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Simone Sneed

Simone Sneed

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Today's young gay leaders represent the largest cultural shift in a generation. Here are some high achievers who aren't hung up on their sexuality and are determined to make a difference

It had been a bad day for Simone Sneed. The "I like you" note she had given Tori, her very first crush, had been passed around to her entire eighth-grade class. Everyone knew, and worse yet, Tori had told Simone off during a very public spat in the cafeteria. "I'm not gay," she exclaimed. "That's gross!" Simone's mother, Jennifer, had never raised her to think there was anything remotely wrong with being gay. That night she visited her mother--who was recovering from a hysterectomy--in the hospital and came out of the closet. "She was drugged," Simone remembers, "so she just said, 'That's OK, I still love you.' And then she fell asleep." Simone was 13 and out. "My mom is just amazing," she says. "While she was raising me she was working full-time for the state education department and getting her Ph.D. in education administration, and she was so grateful about all of it. Like, 'Oh, yeah, this is no big deal. Everyone raises their kid, goes to school full-time, and works full-time. No biggie.' " Soon after her daughter came out, Jennifer Sneed jumped on the Internet and found Pride for Youth, a gay youth coffeehouse on New York's Long Island that meets every Friday night, and it immediately became part of Simone's weekend routine. She met her first girlfriend there, Mari, who suggested one day, somewhat innocently, that they should have a sleepover. When Simone brought up the idea, her mom asked if she and Mari were just friends or something more. "Um, something more," Simone answered. Jennifer eyed her daughter, who was entering her teenage years wide-eyed and vulnerable like any other 13-year-old. "OK, then Mari should sleep in the guest room." The next morning, while Jennifer and her husband were out on their regular morning walk, Simone enjoyed her first make-out session on the family room couch. Today, friends and strangers alike marvel to Sneed that she was out so young, but at the time she had only the vaguest understanding that she was blazing onto the road far less traveled. By high school, however, it became clear to Sneed just how much she stuck out. "Black, overweight, loud, and smart--I was a very strange kid," she says. She wore out-and-proud gay pins to class and talked up gay issues whenever the opportunity arose, and she paid for it with nasty ridicule, such as kids spitting on her backpack and taunting her at the bus stop. Even the other out gay kids in school steered clear of Simone, lest they be branded super-gay by association.

Sneed was insightful enough to realize that the only way she was going to feel comfortable inside her school was to form a gay-straight alliance, so at 15 she founded PRISM, or People Respecting Individualities, Similarities, and Minorities--a name concocted by Simone to specifically avoid the direct in-your-face quality of a name that included the words gay-straight alliance. The group still exists, but by the end of her sophomore year, Simone was done with the pettiness of high school and graduated early, at 16. She entered the State University of New York at Albany. "I felt like I was part of gay America," she says. "I had a girlfriend. I was involved with gay groups on campus. I went to New York City pride." Then Fred Hampton Jr., the son of a Black Panther leader slain in an infamous 1969 Chicago police raid, spoke on campus and triggered a racial awakening in Simone. Her stepfather is white, she was raised in the white suburbs, her speech patterns sounded stereotypically white, she was dating a white girl at the time, and all her gay friends were white. The realization of this disconnect surprised Simone in how much it unsettled her identity. She felt forced to decide whether she was black or queer (the latter with which she now identifies also), a dilemma she refused to reconcile at the time. "We live in a culture that forces people to parcel out who we are," she says. "I need a culture that accepts me for all that I am." When she attended the Democratic National Convention in Boston last summer, Simone was struck by how many straight white men were still in power. "There was no out black lesbian who was standing out there in charge for me to look up to," she says, "so I decided I guess I need to do that for myself." Now 20, Simone is working on a master's degree in public policy at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at SUNY Albany; her ambition is no less than to become governor of New York State. The drive she feels to achieve, Simone says, can be traced directly to the unyielding support she has felt from her family. "I don't think that my gay peers necessarily have that," she says, "like a supersupportive coming-out. Some of them have gotten really depressed about it. There's discrimination against gay people, obviously. I'm not ignorant to that. But at the same time, if I let all the things that could weigh me down weigh me down, I would never be able to make change for people who are in similar situations to mine, be it that they're black or gay or really tall or if they were at some point fat or any of that, you know?"

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