a combination of campaign fieldwork, traveling, and community organizing, all in addition to the standard classroom environment.

Brooks earned an associate degree in business administration in 2007, but soon realized the business world was not her cup of tea, because, "it did not serve to help people."

She is optimistic about her chances of getting into Berkeley, and although a degree in "peace and conflict" studies is not very common, she explained it is a growing interdisciplinary field that focuses on the study of human conflict throughout history and the application of that knowledge to current international conflict.

"The goal is to understand the historical basis of human conflict and learn to mediate future conflict through collaborative communication. I chose to pursue this degree for a few different reasons. It is ultimately an amalgamation of different experiences in my life."

Brooks grew up traveling to many different countries with her family, and her mother used these opportunities to expose her and her sister to multiculturalism and language.

Her coursework includes classes in history, geography, psychology, communications, sociology, and other social sciences, but Brooks’ emphasis is East Asia, with a focus on China.

"In travels with my family, I developed an interest in Chinese culture. I am a Mandarin student and this summer will travel to China for seven weeks to refine my Mandarin skills and participate in an internship program."

Upon completing her degree, Brooks hopes to again work in the non-profit sector.

"Being an advocate for people who don’t have a voice or don’t yet know they have a voice, is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. I hope to work for an international non-profit someday, doing humanitarian work in Asia."

Education Through Activism

Brooks got her start in community organizing as an intern for the California Democratic Party and then for Howard Dean for America.

"I worked with the California Democrats for over a year during the re-election of Gray Davis and the recall campaign that put Arnold Schwarzenegger in office," she explained.

It was during that time she saw Howard Dean speak while on his presidential campaign and was inspired by his "raw passion" and his "commitment to progressive values."

"I left school and followed the campaign through the early primary states Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina," she said. "When Governor Dean lost, I left political organizing. It was not until Prop 8 passed in California that I became politically active again."

Brooks had moved to San Diego in October of 2008, and although she was not an active member of the community, she said. "When Prop 8 passed, I felt the need to take action. Taking to the streets seemed natural and visceral.

"It was necessary to be heard; we as a community needed to be heard. Taking to the streets was not just a Californian response, it was an American response."

She had attended a handful of beautiful weddings during that summer of 2008 when gays could marry, and felt angry and disappointed that California voters would take away the rights of any person.

Brooks participated in San Diego’s first march on Nov. 8, and afterward turned to the internet for advocacy guidance.

"I found a website called JoinTheImpact.com, which was calling for a national protest the following Saturday," she recalled. "I signed up to organize San Diego’s march and one week later, on November 15, [here in San Diego] 25,000 people marched to downtown.”

More than 100 cities worldwide held simultaneous protests, and San Diego had the largest turnout.

"I wasn’t surprised by the turnout," she said. "Throughout the marches that happened in the following months, San Diego’s turnout remained high because of the work of the community coalition I became a part of; everyone was energized."

The organizing team formed the ad-hoc group San Diego Equality Campaign (SDEC) and Brooks served as Executive Chair. She took leadership roles in the Manchester Grand Hyatt boycott campaign and Camp Courage trainings across the state, in addition to volunteer commitments outside of the LGBT community.

"Working as part of the San Diego community was wholly rewarding. San Diego is far ahead of many other cities in terms of an organized movement," she said. "Through community meetings like the Community Leadership Council and the Marriage of the Minds, activists like me were able to organize several of the marches that happened in early 2009.

"Organizations like the SDEC, and the San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality (SAME), which organized around the same time, were born from the new movement after Prop 8 passed. We complimented the existing, vibrant community."

Though no longer in existence, SDEC played an important role in post-Proposition 8 activism in San Diego, helping to organize marches, candlelight vigils, a blood drive, trainings, and town halls.

"As I have traveled across California to work on LGBT issues, I have not yet run into an LGBT community that is as organized as the San Diego community," Brooks added. "The lessons I have learned from working with this community, will truly shape the rest of my life."

Brooks’ passion for activism is most evident in the passionate way she speaks about the remarkable right afforded to Americans: the right to disagree.

"Political protest is a vital part of American politics and serves many purposes," Brooks continued. "It is a chance to come together as a community and share our common values. It is a chance to grieve, and can be a unifying, healing experience. Casting our vote is not enough; we have to be willing to back up our vote with our voices in the streets."

Although Brooks has never been arrested during a protest, she admires the tactics of groups like Get Equal, whose demonstrations often end in arrest.

"I think it’s unfair to characterize Get Equal protests as anything but peaceful, even when they end in arrest," she said. "Non-violent civil disobedience is a necessary tactic in all struggles for freedom and justice.

"Suffragists in the 1870s, labor organizers in the early 1900s, and civil rights organizers in the 1950s and 1960s all used these tactics. It was not until the presence of non-violent resistance that any of those movements began to see measurable results in their demands.

"It wasn’t until hundreds of students took to the streets in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 that a spotlight was focused on segregation in schools. These students didn’t go to one march on a sunny Saturday morning - they marched day after day, through police barricades, after being assaulted with fire hoses. A year later, with many more campaigns from other places around the country, the Civil Rights Act was passed.

"Non-violent resistance is entirely necessary to combat the inertia many feel has plagued the LGBT legislative agenda."

She believes that those who have been arrested are deserving of as much recognition in our community as other leaders.

"Civil disobedience takes courage, discipline, and sacrifice," she said. "Non-violent action is calculated and deliberate. Those who put themselves in situations where they can be arrested have carefully considered the implications of their actions. As a leader, I hope to embody the values of those who engage in non-violent civil disobedience and I strongly support their efforts."

In addition to her studies, Brooks teaches a three-hour workshop she developed on creating non-violent civil disobedience actions, including one that includes plans for arrest. The workshop is based on principles employed throughout the history of our country and each participant signs a pledge to non-violence.

"I teach this workshop because I believe in the principles of non-violent resistance and I believe that they are an important part of the ongoing struggle for justice in society," she said. "My day job is also in advocacy."

She also volunteers with a project called the Gender Health Center, which provides sliding scale mental health services to the community with a focus on transgender mental health. And she works in education services, facilitating free tutoring for low income elementary school students.

Her primary activist commitments however, are to the asexual community.

"I help produce Asexual Awareness Week which is an annual visibility event," Brooks said. "I also coordinate a project that is building curriculum for teaching asexuality within the LGBT community.

"As an asexual woman, it is very important to me to make known the existence of our community. Harvey Milk said, ‘For invisible, we remain a myth.’ And for more than 30 years the LGBT community has fought invisibility in an extremely successful social campaign. Now, asexuals are beginning to do the same thing, and I am proud to be at the forefront of it."

The Asexual and Bisexual Community

At one point in her life, Brooks identified as a bisexual member of the LGBT community.

"I think that bisexual teenagers face additional stigma than their gay or lesbian peers do, because they are often encouraged to 'pick one' or are told that they have 'made a decision' if they are in a relationship," Brooks explained.

"Bisexuality is not some nebulous limbo and it is just as true for those who identify that way, as being gay or lesbian is," she said. "Bisexuality is often talked about as 'a phase,' just like asexuality is. As a community, I hope we will seek to respect and accept anyone who asks to be defined on their own terms.

"The coming out process is one of sharing a deep personal secret with another person and that is never easy. There is always a risk of rejection, whether you have come out before or not. That is true of anyone in our community, whether they are coming out at 14 or 40."

As a bisexual teenager, Brooks recalled that coming out to herself and her family was not difficult or agonizing. Many of her boyfriends actually considered it an added bonus.

When she 21, Brooks was engaged.

"Our relationship was in bad shape because I wasn't sexually attracted to him. I loved him and wanted to marry him, but I didn't want to have sex with him," Brooks said. "I didn't want to have sex with anyone else, either.

"I landed in therapy. Every previous relationship had ended because of my disinterest in sex. I lamented to my friends, my doctors, and my therapist, that I felt no interest in sex. I tried hormone therapies and excavating my psychological past, to no avail."

As her frustrations grew, Brooks turned once again to the internet. She conducted a Google search for the first time discovered the word "asexuality."

"That one word opened the doors to a whole community of people who said that they didn't feel any sexual attraction either," Brooks said. "I was both relieved and scared. Being bi was culturally accepted, at least in California.

"Asexuality meant that I was different, that I would have to swim upstream. I didn't know what to do with it, so I closed the web browser and wouldn't return to that website for months.”

During her work after the passage of Proposition 8, Brooks said her concept of "queer" began to evolve because of her immersion within the LGBT community.

"I used to think that queer was merely an all-encompassing term for LGBT, but I have learned that is incomplete," Brooks said.

"Queerness is about challenging societal norms by embracing a radically inclusive attitude of evolving self-identification and self-expression. Oftentimes LGBT falls into that definition, but I no longer use the two interchangeably."

Through her cultivation of the term "queer," Brooks began to explore asexuality, and was pleasantly surprised when she discovered that other asexuals existed within the LGBT community.

"At the Creating Change conference last February, there was no mention of asexuality anywhere in the five-day program," she said. "When I found out that people were holding extra sessions independently, I decided to hold one called Asexuality Q&A. For the first time I acknowledged asexuality as part of my identity in an LGBT environment.

"What happened next was the most incredible thing: other LGBT asexuals came and joined me! Instead of the conversation I was prepared for, we went down the path of sharing our common experiences. Each time one of us shared an experience, the others would start nodding vehemently. By the end of the conversation we agreed that the LGBT community needs to know that we exist among them."

Brooks has written extensively about the asexual community in a series of posts for the The Bilerico Project. She encourages the LGBT community to learn more about it.

Youth, Politics, and the LGBT Movement

Most people would expect that somewhere along the way, a young person as active as Brooks was inspired by a particular person, but for Brooks, choosing an LGBT icon that has inspired her is a difficult task.

"It is hard for me to pick one historical icon, because I have been privileged to meet survivors of the Stonewall Riots, to share a meal with those who have chained themselves to the White House fence, and to march with Cleve Jones while carrying Harvey Milk’s bullhorn," Brooks acknowledged. "The history of our movement is still alive and growing around us and I am so grateful for the small role I have been able to play."

Brooks feels it is difficult to engage youth in political issues because society sends them mixed messages.

"Societal conditioning teaches that public discourse on politics is always vitriol and should be avoided, but then asks young people to take up the power of the vote. Mass media distracts them with other pursuits and only occasionally reminds them to get involved.

"Young people are rejected from leadership positions and are then blamed for failing to cast their ballot on election day. To build a stronger youth movement, leaders must empower young leaders and include them in the process."

Brooks was awarded the Harvey Milk Leadership Award in 2009, and was entered into the prestigious line of saints of the San Diego Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. SDEC was also honored in 2009 by being named one of the Community Grand Marshals of San Diego Pride.

She considers Lambda Archives an important asset for the LGBT people because the community has a duty to preserve their own history.

"Lambda Archives offers the community an invaluable collection of San Diego's history and the very important role we have played in the LGBT movement," she said.

"The first generation of leaders, of pioneers, is aging. Without recording their stories, the stories of our origins will be lost. We must use the resources of the archives to study the history of our movement. Unless we study the places we have been, the victories and the defeats, we will move forward with incomplete information."

Of her 2011 Heroes, Pioneers, and Trailblazers award, Brooks is honored that Lambda Archives would consider her someone worthy of recognition.

"That Lambda Archives would honor me in such a public way like this is very moving," she said. "I am also glad to be included with such an amazing group of leaders. Among the awardees are people I respect and have often turned to for advice. To be honored along side them is deeply meaningful for me. I am happy that I have been able to give as much of myself as I have, to the LGBT community in San Diego.”

About Lambda Archives of San Diego (LASD)

LASD’s mission is to "collect, preserve and teach" the history of LGBT people in the San Diego and Northern Baja California region. Although most of the collections date to post-1970, there are original materials dating back to the 1930s.

LASD believes that history is best served by the records and cultural artifacts of those people who are directly involved in its events, so its staff has dedicated itself to preserving and interpreting this important historical record since its establishment in 1987. LASD is an all-volunteer, nonprofit corporation governed by a volunteer board of directors and has one of the largest collections of LGBT history in the country.

LASD honoree selection process

The fundraising gala -- which first debuted in 2007 -- recognizes individuals, both locally and nationally, who have made a difference in the lives of LGBT persons through their dedication, commitment, financial resources and/or political participation.

The LASD board chooses honorees based on a criterion that focuses on diversity, by including individuals from diverse segments of the community, and from a broad spectrum of individual characteristics such as ethnicity, race, LGBT identification, etc.

As is customary for the board, nominees who have received other major honors this year, or who could not attend the event, were held out for future consideration. Although no public call for nominations currently exists, the board considers any nomination from the community to be equal to those made by its members.

This year's list of nominees was narrowed down from 20 individuals to the 12 adults and one youth that were selected for recognition. Those that were not selected this year are automatically added to the list of people to be considered next year.

Previous honorees include business professionals, activists and people like state Sen. Christine Kehoe, Cleve Jones, Tom Reise, Fritz Klein and SDGLN contributor Ben Cartwright.

About this year's Gala

More people than ever before have already RSVP'd for the event, and the event's organizers say some "exciting" announcements are planned.

In addition, selections from Lambda's extensive exhibit at City Hall last summer, "A Celebration of LGBT History," will be on display in The Center's library the night of the event.

Food for the event will be provided by The Caliph, Bourbon Street Bar and Grille, The Big Kitchen and San Diego Desserts. The Hole is sponsoring the bar, with 100% of sales going to Lambda Archives.

Silver Level event sponsors are Anthony's Fish Grotto and the Gay and Lesbian Fund for San Diego at the San Diego Foundation.

For information about purchasing tickets to the 2010 Gala, visit SDGLN's Events Calendar, or visit the Lambda Archives website.